Ward Connerly is at it again.
First the University of California regent led the charge against affirmative action at the university. Then he sponsored Proposition 209, which barred racial and gender preferences for all state institutions.
Now Connerly, like an incurable pyromaniac, is fanning the flames with a somewhat vague state initiative that would prohibit public agencies from gathering racial data and conducting certain kinds of race-based research.
Whether you’re filling out an enrollment form or a health survey, you won’t be white, black, Latino or Asian. You’ll just be Californian.
Two weeks ago at a meeting of UC regents, Connerly was hissed by students before his colleagues voted 15 to 3 to oppose the measure. It’s called the Racial Privacy Initiative, and it could be up for a vote as early as this fall.
A mob of civil rights advocates and health-care professionals are trembling, predicting that Connerly’s out-of-state, right-wing backers will bankroll a massive TV ad campaign. They say the initiative could terminate research into things like how to improve the teaching of math to minority students, or why Vietnamese American women have high rates of cervical cancer.
But Connerly is steadfast, as ever, and no man is as righteous as he who does the wrong thing for the right reason. All he’s after, he says, is a colorblind society.
OK, fine. Who’s not?
The problem is that if we ever get one, it’ll be maybe 50 to 100 years after my flesh has been eaten by worms.
For some reason, it’s getting harder for me to figure out whether Connerly is a throwback or a man ahead of his time. I’ve never been a fan of his politics, and this latest initiative happens to be a mess. But there’s an idealistic aspect of Connerly’s thinking on race that appeals to me, particularly as a resident of the most diverse state in the universe.
Take, for instance, his observation about the absurdity of stuffing people into prescribed categories -- black, Asian, Latino -- in a state where the lines blur a little more each day.
As a California native and Italian-Spaniard, I never knew which box to check on college applications or census queries. And on the fast-approaching day when Latinos constitute a majority in California, I’m not sure whether I’ll be counted among them, or finally become the minority many people now assume me to be.
Connerly is referred to as a black man, but as he points out, it’s a ridiculously narrow way to look at who he is. He’s only half-black on one side, and has French, Irish and Native American blood in him.
“There are people all over this state who don’t neatly fit into one category,” Connerly says. “What is a black person? Is it based on the color of their skin? We can never break out of this box we’re in, the way we’re conditioned to think about race.”
He has a point. The problem, like I said, is that Connerly’s admirable ideal -- in which we all finally get over it, and move beyond race -- isn’t something that can be wished or legislated into existence while I’m still drawing breath.
Eva Patterson, a San Francisco civil rights attorney, told me she’d love to live in Ward Connerly’s colorblind dream world. Patterson, an African American, said she’d also love to quit her job and become a jazz singer. But there are too many cases to file on behalf of people who get turned down for an apartment or passed over for a promotion because of their accent or skin color.
Put the name “Lakisha Williams” on a job application, Patterson said, and you won’t get as many callbacks as an Anglo name. We’ve got the data to prove this sort of thing, she said, because of the very research that would be banned by Connerly’s initiative.
“I don’t mean to be flip,” said Patterson, “but the only way society is going to treat me in a colorblind manner is if I have a bag over my head.”
Jay Ziegler, co-director of a coalition working against Connerly’s initiative, says that for all its ethnic diversity, California has one of the nation’s widest income gaps between minorities and whites. He fears the initiative would put the kibosh on research into the whys, wherefores and remedies.
“Whether you look at health care, education or other public policy areas,” Ziegler said, “we’re leaving a substantial part of our population behind.”
Connerly acknowledges huge economic divides, but says blaming them on race only perpetuates race consciousness. He argues those disparities have less to do with race than with where people live, where they go to school and whether their parents attended college.
At this point, his critics slap their heads in frustration. Race, they argue, is a factor in all those things.
“It’s race-based, class-based, it’s geographic and linguistic, and we need to know what the problems are before we can know what the solutions might be,” says Los Angeles civil rights attorney Connie Rice. “We’ve made enormous progress. But race ... still creates real barriers, and it organizes society.”
Rice, who admires Connerly’s idealism, chuckled at the irony in the name of his measure -- the Racial Privacy Initiative.
“If race were private,” she said, “it wouldn’t be an issue.”
Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org