WASHINGTON – California's state government and public universities may soon be barred from collecting information about race, ethnicity and national origin.
The Racial Privacy Initiative (search) would make it illegal to collect demographic data on everything from college applications to prison records. The initiative, also known as Proposition 54 (search), is on the ballot next Tuesday, Oct. 7, the day voters choose whether to replace Gov. Gray Davis in a highly publicized recall vote.
Currently, questions on ethnicity and race can be found on state forms to enroll a child in public school, apply for a job in a city or county and conduct a whole host of business with the state. State questionnaires ask not only whether an individual is black, white, Hispanic or Asian, but whether he or she is Laotian, Guamanian or any other of the 16 classifications now used.
The Racial Privacy Initiative would ban these questions as of Jan. 1, 2005.
Prop. 54 would be “the ultimate accomplishment of the civil rights movement," said Clint Bolick, Institute for Justice (search) and a supporter of the initiative.
The effort is being led by Ward Connerly (search), a University of California regent who in 1996 also led the push for Proposition 209 (search), the successful campaign to ban racial preferences in California.
Connerly, who is of mixed race and dislikes being classified himself, said last month that the goal of this initiative is to get the state government "out of the racial classification business" and move one step closer to a colorblind government.
The backers of Prop. 54 "seek a California that is free from government racism and race-conscious decision-making," he said.
But opponents of Prop. 54 are concerned that by no longer collecting statistics on race, it will be impossible to determine discrimination in employment or college admissions. Another worry is that without race statistics, evidence of medical trends, such as the increased susceptibility of blacks to sickle cell anemia, would remain mysteries.
Among those fighting the measure are medical organizations, such as the American Public Health Association (search), the California Academy of Physicians, the California Black Health Network and the California Medical Association.
"The fundamental issue is that if you don’t know the numbers, you can't craft solutions for the problems," said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of APHA. He cited infant mortality in the African-American community, which is much higher than among whites, as a problem difficult to solve without gathering data.
Prop. 54 allows racial classification for medical research, but Benjamin said that provision is not enough. Collecting data on voluntary research subjects would not protect the data collection systems that are currently used and rely on much larger sample groups.
"For us to put our head in the sand and say disparities don’t exist doesn’t make any sense," he said.
Charges that Prop. 54 would have dangerous implications for medical research are "a red herring" aimed to raise opposition to the initiative, Bolick said.
"The opponents really care about racial classifications in education and employment, and this is a ruse to get off the core topic, which is treating people as individuals rather than as functions of their skin color," he said.
Bolick pointed out that in addition to the exceptions built into the law, the state Legislature is empowered to expand the areas exempt from the law if it deems it necessary to do so.
Supporters of the measure say eliminating any residual elements of affirmative action in employment and higher education is needed because racial categories do not make sense anymore with the large and increasing number of mixed-race Californians.
Whether the initiative will pass is still up in the air. Support for Prop. 54 has dropped to 40 percent from 46 percent in August, a Sept. 11 Field Poll showed. At the same time, opposition rose from 35 percent to 40 percent.
Historically, as initiatives near Election Day, support declines. Prop. 209 won by a 9 percent margin on Election Day, far less than the 21 percent lead it enjoyed going into the campaign.
The measure has garnered little support from the gubernatorial candidates. Front-runners Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and Republican actor Arnold Schwarzenegger both oppose Prop. 54. Of the three major candidates, only Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock supports the measure.
Because white voters tend to back the measure more than blacks or Hispanics, the proposition could boost Hispanic turnout for the recall election, aiding Bustamante in turn, say observers.
"Prop. 54 is going down in flames as it should," said Bob Mulholland, campaign adviser to the California Democratic Party (search), adding that he believes the initiative's presence on the ballot will help opponents of the recall effort "because the minority community and minority community leaders are heavily opposed to Prop. 54."
When Prop. 209 passed, it inspired similar initiatives elsewhere in the country, most recently in Michigan, also led by Connerly. Both supporters and opponents predict consequences rippling beyond California’s borders if the measure should pass.
"Certainly if it passes in California I am confident we will see this same initiative elsewhere," Bolick said.