Colorblind or Just Blind?

One of my toddler son's favorite daycare providers is Betty. Betty is Chinese, but we've never discussed that, her appearance, or anything else about her. Nevertheless, when a little Asian boy he'd never seen before toddled up recently, my little guy patted the boy's hand and said, "Betty!"

Now, I think my son is brilliant and remarkable in many ways, but I have to acknowledge that in this case he's just confirming what psychological researchers have known for decades -- that people spontaneously categorize each other on a number of dimensions, including race, starting at a pretty early age. No training is required. We just do it. In fact, my son didn't even have a word for it. He just created a racial category and called it "Betty." He, like everybody else, is a categorizing machine. For better or worse, we're hardwired to do it, so we can tell the difference between things without too much effort.

Supporters of Proposition 54, the Racial Privacy Initiative, don't seem to understand this. They want us to vote on October 7 to pass this constitutional amendment barring state institutions from collecting information about people's race, ethnicity, color, or national origin, or even categorizing them on that basis. Their rationale is that by compelling the government to stop making these categorizations we will take a big step toward making ours a "colorblind" society. They provide no evidence to support this; no examples from around the world, no projections of reductions in discrimination or intergroup conflict. It's just a hunch. The initiative's Director of Policy and Planning, Justin Jones, recently said, "We put forward Proposition 54 as a challenge to Californians to think differently." One would hope for a stronger rationale for a constitutional amendment.

Ward Connerly, the chief sponsor of Prop. 54, recently wrote that he "urge(s) the people of California to view it as a call to begin wrestling with the growing imprecision of race as a method of categorization." This is based on the theory that "race" is an artificial and "social construct." This is a valid theory on which honest people can disagree. But honest people cannot dispute that, whatever their origins, perceptions of race lead to discrimination, and perceiving race categories is the norm. Passage of Prop 54 would hamstring the efforts of government agencies, researchers, and civil rights activists and attorneys to document and combat discrimination.

Perhaps Mr. Connerly is not concerned by this because he believes that the main perpetrators of discrimination are institutions, and institutions can be colorblinded. This seems consistent with his single-minded crusade against affirmative action.

If this indeed is his belief, he has it backward. In today's society we no longer allow quotas limiting entry to our public, or publicly funded, institutions. Discrimination by institutions is not due to formal policies that might, indeed, be inhibited by a racial information ban. Rather, it is due to the judgments that individual actors within institutions make -- the personnel officer relying on her race stereotypes about ability and conscientiousness; the mortgage lending agent making an assessment of the likelihood of repayment by a minority family; the highway patrolman making a traffic stop; the doctor deciding on a course of treatment or referral; the juror making an assessment of guilt.

These actors don't rely on systematically collected data from checked boxes on forms. They infer the categories based on someone's appearance (skin color) or name (Jamal Washington vs. Peter Schmidt). Maybe if your name is Ward Connerly, you can't fully appreciate this.

Still, it might be a good idea to send the message that racial categorization is wrong by preventing the government from doing it, except for three problems. First, as noted above, we can't help ourselves. Second, many people actually want their race, ethnicity, color, or national origin to be duly noted. Third, preventing the government from collecting this data would undermine efforts to combat discrimination. Even Tom Wood, Connerly's co-sponsor of Prop 209 (the ban on affirmative action), agrees with this. He opposes 54 because it would undermine enforcement of 209.

Although advocates of forced colorblindness offer no evidence in favor of their policy, there is empirical research demonstrating that it is an ineffective approach. Studies have shown that when you encourage people to adopt a multicultural (thinking explicitly about categories) mindset, they are significantly less likely to exhibit prejudice than when you encourage them to be colorblind or to suppress their stereotypes. We see categories; we can't help it, and it is better to recognize that and make the best of it.

From a policy analytic perspective, the Racial Privacy Initiative is an abomination. The idea that you can set and change policies that are beneficial to society with less information utterly defies logic. Obviously, government knowledge of our personal matters should be kept to a minimum, and the Prop 54 proponents knew this would resonate with voters when they dubbed it the Racial Privacy Initiative. But virtually all survey questions about race are optional. We're not talking about the FBI snooping around your recycling bin here. There is no racial privacy problem in California. And government knowledge of these categories does much more good than harm.

Sometimes, in a cynical exploitation of Martin Luther King's civil rights legacy, advocates of forced colorblindness quote his statement about how he had a dream that future generations, "will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." What they fail to add is that Dr. King also said, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that."

Jack Glaser is an assistant professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley and has a Ph.D. in Social Psychology.

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