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Connerly's Con 

Ward Connerly says his new anti-racism initiative won't have any real impact on California. Critics beg to differ.

Wednesday, Sep 10 2003
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Anticipating vociferous opposition that could sink him politically, UC Regent Ward Connerly attached a laundry list of exemptions to his Proposition 54, an initiative on the Oct. 7 ballot designed to prevent the state from collecting racial data. Among the loopholes were statistics related to medical research, federal census operations, and certain law enforcement activities.

Nonetheless, after he unveiled it earlier this year, Connerly's Racial Privacy Initiative was roundly attacked by civil rights advocates, academicians, California's largest association of doctors, and others, who dubbed it the "Ward Connerly Information Ban." "Proposition 54 is literally bad for health, public safety, bad for education, and bad for civil rights," says Maya Harris, director of the Racial Justice Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Now, with criticism intensifying as the election draws near, Connerly -- the controversial architect of Prop. 209, which banned the use of race in public education, hiring, and contracting -- says his new proposal is largely symbolic and will have little practical impact on California.

"When you look at what Prop. 54 actually covers, when you look at exemptions and the process that is given to the Legislature to override it in all areas except education, contracting, and public employment, it is very, very reasonable," Connerly insists in an interview with SF Weekly. "Especially given that with the passage of Prop. 209, government agencies can't use race for or against people in those three areas already. I don't think this proposition is very radical; my allies say this is purely symbolic, and it doesn't go far enough. ... There really isn't much that the initiative is going to affect."

Detractors remain unconvinced, however. They say that while they can appreciate Connerly's desire to help create a colorblind California, prohibiting the collection of racial data will impede the efforts of researchers in a variety of areas, including public health and education.

"You just couldn't do research," asserts Claude Steele of Stanford University's Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. "How would you solve the nuts and bolts of social justice issues? This is a disastrously naive idea on the part of Connerly. I understand his ideological point of view, but down on the ground, in terms of what it means for the state, it's disastrous."

Despite the heated arguments on both sides, it is likely that, as with many ballot initiatives, it is nearly impossible to anticipate the myriad ways Prop. 54 would -- or would not -- impact California. No one knows how the initiative will be interpreted by various government agencies, and how it will be implemented.

"It is difficult to determine [the initiative's impact] because the language in the initiative in some areas is a bit vague," says Vanessa Baird, chief of the state Health Services Department's Office of Multicultural Health. "So we believe that there will be some impact that will not be known unless the proposition passes, and some decisions will have to be made through the court system."

The state's nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office published a report saying that questions remain about how the measure might affect local and state government, including police agencies, which use racial data to analyze crime trends.

While the report notes that Connerly exempted most federal data-gathering efforts, it says his initiative will limit information collected by public education organizations. For example, public schools would no longer be able to collect race data through state-required achievement tests, and the University of California couldn't monitor the race of high school students whom UC officials were trying to recruit.

The legislative analyst's report adds that although federal census data is specifically exempted by Connerly, it's unclear if state and local agencies could make use of racial statistics accumulated by the federal government -- which they now do in a number of ways.

The legislative analyst notes that research into the health of minority communities -- such as investigations of asthma in low-income neighborhoods near toxic waste dumps -- apparently could still be conducted. The report says, however, that "future court and/or legislative actions could affect the measure's implementation."

Anna Brannen, who authored the Prop. 54 report, says the Legislature would probably have to resolve some questions about what research state and local governments could or could not perform -- such as collecting race data for public health surveys or to apply for private grants.

But opponents say lobbying the Legislature and the governor to pass a bill every time they want to undertake a research project is unacceptably cumbersome and time-consuming.

"The sponsors [of Prop. 54] have said that even if these exemptions are too limiting, there is a mechanism to get special approval through the State Legislature," says a memo from the San Francisco Department of Health to the city health commission. "This would require a two-thirds majority approval by the Legislature, which seems at best an unnecessary burden and at worst an impossibility."

Opponents also argue that the proposition would cripple school districts' efforts to monitor minority scholastic achievement and hamstring public employees in filing discrimination lawsuits, since they'll no longer have access to statistics on hiring or promotion trends by their government employers.

Connerly, however, claims the exemptions in his initiative should assuage critics' concerns. He says most of the state's collection of racial information is done under a federal mandate and is specifically protected. He also states "unequivocally" that the medical exemption is broad enough to include public health research on minority communities.

Some public health experts disagree.

"For example, we recently put out a report that looked at the 1990s and multicultural health disparities in California," says Vanessa Baird of the state Health Services Department. "We used 11 health indicators and compared major race and ethnic groups. From the report, it was clear that we still have health disparities in California, which is not what we want to see in such a big state."

If such measurements were not available, she adds, "We would not be able to look at HIV/AIDS data and know that the African-American community is disproportionately represented, and then know to work with that community on strategies to prevent HIV or get people into care."

Connerly points out that there is language in the initiative allowing the Legislature to exempt any agency it wants to. He admits, however, that if the initiative passes, it'll be "difficult if not impossible" for a public employee to sue successfully for discrimination. "It's part of the trade-off," he says. "If you want a colorblind government, you're going to have to accept that."

Connerly and his supporters -- primarily conservatives -- believe Prop. 54 will help hasten the end of racism. "As far as we can see, racial information at this point is a divisive component of society, pitting one group against another," says Prop. 54 spokeswoman Diane Schachterle. "The government has misused the racial classification component. It was originally used by slave owners. We feel racial classification does more harm than good."

But antagonists argue that Prop. 54, if it passes, will not only create a public policy nightmare, it will also make it difficult to track racial discrimination when it does occur.

"There is so much research to show that race still matters in this country -- and very much so," says Evelyn Hu-DeHart, director of Brown University's Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. "If it matters in a negative way for some people, then we need to do something about it. And the only way we can do something about it is if we collect information about it. Prop. 54 would disallow the state from collecting data, so how do we know if we're making progress on these fronts? How do we stop people from discriminating on the basis of race and ethnicity?"

Connerly believes his initiative is a moderate and highly symbolic step toward creating a colorblind society. "I think symbolically it's very important that we reaffirm the goal of colorblindness of our nation," he says. "I think this is an important principle for our state to reaffirm. We do want to get to a point where the government is colorblind, [and] we need to take the first step in areas where this information is already prohibited."

But Troy Duster, a sociology professor at UC Berkeley and New York University, says Connerly's approach is misguided. "[Connerly's] appeal here is interesting," says Duster. "There is a kind of aspiration, a hope, that we will somehow transcend the racial side of our past. What Connerly has been doing for the past seven years is to appeal to that aspiration, but with policies that ... actually erode the progress."

Duster, co-author of a book titled Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-blind Society, says that "you can't redress a grievance if you don't have empirical evidence. Prop. 54 destroys the capacity of those who want to redress the grievances of the past."

Duster also says that Connerly's claim that the initiative is symbolic may not be accurate. "If you go back to Prop. 209, he may have said he was out for only a symbolic victory, but it turns out the impacts on the acceptance of minorities to medical schools and law schools were significant. If he says [Prop. 54] is only symbolic, it's a fiction because policies are put in place through the collection of data. Policy flows from our capacity to collect data. This is going to have a negative impact on our capacities to generate policies around social justice."

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Bernice Yeung

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