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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Informed California unites both champions and beneficiaries of race-based programs, all those whose ox is gored by the prospective constitutional amendment. Such programs start with affirmative action, but do not end with it. The initiative, for instance, would pose logistical difficulties to racial lawsuits. So the American Bar Association opposes it, as do various smaller legal associations, most of them ethnically based (the East Bay La Raza Lawyers Association, the Philipino American Lawyers Club of San Diego, the Black Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles) and some named after the very invented racial categories whose existence they aim to protect (the Asian Pacific American Bar Association, et al.). Prominent figures from the left of the Democratic party rallied against the referendum early: congressman Howard Berman, Los Angeles mayor James Hahn, L.A. city councilman Antonio Villaraigosa. They tend to complain about the expense of mounting an initiative--never the sign of a winning political hand. Embattled governor Gray Davis weighed in on the initiative the day after it was approved for the ballot. If it became law, Davis warned, "the Department of Health Services would no longer be able to collect information on certain diseases and their impacts on various racial and ethnic groups."

Davis has reasons for taking this position: The initiative's opponents are his biggest backers, even his "base." They tell pollsters they would vote against a Davis recall by a margin of 46-41 percent. Those who support the initiative would recall him--by 53-28 percent. But in addressing harm to medical research, Davis is misinformed. The goal of the racial-privacy initiative is to administer the laws in a colorblind way, not to hinder medical research on sickle-cell anemia, Tay Sachs disease, lactose intolerance, and other maladies and conditions whose incidence differs from race to race. To make sure this exception was not open to ambiguity or interpretation, the proposition's authors wrote it into the initiative itself. Under Section F, one reads: "Otherwise lawful classification of medical research subjects and patients shall be exempt from this section." Section C of the initiative repudiates racial profiling, which has not stopped its opponents from saying the initiative would enshrine it.

Connerly is correct when he describes his opponents' invocation of damage to health care as a "deliberate attempt to mislead voters." With increasing stridency, Democrats have made the health claim their chief talking point for the past month and a half. J.C. Flores, a spokesperson for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said: "This will prevent doctors from using that data." Jack Lewin, CEO of the California Medical Association, added: "African Americans have the highest infant mortality in America, and we need to focus on that problem. We can't if we aren't collecting information by race." Perhaps the referendum opponents are stressing health care because if they talked about the likely effects they fear--like a reduction in race-based litigation--voters might say, "Great!"

The strangest attack came from NAACP board chairman Julian Bond (who also thinks the anti-affirmative action Proposition 209 passed because people thought it was actually pro-affirmative action). In an astonishing outburst on National Public Radio, Bond warned that everybody, not just blacks, would be harmed if we could not categorize people by race:

For racial majorities, for white Americans, for example, if we don't collect data on this alarming rate of breast cancer in white women, how will white women know about preventive measures, about treatment, about all of the things it takes to make sure you're risk-free, you're healthy? Why deny white women the ability to know that they're at greater risk for breast cancer than any other women in the United States? Why can't they have this information? Why shouldn't they have this information? Don't they deserve this information? So this doesn't affect just racial minorities; it affects the whole society because taking away the data hides discrimination.

In addition to being wrong, Bond's argument shows why counting by race can be so pernicious. If one can say that "taking away the data hides discrimination" even when addressing breast cancer rates, then Bond's obvious premise is that any relative misfortune must be the result of discrimination. This, in turn, explains how the initiative's foes can speak so confidently of harm to medical research. They just have a different perspective. For them, everything is about resource allocation. Medical research, say, is valuable or not valuable to the extent that "their people" are in on the funding that goes to it and the benefits that flow from it.