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Colorblind Versus Blindfolded

James Q. Wilson is professor emeritus at UCLA and lectures at Pepperdine University. His books have covered politics, criminal justice, marriage and morality. He recently received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

It’s easy to condemn discrimination, segregation and racism. It’s harder to agree on what practical steps are needed to combat them.

We all believe that everybody should be judged on his or her own merits, but many people, including a majority of Supreme Court justices, say race should be used as a “plus factor” in admitting students to public universities. And though everybody says we should strive for a colorblind society, some people still use racial and ethnic categories to describe why some people are different from others.

One way to end the problem, in the opinion of University of California Regent Ward Connerly, is to abolish the use of race and ethnicity as identifying factors. His Racial Privacy Initiative, slated to be voted on in October, would prohibit any government agency in California from collecting data on race, ethnicity, color or national origin and using it to classify those involved in public education, public contracting or public employment.

Indeed, without a two-thirds vote of the state Legislature and the signature of the governor, the state would not be able to classify people by race or ethnicity in any of its operations, with a few exceptions. Law enforcement officers would be allowed to describe particular persons (presumably criminal suspects) using race or ethnicity, but they would not be permitted to track these individuals by using such categories. This provision is intended to prevent racial profiling. In order to minimize gang violence, prison officials could use race or ethnicity when assigning inmates to quarters.

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I think this initiative is wrong and should be voted down, but it is easy to see its appeal. The goal of the Racial Privacy Initiative is to make us stop obsessing about race, a step, its author hopes, toward making us a colorblind state. In my view, however, the initiative would aid those who want to continue to obsess about race because, no longer privy to the facts, we would invent them.

If it passes, state colleges and universities will not be able to classify students by race or ethnicity -- and that won’t be good for supporters or opponents of affirmative action. Suppose you think these schools should make race a plus factor in admissions. If the initiative passes, you won’t be able to tell whether black or Latino enrollment has gone up, down or stayed the same, nor will you be able to tell whether the proportion of black or Latino students graduating from public high schools is greater or lesser than those admitted to public colleges.

Now suppose you supported Proposition 209 in 1996 because you opposed the use of race or ethnicity in making admissions decisions. If the new initiative passes, you won’t be able to tell whether our colleges are observing that law because you won’t know the ethnic makeup of the students in any public institution of higher learning.

And just because you won’t know does not mean that the schools won’t know as well. They may not “classify” people by race or ethnicity, but they can easily find out those identities by interviews, letters of recommendation or personal statements. Similarly, when the state hires a contractor, it can know by inspection the race or ethnicity of its owners or managers. Ending classification does not mean ending knowledge; it only means concealing that knowledge from outsiders.

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I confess to a bias in these matters. I am a scholar, and scholars always want more data, not less. Shutting us off from knowledge of racial and ethnic identity in state affairs makes what scholars do, whatever their personal ideologies, much more difficult. I recall how frustrating it was to study law enforcement in Britain, where, at the time, the racial and ethnic identity of victims and suspects was not disclosed. You got the impression there that race made no difference when, in fact, it made a very large one -- a fact that finally came home to the British when London was convulsed by racial tension occasioned, in part, by police action.

I wish we lived in a colorblind society but we do not. I take comfort from the fact that more and more college applicants, like more and more citizens, are refusing to select a single racial or ethnic identity when they fill out a form. These changes, accompanied by intermarriage, may in time make this a country in which ethnicity does not matter very much.

But we are not there yet. If you are a liberal, racial data are important in order to learn about social progress or its lack; if you are a conservative, they are useful to learn whether a national identity is or is not superceding separatist ones. Knowing in what direction we are moving is essential.


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