Connerly's Con

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

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.

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