A Misguided Proposition

With all the attention on the California recall, a dangerous initiative on the Oct. 7 ballot is getting relatively little press and going largely unnoticed. Proposition 54 -- named "Classification by Race, Ethnicity, Color, and National Origin" or CRECNO -- would prohibit state, county, and local governments from collecting or using data about an individual's race. At first glance, the initiative strikes many as benign or even beneficial. Yet in reality, Proposition 54 poses one of the most significant threats to the civil rights of Californians in recent history. If passed, it will have negative repercussions for all Californians, and will set a dangerous precedent for the rest of the nation.

The Proponents of 54 say they want us to move towards a color-blind society. Of course, we all want a society in which neither race, ethnicity, gender, nor any other trait determines how we're treated or what opportunities we have. But color-blindness, at least as the proponents of Proposition 54 envision it, will not get us there. The implicit logic of Proposition 54 is that if we cannot see the challenges presented by the issue of race, the challenges will go away. The reality is that they won't go away -- we simply won't have the data to identify and address them.

If it becomes law, Proposition 54 would hamstring public institutions across the board, making it impossible for state, county, and local agencies to collect or use demographic data that is critical to effective management of government services, including critical services like health care, education, and law enforcement. Under Proposition 54, wherever race or ethnicity is a factor, it would become difficult or impossible to recognize disparities, monitor progress, or tailor efforts towards populations being served. The result would be less efficient, less effective services, and in some cases, the elimination of programs that have been proven to be effective. For these reasons, a long list of health care, law enforcement, education and civil rights organizations have denounced the measure, as well as public officials at every level -- saying it's misguided, counter-productive, and dangerous.

The following are some examples of what Proposition 54 would do, should it become law (courtesy of the Leadership Council on Civil Rights):

Erode basic civil rights protections
If Proposition 54 is approved, victims of discrimination based on race and ethnicity will not have the data to meet court standards in proving racial discrimination when it comes to state employment, contracting, or housing. However, discrimination complaints on the basis of age, gender, and religion, could continue to be pursued, creating an unfair disparity among victims of discrimination. Further, without data on race and ethnicity in law enforcement, it would be nearly impossible to track and thereby prevent racial profiling in the state.

Hamper tracking of hate crimes
Proposition 54 would prevent the state attorney general and public agencies from prosecuting and tracking race and ethnicity-based hate crimes and therefore impede efforts to educate against hate. Also, under Proposition 54, the state Department of Justice could no longer require local police to collect data on victims and suspects, important data that can help solve crimes.

Impede public health protections and the elimination of disparities in health care delivery
Health conditions such as breast cancer, heart disease, infant mortality, and AIDS affect individuals differently depending on race or ethnicity. Racial and ethnic groups experience differences in treatment, have different rates of risk behavior, and respond to different methods and messages in important prevention programs ranging from lead poisoning, to teen smoking, to suicide. Although Proposition 54 includes some exemptions for health care data collection, public health prevention resources that are often carefully allocated to specific racial and/or ethnic groups would be severely impacted by Proposition 54. Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher states that "[W]ithout that data we could not even begin on a course toward eliminating disparities in health; we would not be able to measure our success or evaluate our objectives toward eliminating disparities. . . ."

Undermine school accountability
The collection of data and information is the centerpiece of California's Public School Accountability program, as it holds schools to two standards: general improvement, and improvement for students of different races and ethnic backgrounds. Therefore, racial data is a central part of the evaluation process and allows schools to determine the rates at which particular groups are improving so that resources may be targeted for the best overall improvement. Without this measurement data, schools would not be accountable to the goal of advancement and improvement among all students.

It's also worth noting that the person behind Proposition 54, Ward Connerly, the ultra-conservative who brought Proposition 209 to California, is being sued by the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), a non-partisan state agency, for refusing to disclose the donors who are backing him. It's the first time in the history of the FPPC that it has filed suit to force disclosure of campaign contributions before an election. What does it mean when people are willing to put their money behind something, but doesn't want the public to know who they are?

Connerly and friends are on a strange mission, backed by a silent minority that doesn't want to be named. And when you look at what the state would become in their perfect world, you can only wonder what they're really after. Despite what they say, it doesn't look like equal opportunity for all.

James Rucker is on the staff of MoveOn.org.

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