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Californians to Vote on Collecting Racial Identity Data


For the third time in the last decade, Californians will vote on a ballot question involving race and identity. California voters ended race-conscious decision making in state education, employment, and contracting with the controversial proposition 209. Since then state hasn't been able to use race and ethnicity data, but it's been keeping track of it anyway. Now supporters of a new ballot initiative say it's time to end that practice, too.

It's a very personal sense of harm that drives Ward Connerly to want to stop California from collecting racial data. Although he claims African American, Choctaw Indian, French and Irish ancestry, the LA businessman is often identified simply as Black. Mr. Connerly says he's been pigeonholed. And he wants it to stop.

"I have lived with this issue for 64 years and I can't ever think of a circumstance in which it was good that my government was asking me to identify with a group of people, most of whom I've never even met in my life," he said. "I've never understood the good in that."

Citing the need for racial privacy, Ward Connerly is the major backer of Prop. 54. He successfully campaigned to eliminate affirmative action in California in 1996 with Proposition 209. Although ethnic background may not be considered when someone applies for a job with the state of California, the application form nevertheless includes a question about ethnicity. There are 8 choices. For the University of California, there are 14, and 27 on applications for the state's other college system, California State University. More and more people like attorney Kevin Nguyen are refusing to choose any of the racial categories on state forms.

"I don't check 'em but if someone wants to eyeball me and guess my race, it's offensive, but that's what's currently happening," said Mr. Nguyen.

People are also selecting more than one box. In the last census, more than a million Californians claimed multiethnic backgrounds the most in the country.

State officials do use the information. California educators compile reports of how different ethnic groups do on standardized tests, and send them to the federal government as part of national programs. State officials would continue to do so in order to keep federal money, and to comply with federal law. But they couldn't use the information or state dollars for programs to reduce the performance gaps in classrooms.

That would be fine with Martha Montelongo, the daughter of Mexican immigrants. She is the first in her family to finish college. Now she has two teenagers in public schools. She supports Prop 54 because she says educators use race and ethnicity to hold children back.

"They say these Hispanics, they have a different cultural attitude towards education," said Ms. Montelongo. "That's a myth. Or that Hispanic parents aren't educated as a general rule. That's a myth. These are stereotypes and quotas or ethnic identification. Boxes help to perpetuate those myths."

But there are documented disparities among ethnic groups, even if the differences are due more to social and economic factors than to ethnicity. Spokesman Rick Miller says the Department of Education sees that clearly among the high school students who take the courses required for admission to state colleges.

"58 percent of Asian American high school graduates were eligible for admission, only 40 percent of white students, 25% of our African American, and 22% of our Latino graduates," he explained. "This is a significant difference between these different groups and we need to make sure all our kids are becoming eligible for CSU and UC [universities]."

Medical professionals are also concerned that their work could be restricted by Proposition 54. Dr. Carmen Nevarez, who works at the Public Health Institute in Berkeley, compares the measure to an information ban.

"The way science works is you compare one group to another," said Dr. Nevarez. "Race and ethnicity very much help to look at trends in disease, look at trends in prevention and without that piece of information there are lots of things that we wouldn't know."

Here's an example: using lots of different data - auto registration and drivers' licenses, birth and death records, voluntary surveys - doctors at the University of California concluded that Vietnamese women are particularly at risk for cervical cancer. They were then able to get a grant from the federal Centers for Disease Control to educate Vietnamese women about that risk, with meetings and TV ads.

"Vietnamese women, they really are a little shy and afraid that they don't really want to see the doctor and that's the problem," said Sara Nguyen.

Ms. Nguyen is in her thirties; she came here from Vietnam a dozen years ago. A few months ago she didn't even know what a Pap smear was.

"I did come to ... the doctor's office to take the Pap smear, and I am so happy because I am sure that I don't have any problems with uterus cancer," she said.

Public health officials say without the information gathered from state forms, they won't be able to reach people like Sara Nguyen. But racial privacy advocates says that data will still be available for medical research. It's possible the courts or the legislature will have to step in and clarify the initiative if it passes.

Proposition 54 could also affect police efforts to compile racial profiling data. Five years ago Mexican-American attorney Curtis Rodriguez saw the highway patrol pull over a lot of cars on Pacheco Pass, near San Jose.

"And it occurred to us that they looked to be all Mexicans or Hispanics and we thought this was outrageous because it looked to us as if they were just scooping up every Latino they could and just searching them," said Mr. Rodriguez.

Then Mr. Rodriguez himself was stopped, and he sued on behalf of all Latino drivers. Publicity from his class action suit spurred the California Highway Patrol to voluntarily keep statistics about its traffic stops, to ensure that its officers did not single out any specific group. But if the initiative passes, law enforcement agencies will be prohibited from doing that without a court order. Prop 54 supporter Ward Connerly says that, with the largest multiethnic population in the country, California doesn't need to keep track of racial categories anymore.

"Instinctively now, I think, most people don't believe in them," said Mr. Connerly. "We have created a culture of colorblindness whether they like it or not."

But attorney Curtis Rodriguez doesn't agree.

"Eventually that may be the case but that's not the case now," he said. "There are you know a lot of mixed ethnicities but that is far from saying that there aren't identifiable groups because there definitely are."

Support for the measure was high this summer but has dropped as it's gotten more publicity. The most recent survey found support and opposition evenly divided, at about 40 percent each. No matter what the outcome, it's doubtful this will be the last statewide debate on the issue. Backers of proposition 54 including Ward Connerly say they will continue to promote other ways to keep race out of California decision-making.

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