Racial Privacy Initiative: Why diversity data matters

I consider myself an ally of Thomas Wood, the co-author of the anti- affirmative action Proposition 209 — despite the fact that I consider myself a politically liberal-minded person. Not because he believes that race is an irrelevant factor in hiring and higher education admissions, but because we both agree that Ward Connerly’s Racial Privacy Initiative is inherently destructive.

Late last month, the California Republican Party voted unanimously to support the initiative. This comes as no surprise. California Republican leaders have a history of alienating moderates and people of color and greatly differ from the national Republican Party. Their extremist views, in fact, have been key influences in pushing through state propositions such as 187, which took social services away from undocumented immigrants in 1994; 227, which nearly eliminated bilingual education in 1998; and yes, 209, which excluded race as a factor for admissions and hiring policies in 1996.

The fact that former state Republican vice chairman Bill Back, who circulated an essay suggesting that the United States would have been better off if the slave-holding South had won the Civil War, came very close to becoming chairman of the California Republican Party shows how the party has deteriorated and grown further from the national Republican Party’s efforts to appeal to moderates, people of color and women. Even President George W. Bush’s campaign spokesman Raoul Contreras spoke out against the decision to back the initiative.

Let us take a hypothetical look at the state of California in the year 2025 if a majority of California voters decided to prohibit the collection of racial statistics in March of 2004. Twenty years will have gone by without anyone ever having to check off what Connerly calls “the silly little boxes.” Twenty years of public policy and academic research on everything from K-12 education, public health, hiring practices in state agencies — and race will never have been considered as a factor for anything, despite the massive inequalities.

According to the California Department of Education’s rates for high school sophomores from March 2001 to May 2002, 65 percent of white students passed the California High School Exit Examination. Compare that to 28 percent of the African American students and 30 percent of Latino students who passed the exit exam. How is it possible to close these achievement gaps without considering race as a factor when the inequalities are so blatant? How do Republicans expect to fulfill promises of improving public education to all California students by prohibiting the collection of this information?

RPI proponents like to point out an insignificant provision, which exempts medical research from the initiative. But this exemption only applies to “public health experiments that call for volunteer subjects of a certain racial background” and private medical records. What about access to health care? Almost a third of Latino children are uninsured and 41 percent of non- elderly adult Latinos are uninsured in California, according to the Latino American Medical Association. RPI’s medical research exemption fails to address the social concerns as well as large-scale research obtained by surveys that depend on state agencies for data on race and ethnicity.

Despite the current discrepancies of resources allotted to communities of color and those allotted to whites, researchers would be unilaterally forced to overlook race as a factor if RPI passes. In 20 years, researchers might have trained themselves to ignore race as a factor because the information will have simply been unavailable.

No matter how you use racial statistics, it’s at least important to know that the information is available. Wood has said he opposes RPI because it would make the enforcement of Proposition 209 impossible. I oppose RPI because it prohibits the collection of vital information, especially for the people of California.

It’s ironic that my colleague Connerly, a regent of one of the most prominent research institutions in the country, is working to implement this ban on information. If Connerly’s ultimate vision of a race-blind society is reflected by the attitudes of the leadership of the California Republican Party, then I’d hate to think of California’s bleak future with RPI in effect.

Dexter Ligot-Gordon is the student regent for the University of California. He is a political economy major at UC Berkeley.

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