Connerly Initiative Would Ban Collection of Racial Data
Proposal is proving divisive among academics, and even past Connerly supportersBy Pamela BurdmanWard Connerly, the regent who brought the affirmative action ban to the University of California, now is taking his campaign for race-blindness a step farther with a controversial new proposal that already is infuriating academics.
After ridding the state of racial considerations — first at the university through a regents’ resolution and then statewide by leading a successful ballot initiative campaign — Connerly now is arguing that the state should stop collecting racial data, period. His latest proposed initiative, which could appear on the ballot as early as November, would bar the state from requiring people to check off their race when they apply for a job, register for school, or have a child — just to cite a few examples.
Although Proposition 209 barred race-conscious decision-making in state government, the state’s universities and other state agencies continue to collect data on race for their records, and, in some cases, to meet federal requirements. Among the chief consumers of those statistics are scholars and researchers. For many of those academics, the idea of eliminating information is generally anathema, whatever their racial background or political views.
The proposal is hitting nerves among academics — and even exposing divides among Black critics of affirmative action such as Hoover Institution research fellow Dr. Shelby Steele and UC Berkeley linguist Dr. John McWhorter.
Though the “Racial Privacy Initiative” is the first proposal of its kind in this country, the concept of opposing the “silly little boxes” is vintage Connerly: His own mixed heritage — his ancestors are African, French Canadian, Irish and Choctaw Indian — made him uncomfortable with racial classifications, and his marriage to a White woman only intensified that aversion.
“The idea that the government is going to assign a race to me has always been something that bothered me. Then when I got married … it became a very personal matter,” says Connerly, noting that in 1962, when he was married, anti-miscegenation laws were still on the books in some states.
The initiative, he says, “diminishes the identity politics that have come to define how we live our lives. It brings public policy into line with the reality of the fact that Californians are increasingly marrying across the old lines of race and ethnicity, and having children, and thereby making the race boxes essentially obsolete.”
But many civil rights leaders scoff at such references, viewing this initiative, like Proposition 209, as a threat to the protections that African Americans and other minorities have won over the last 40 years — and as an obstacle to advances that are still being sought. Take breast cancer: While it strikes White women twice as often as Black women, Black women are twice as likely to die from the disease, and advocates say knowing those numbers is important in seeking solutions.
The data on breast cancer is just one example of how racial data can be used to combat discrimination, say opponents, disputing Connerly’s contention that the statistics only deepen racial divisions. To many who have fought for equality and civil rights, it’s galling to hear Connerly use the language and imagery of the civil rights movement — by using the term “racial profiling” to refer to data collection, and frequently quoting John F. Kennedy’s declaration that “Race has no place in American life or law.”
Dr. Troy Duster, a sociologist at New York University and UC Berkeley, is helping opponents craft their arguments. “It’s a tricky thing to say I’m in favor or against this,” Duster says. “When you say, yes race should be used, it sounds like you’re in favor of racial profiling. So you have to make a detailed argument as to how this can be used to prevent redlining. That’s not easily done in a sentence or two.”
Eva Jefferson Patterson, director of the San Francisco Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights, was more blunt: “They always steal our language.”
If the Racial Privacy Initiative (RPI) becomes law, it also would steal an important tool in legal battles over discrimination, say Patterson and other civil rights attorneys. That explains why even though the initiative has yet to officially qualify for the ballot, the lawyers are being joined by advocates from public health and environmental organizations who have been meeting for months to plot the defeat of the initiative.
While observers say Connerly’s team has turned in enough signatures to qualify, if the tedious counting process isn’t completed in time, it could get pushed back to the March 2004 ballot instead of November 2002.
“This initiative is about mandating ignorance,” says Joel Reynolds, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has joined the opposition. “To me that’s the height of stupidity. The ultimate impact of doing so is negative in the views of all of the people we work with, and these are people without an ideological axe to grind — doctors and scientists who are trying to deal with very complicated and costly public health problems in our urban centers.”
Reynolds’ view echoes that found within academia, where the initiative is already being debated hotly and sparking divisions even among those scholars who typically stand with Connerly.
Academics and policy researchers rely on such statistics to do everything from analyzing disease patterns to forecasting statewide fertility rates to researching employment discrimination. In fact, they even use the data to dispute the relevance of race in social policy.
That, according to the Hoover Institution’s Steele, is the problem. Academics opposing the RPI, he says, are selfishly trying to protect their own research.
“This is a threat, really, to social science itself,” he says. “I think it is a threat to the race-obsessed social science that we’ve fallen into in the last decade or so. Race is not an inherently clear category. That’s one of the points that the initiative makes. Who is Black? Why should the one-drop rule prevail and define Blacks? We’re living really by a code designed to maintain slavery and White supremacy.
“Race actually covers up the problems that minorities face. I use the example … of a Black fourth-grader who can’t read in Washington, D.C. That fourth-grader’s problem is going to be lost in political squabbling. If he is simply a fourth-grader who can’t read, it’s a problem that can be easily fixed — teach him to read.”
Steele’s colleague at the Hoover Institution, Dr. Thomas Sowell, also has come out publicly in favor of the RPI. But many of the academics who supported Connerly in fighting affirmative action are so far silent about the RPI. Privately, they say they agree with its spirit, but as scholars, they have reservations about its possible impact.
And others who usually agree with Connerly are vocally opposing him this time. McWhorter, for example, aired his disagreement with Steele in back-to-back editorials in the Wall Street Journal in late March.
The initiative, he says “rubs me the wrong way because it’s based on a notion that Black people are Americans, when the simple fact is that most Black Americans today feel Black first and American second. There’s too much resentment left over from the past. Say what you will about it, it’s not going away.
“We need to collect data based on racial categories because so much of the news is good. Black poverty continues to shrink, the number of Black people getting college degrees continues to increase, the number of Black people off welfare and working continues to grow,” he said in an interview, echoing the main thesis of his recent book, Losing the Race.
“The news about Black America vs. mainstream America is almost all positive,” McWhorter says.
Another former Connerly associate whose opposition may prove important is Dr. Thomas Wood, who heads the California Association of Scholars and who co-wrote Proposition 209.
Wood says that without racial data, it would be impossible to tell whether state agencies are complying with the law.
“It would, I think, adversely impact the enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, including 209. I think you need data to do that. I think this is going to put the focus of the debate in the wrong place. The problem is not the data or asking people about the data. It’s what’s done with the data.”
Opponents of affirmative action have regularly used statistics to argue their case — a prime example being the White San Diego family who first brought affirmative action to Connerly’s attention complaining that their son had been unfairly denied admission to several UC medical schools.
The actual impact of the RPI, if it passes, is hard to predict. If voters approve the initiative, it, like Proposition 209, will become an amendment to the state’s constitution. But the measure contains various exemptions for federal requirements and for certain law enforcement and medical uses of the statistics, so it is hard to tell what data might continue to be collected or how courts would interpret the exemptions.
The initiative also would allow exemptions for any classifications determined by a two-thirds vote of both bodies of the state legislature to serve a “compelling state interest.” However, the very image of applying to the legislature to conduct their research suggests to many academics that the initiative would infringe on the search for knowledge that is at the heart of universities’ mission.
“When you’re doing research, you gather data without necessarily knowing what the data are going to show,” noted one medical professor who declined to be named. “What you need is to have data that you can mine or interpret. To know that before you collect the data is ass-backwards.”
The UC administration has not officially taken a position on the initiative, and it appears to be moving all the more cautiously because Connerly is on the Board of Regents. But the faculty are already deliberating and are expected to take a strong strand.
“In order to do research, to have to go to a legislative body to get a two-thirds approval so the data can be collected, it already becomes too late to do the research. We do not want any restriction on the collection of data,” says Dr. Chand Viswanathan, a UCLA microelectronics professor and chairman of the Academic Council for the 10-campus UC system.
“The university is a research university,” Viswanathan says. “It should have the freedom to do research in any area the faculty wants.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com