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Racial Data Measure May Be a Wild Card in Election

Times Staff Writers

The same day that California voters choose whether to oust Gov. Gray Davis, they will also weigh a ballot measure to bar public agencies from collecting many types of racial data -- two highly combustible issues that are bound to interact with each other in significant ways before the Oct. 7 election.

Political analysts and campaign strategists working on the recall offer divergent views on whether the race data measure, Proposition 54, will help or hurt Davis’ chances of keeping the governorship.

But on one point they agree: Proposition 54 figures to be a major wild card in the recall effort. Moreover, they say, the way recall candidates use Proposition 54 to galvanize voter support, or attempt to dodge it altogether, may affect the fate of the ballot measure.

“The initiative heightens the ideological and partisan tensions that are already implicit in the recall,” said Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political science professor at Cal State Fullerton. “It just adds to the fact that this is a very, very polarized electorate.”

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The interplay between Proposition 54 and the recall was on display Thursday at Cal State Dominguez Hills, where the Democratic governor was joined by a parade of prominent African American politicians during a campaign-style visit.

He told the largely black audience that the measure would hinder collection of critical academic performance numbers by race, preventing educators from learning whether their curricula were really helping all students learn.

The measure has also proved to be a litmus test of sorts for the candidates looking to replace Davis on the recall ballot.

The Democrats’ standard-bearer among recall contenders, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, has already come out strongly against Proposition 54. Bustamante opposed a similar 1996 measure barring racial preferences in admissions.

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Independent candidate Arianna Huffington also has denounced the measure, telling National Public Radio, “I am completely against that.”

But the Republican leading the early recall opinion polls, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, has so far declined to state a stance on the initiative.

Proposition 54 is the brainchild of Ward Connerly, a University of California regent and Sacramento businessman. Connerly gained national attention for his successful campaigns to stop the use of racial and gender preferences at the UC and -- in 1996 with Proposition 209 -- in public institutions statewide. A Republican, Connerly has remained neutral so far on the effort to recall Davis.

Bruce Cain, professor of political science at UC Berkeley, said Proposition 54 probably has a better chance in the recall election than it would have had in the March primary, when it was originally scheduled to be on the ballot. He said the recall vote is likely to energize Republican voters, who are considered more likely to support it.

But Cain said the initiative could also help mobilize liberal voters, particularly Latinos, to turn out to oppose it, especially now that Bustamante, the state’s highest-ranked Latino elected official, is running to replace Davis if the recall succeeds.

Connerly dismisses many of the concerns over the proposal as baseless, or irrelevant. In one key area, he said, his intention is that it “not apply to anything related to health or medicine in any way.” And, he said, other exemptions written into the measure would leave unchanged such efforts as federally required school testing, any data needed to prevent the loss of federal money and many law-enforcement functions.

Connerly, who is of mixed race, said Proposition 54 “is threatening to people because it challenges the whole concept of race and race consciousness. And there are an awful lot of people who are deeply invested in that.”

He named the measure the “Racial Privacy Initiative,” asserting that one’s racial background should not be the government’s business. Opponents call it the “information ban.”

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The measure would amend the California Constitution to prohibit the state and other public entities, including local governments and colleges and universities, from classifying individuals by race, ethnicity, color or national origin.

Backers say the measure would help propel the state toward a colorblind society and that many of the fears about its effects are unjustified. But it is triggering protests from those who argue that it would ban information vital to the well-being of millions of Californians.

The measure has brought together a broad coalition of opponents, including law enforcement agencies, civil rights leaders, teachers, the California Medical Assn. and public health researchers. Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca is against it, as is Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer. Connerly’s fellow UC regents are on record opposing it, as is the board of the state’s community college system.

Teachers unions say the initiative would gut the state’s school accountability system, making it impossible to know whether troubling achievement gaps between racial and ethnic groups are growing or shrinking.

Other educators say Proposition 54 would not interfere with the collection of testing data by race for the federal No Child Left Behind education law. That requires states to test students in grades three through eight and break down scores by race.

Still, school district administrators say the measure would hamper their efforts to track achievement gaps between higher performing white and Asian students and their lower performing Latino and African American peers. Results from those tests and others are used to drive changes in classroom instruction and help determine who gets into college prep classes or special education programs.

“To put blinders on seems so destructive to good policymaking,” said Jeannie Oakes, a UCLA education professor and director of the University of California’s All Campus Consortium on Research for Diversity. “Race will be more vicious than it was before. We’ll just use our stereotypes because we won’t have any information to counter them.”

State Education Secretary Kerry Mazzoni said the Connerly initiative would undermine California’s school accountability system, which relies heavily on racial and ethnic student data to evaluate schools and sets out ways for campuses to improve.

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Proposition 54, Mazzoni said, would be “potentially damaging to the students we need to be focusing on. It would return us to a situation in which these students are invisible or ignored.”

Law enforcement officials say they fear it would hamstring their ability to stop racial profiling and to investigate and prosecute hate crimes.

Baca, for example, said the proposition could tie his deputies’ hands in the field and be a first step toward eroding the ability of crime fighters to do their jobs. He said the measure could thwart attempts to track hate crimes and to diversify law enforcement agencies such as the Sheriff’s Department.

Robin Toma, executive director of L.A. County’s Human Relations Commission, said the organization would be unable to produce its annual report on hate crimes.

Health-care researchers argue that it would make disease tougher to track, treat and prevent, endangering many of those most at risk.

Dr. E. Richard Brown is director of UCLA’s Center for Health Policy Research, which conducts two major annual surveys that include racial data. Through them, UCLA and local agencies are able to learn about the populations most at risk for certain health problems and come up with education and intervention programs.

“The Connerly initiative would suppress valuable information about critical health problems that confront California -- and that we can do something about,” Brown said, adding that he does not feel assured by Connerly’s statements.

Attorneys and analysts who have studied the language of the proposition say much about its potential impact is unclear and would likely be resolved by courts and the Legislature.

The nonpartisan legislative analyst’s office said much of the race-related data now collected by the state and local entities is required by the federal government and would continue to be collected under the measure’s exemptions. Health surveys also appear to be exempt.

But other data, including information on companies doing business with the state and on prospective college students, probably would be restricted, said the analyst’s report.

Connerly and other proponents of the measure say the state’s efforts to track the educational achievement gaps have made no progress in narrowing them.

In the area of law enforcement, Connerly and his supporters say some police officials have a fundamental misunderstanding of the initiative, which would still allow suspects to be “described” by race or ethnicity and provides for data collection as required by federal law.

Connerly denied that his proposal would have any effect on health care and medical research. What’s more, he said, if the exemption for “medical research subjects and patients” is not enough, he will accompany opponents to the Legislature to push for a broader safeguard.

“That is just phony, absolutely phony,” he said of his critics’ concerns.


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