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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The problem is not so much the racial data as the attitude that leads to their collection. That attitude can be simply described as envy. We see it in the Informed California information packet on education, where it is noted that only 28 percent of black high-school students meet the eligibility standards for the University of California, while 59 percent of Asian Americans and 41 percent of whites do. If these gaps are prima facie evidence of discrimination (the anti-initiative view), then huge further transfers to blacks are called for. (And the Asians who have risen to such heights after just a generation in this country presumably have a lot of "discrimination" to atone for.) For a generation, inter-group resentment has been the default psychological response to any difference in relative prosperity.

THE INITIATIVE'S BACKERS and its detractors are talking at cross-purposes. Earlier this year, Michigan philosophy professor Carl Cohen, who favors the initiative, wrote to the University of California regents:

Will the University of California be a happier or more productive institution when all of its members have been catalogued by ethnicity, when each has been assigned his or her place in the roll of ethnic categories, counted and listed and identified by race--or will it be happier and healthier when all within it are free to go about their intellectual business without the burden of representing or justifying their membership in some racial or ethnic category?

Cohen showed an admirable humanism, but also a certain ignorance of the way his interlocutors' minds work. Much of the academic left views race not as a burden but as an identity, even as an achievement. Who would want it stripped? Increasingly, the color of one's skin is the content of one's character. And once one throws in the financial interests, it seems most unlikely that the initiative's opponents will be inspired by Cohen's language of lifted burdens, or Connerly's of race-blind law. They are deaf to such appeals to precisely the extent the problem is as serious as Connerly and Cohen say it is.

There are certainly conservative objections to be made to the initiative. Thomas Wood, who authored Proposition 209 and is executive director of the California Association of Scholars, holds that suppressing racial data, rather than rendering affirmative action unworkable, will render the ban on it impossible to enforce.

A further complication is that the race-counting issue is being debated in a different context than it was in early 2001, when organizing began on the racial-privacy initiative. The old context was the dead hand of segregation; the new context is the ongoing war on terrorism. France, with its strong republican traditions, has always had a Proposition 54-style ban on identifying the race of its citizens. In recent years, the ban has been much attacked, as France must now assimilate an enormous population of recent Muslim arrivals with no reliable idea of whether they number 4million or 10 million.

Do we want to be similarly ignorant of how many naturalized Arabs or Muslims live in the United States? This is not a rhetorical question. Perhaps we do desire such ignorance. Perhaps it would stunt the potential for bloc voting and ethnically based grievance-group formation. But what about immigration more generally? Does the no-racial-information plan hinder our ability to regulate immigration from certain countries, if we so choose? Reasonable minds can differ on these questions. But to ignore them is to conduct a multiracial-era debate in biracial-era terms.

Affirmative action, of course--along with many of the disparate-impact suits and fair-housing laws and economic grants that operate on the affirmative-action principle--is the ne plus ultra in biracial thinking. Regardless of what happens on October 7, the Racial Privacy Initiative, on the heels of Prop. 209, has struck a heavy blow to its prestige and perhaps a fatal one to its logic. Much of the foregoing philosophical discussion--and practically all of the political debate--is pussy-footing around the real issue, as it will be felt in the privacy of the ballot box: Californians will vote according to whether or not they think racial classifications underpin a system of government-sanctioned racism against whites and Asians. Viewed this way, the initiative calls the bluff of a long line of rhetoric that holds the government still practices subtle racism in favor of whites. If it does, then why do polls show the alleged beneficiaries so keen to dismantle the very system of racial tracking that makes such favoritism possible? The course of the racial privacy campaign suggests that defenders of affirmative action, when confronted with such common-sense questions, can offer only convoluted, sophistic, and disingenuous answers.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.