The Magazine

California's Other Race

The dishonest assault on the Racial Privacy Initiative.

Sep 15, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 01 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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ON OCTOBER 7, Californians will be offered more than a chance to pick a new governor. They will be asked whether they want to amend the state's constitution to outlaw most public classifications by race. Under Proposition 54--known as the Racial Privacy Initiative to its backers, and as CRECNO (the Classification by Race, Ethnicity, Color, or National Origin Initiative) to the ballot attorneys--the state could not require racial or ethnic information from those applying to college or seeking a job or a loan. It is the brainchild of conservative activist Ward Connerly, the guiding spirit behind California's Proposition 209, which banned race-based admissions and hiring at the state level in 1996.

The stated logic of Proposition 54 is that having to declare an ethnic allegiance before every state bureaucracy violates the American way. Such declarations crept into American life about 30 years ago as a means, it was said, of charting the country's exit from racial segregation. But they no longer make sense even in those terms. In California, high immigration has rendered the system increasingly cumbersome. A rapidly rising percentage of residents are of mixed parentage--in fact, California now has more "mixed race" newborns than black ones.

Demographic change complicates the old business of tracking race. Either a job/college/loan applicant is free to declare what he thinks his race is or he is not. If the applicant is free to pick his race (and this is the view of Connerly, of mixed race himself, who says, "Nothing gives you the right . . . to tell me who my ancestors are"), then the information thus gathered can only be arbitrary, a mere declaration of whether one wants to be eligible for race-based privileges. Addressing the University of California Board of Regents in May, Connerly noted that students declining to state their ethnicity rose from 7 percent of UC applicants in 2002 to 8.4 percent in 2003. This could reflect a grass-roots desire to move toward a colorblind society. It could also reflect that, since the passage of Proposition 209, there has been less money in claiming minority status.

If, on the other hand, racial categories are not arbitrary, then the government must establish and enforce racial classifications. This could lead it to establish a variety of mixed-race categories, as did apartheid-era South Africa, offering privileges rather than penalties. Or to grant racial privileges to anyone who could claim "one drop" of black ancestry, a straightforward inversion of the rule by which segregationist South Carolina denied rights to blacks in the last century. Either way, if race classification is not dismantled, then demographic realities will force states such as California to enunciate explicit hierarchies of rights based on race.

Americans are viscerally uncomfortable with this. Californians seem to share Connerly's despair that the race-counting system can ever be made workable or fair. A late-August Field Poll found 56 percent favoring the initiative and 35 percent against. Support is overwhelming among Republicans (55-25 percent), strong among independents (52-24 percent), and low but not negligible among Democrats (who oppose it by 47-36 percent). Whites back it, 47-33; Latinos oppose it, 50-38; while other races (presumably Asians and blacks) are slightly against, at 41-35.

Agitation against the initiative began over a year ago, long before signatures to get the measure on the ballot had even been gathered. This alacrity may reflect worries that the measure would be hard to defeat once it was on the ballot. The anti-racial privacy group now works under an umbrella organization called Coalition for an Informed California. The name comes from the belief that suppressing racial data-gathering is obscurantist, and constitutes the equivalent of a "gag rule." (Although one never heard the same groups agitating that more "sunlight" be shone on, say, the University of California's minority-admissions policies of yore.)