Latest Calif. initiative on race brews
Measure would ban state from asking about ethnicity
By Bobby Caina Calvan, Boston Globe, 5/7/2003

SACRAMENTO -- A campaign that would bar the government from asking
about race, color, and ethnicity is gearing up in California, a state
still simmering over similar ballot initatives aimed at affirmative
action, bilingual education, and immigrant rights.

The latest measure, billed by supporters as the ''Racial Privacy
Initiative,'' would prohibit state agencies from inquiring about
people's racial identity -- a standard voluntary question on many forms
used for school enrollment, job applications, driver's licenses and
other services. It would remove racial checkoff boxes from all state
and local government forms.

''The government shouldn't be in the business of categorizing people.
Government should be blind to color,'' said Ward Connerly, the
University of California regent who is behind the initiative and who
led the successful 1996 ballot measure that dismantled the state's
affirmative action programs in hiring and public higher education.

''In a state such as California that is experiencing dramatic
demographic changes and expanding racial categories, it really begins
to beg the question of `What is race?' '' Connerly said. If agencies
are prohibited from asking people to divulge their sexual orientation
or religion, he said, why should people be asked about their ethnicity?
''The nation at some point has to ask itself: Why do we want to
classify people?''

But those opposed to the initiative, which will be on the statewide
ballot next March, say the measure would do away with an important tool
to uncover racial bias in how state agencies conduct business and how
the state's resources are distributed.

''How can you identify a problem if you don't know where it is? The
only way to fix a problem is being able to see the problem,'' said Rick
Callender, president of the San Jose and Silicon Valley chapter of the
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

''This initiative will turn the clocks further back on civil rights
gains,'' added Alice Huffman, who heads the statewide NAACP conference.

Mindful of the criticism, the initiative's authors exempted the
Department of Fair Employment and Housing from the proposed law because
of its role as a civil-rights enforcement agency. The proposed law
would also allow state agencies to continue providing racial data to
comply with some federal programs. Moreover, law enforcement agencies
would be allowed to describe people, such as criminal suspects, by race
-- but could no longer be compelled to maintain records identifying
them by race, color, or ethnicity.

A medical-research exemption in the proposed law appears to only apply
to people who specifically take part in clinical research. Some medical
researchers worry that the absence of racial data would prevent them
from discovering patterns of disease among ethnic groups.

Under the proposed law, documents such as birth and death certificates
would no longer record a person's ethnicity and, critics claim, hamper

The state has nearly 34 million residents, of whom roughly 40 percent
are Asian, black, Latino, or a member of an ethnic minority, according
to the Census Bureau.

It is the fourth time in a decade that voters in the nation's most
populous and diverse state are being asked to weigh in on measures some
minority groups consider an assault on their communities.

In 1998, voters overwhelmingly outlawed bilingual education in public
schools despite opposition from many Latinos.

In 1996, Californians approved Proposition 209, which did away with
racial preferences in government hiring and forced the University of
California system to rewrite admissions policies.

In 1994, the so-called ''Save Our State'' Initiative sought to prevent
undocumented immigrants from getting state and local services, although
much of the law was later struck down by federal courts.

''I think people have sobered up to see the divisiveness that
initiatives like these have created,'' said Maria Blanco, national
senior counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education
Fund, one of dozens of ethnic organizations that have joined to oppose
the initiative.

''This is really over the top as an initiative,'' Blanco said. ''The
other initiatives touched on a visceral nerve. This one has no use. But
it could have really negative unintended consequences.''

It would make it impossible for schools to track the drop-out rates of
Latinos and other at-risk groups, track college admissions among
minorities and assess the performance of particular groups of students
on standardized tests, Blanco said.

Connerly concedes that racial data may give policy makers certain
insights, but ''it won't give you evidence that discrimination is
happening. Is there going to be discrimination? Absolutely. But in
California, it's the exception, not the rule.''

He says opponents are distorting the intent of his measure. Both sides
will have until next March to educate voters. Both sides say they
expect to spend millions of dollars to get out their message.

Early polls show nearly half of California voters are inclined to
support the measure, while a third were opposed, according to a poll
released last month by the Field Poll. But the poll found that only 1
in 10 of the 584 surveyed seemed to be aware of the initiative.

The initiative has the potential for reopening old wounds, but it
remains to be seen whether it will resonate with voters in the same way
as the previous measures did, said Bruce Cain, director of the
Institute of Government Studies at the Berkeley campus of the
University of California. ''It doesn't affect as many lives directly,''
Cain said. ''If it passes, people aren't going to lose jobs over it.
It's not going to prevent someone from getting into school.''

This story ran on page A3 of the Boston Globe on 5/7/2003.