America stands in the throes of a racial paradox.
According to a pile of surveys, polls and census figures, Americans are becoming less and less race conscious in our day-to-day lives, social habits, families and in whom we choose as friends and paramours.
Yet, in America's political, public and academic spheres, race remains as divisive as it was 30 years ago. These institutions, as well as race and ethnic identity groups, would have us believe that the United States is teetering on the brink of a race war.
Why such a disconnect? Because the government, on all levels, still ties benefits, political patronage and state contracts to skin color. Governments still organize, categorize and rank us by our race. The federal government allocates $185 billion annually for minority programs, while issues like affirmative action, welfare reform and criminal justice are continually poisoned by racial demagoguing on both the left and right.
Just think of how the 2000 presidential election was loaded with overt pleas to race consciousness and fear-mongering.
The government provides identity groups with the reason and motivation to bait race, and supplies hate groups with the ammunition and motivation to preach bigotry.
In 1970, the U.S. Census had five racial classifications. By the 2000 Census, that number swelled to 63 classifications, more than 120 if you include ethnicity. To pad their numbers, race and ethnic groups launched a publicity campaign for the 2000 census urging citizens to make sure they "checked" their racial/ethnic designation box. The "American Indian" designation alone grew by 65 percent between 1990 and 2000.
This seems to be at odds with both the ethnic make-up and social mind-set of the American people. For example, the number of black-white interracial births nearly tripled nationwide in the 1990s; in California today, more children are born to interracial parents than are born to two black parents. This would explain why a significant number of black Americans checked the "multiracial" boxes on the 2000 Census—and that blacks under 18 were twice as likely to do so than older black Americans. Yet, the NAACP urged respondents not to classify themselves as multiracial.
A 1997 Gallup poll found that 57 percent of teens would consider dating someone of another race – up from 17 percent in 1980. According to the same poll, almost a full 100 percent of white Americans said that race would not prevent them from voting a political candidate into office, up from 75 percent in 1980, and up from just 35 percent in 1958.
Enter Ward Connerly, the University of California's Board of Regents member who paved the way to prohibition of race-based admissions in the state's university system and led the successful Proposition 209 campaign, which banned state-sponsored affirmative action programs.
Connerly's latest battle is the Racial Privacy Initiative, a measure that would prevent California from tracking poverty rates, graduation rates, hiring rates, income levels, and all other matter of demographic data with respect to race. California could no longer tell its black citizens they are less apt, less healthy, less smart or less ambitious than its non-black citizens.
"On an intellectual and practical level, race consciousness is poisonous and divisive," Connerly said. The solution, he said, is "getting government out of the business of classifying its citizens according to race."
The campaign has of course riled the forces of racial advocacy groups.
In an op-ed in the April 1, 2001 Sacramento Bee, Belinda Reyes of the Public Policy Institute of California writes that a recent report by her organization " . . . found that there are still vast differences in social and economic well-being across racial and ethnic groups in California and that, in many cases, these differences have widened in the last 30 years."
But what's causing these "widening differences?" Certainly Reyes isn't arguing that there is more bigotry and discrimination now than there was in the late 1960s.
What has changed in the last 30 years is, most obviously, the mammoth increase in social welfare programs that require racial "bean counting." These "widening differences" could also be attributed to the fact that American blacks are incessantly reminded by groups like the Public Policy Institute of California – and by their own government — that the odds are stacked against them, that black kids don't get the grades white kids do, and that black kids are more likely to end up in jail, with unwanted pregnancies, or pushing drugs.
The RPI could be an important first step toward changing all of that.
Meanwhile, the Berkeley chapter of the ACLU has declared defeating the RPI its "primary objective," stating that the RPI would "effectively put us pre-1964."
The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. But what the ACLU doesn't say is that "pre-1964," the ACLU actually lobbied to have race removed from the Census due to privacy concerns.
But the Civil Rights Act, as well as another landmark piece of legislation, Lyndon Johnson's "War On Poverty," attached political value to racial identity. Interest groups have clung to state-sponsored race-consciousness ever since.
The RPI would not legalize discrimination. Victims of racial discrimination could still seek redress in the courts. But California could no longer monitor corporations and universities to be sure their staffs and student bodies "look like America."
With the RPI, Californians could codify into law what science and social patterns have been saying for years now: when it comes to race, we really aren't all that different. Government should stop treating us as if we were.
Radley Balko is a writer living in Arlington, Va.
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