Little boxes

Don’t look now, but Sacramento’s Ward Connerly is getting ready to send another shock wave through California.

This time the anti-affirmative action icon has collected nearly a million signatures to put his Racial Privacy Initiative on the statewide ballot. The measure, which is sure to turn into a hotly contested “wedge” issue when it appears on the ballot, would prohibit state and local governments (cities, counties and schools) from collecting or using any information that pertains to race or ethnicity. The measure would stop the gathering of racial data on everything from test scores to crime rates to health risks.

Connerly, a longtime regent of the University of California, grew famous in conservative circles this past decade for authoring two similar race-related state ballot measures: Prop. 187, a 1994 initiative designed to deprive illegal immigrants of benefits, and Prop. 209, a 1996 measure that dismantled affirmative action. The target of his new foray into “wedge issue” land involves, basically, the tiny little check boxes on government forms.

Now we don’t doubt Connerly’s sincerity. He obviously believes that assembling ethnic information divides people and reminds them to identify themselves as members of a certain race instead of as individuals.

But he couldn’t be more wrong.

Connerly and his supporters seek to deny that there are issues and challenges that are unique to communities of color. After all, racism doesn’t begin with bureaucrats and tiny little boxes—its roots are as deep as history itself. Instead of going into denial about it, we should combat racism armed with crucial information, like: How many Latino students are dropping out of high school? Why is it that African-American women seem to die of breast cancer at a rate much higher than that of white women? Why do kids in certain demographic groups have higher rates of asthma?

Strangely, the initiative goes out of its way to allow police officers to publicly identify the race of an individual suspect, but not allow police to keep records that show the race of drivers it has stopped and searched. Somehow, for police officers, the measure allows profiling without accountability.

Though he’s turned in the needed signatures to qualify the measure for this November’s ballot, Connerly appears to be having second thoughts and will likely attempt to hold the campaign off until the next statewide election, the presidential primary in March 2004. Among other things, he doesn’t want to hurt the chances this fall of Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon.

Whenever the Racial Privacy Initiative runs, let’s hope it fails. Why take away a tool from the toolbox? It doesn’t take Einstein to see that much of the progress we’ve made on race has come because we’ve been able to track progress and figure out what more needs to be done.