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.)

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.

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.

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