Ask Dr. Clemmons is a monthly advice column for scientists and engineers who are seeking top-notch academic, career, and personal development advice. Please read the introductory article and my most recent article to see what the column is all about, and then send me a question of your own!

Q:

Dear Dr. Clemmons: I am a white student at one of the University of California (UC) campuses and I recently heard about the "Racial Privacy Initiative" that is being proposed for the March 2004 general election ballot in California by UC Regent, Ward Connerly. Although I consider myself quite liberal, I do not understand why some students are upset about this new initiative. It seems to me to be a step in the right direction since most of us want to live in a colorblind society. Can you please tell me what all the fuss is about? Won't everyone benefit by avoiding the use of stigmatizing labels? Dumbfounded in the UC System

Dear Dumbfounded:

I am well aware of the Racial Privacy Initiative that is being championed by UC Regent, Ward Connerly, and I applaud you for giving this important topic some serious thought. I am happy to shed some light on the subject and assist you in deciding which way to vote based on the initiative's merits. More importantly, I hope to help you understand why some of your peers may already have decided to reject the ideas and people behind this carefully crafted proposal.

Before I get to that, though, here's an important procedural note: The Racial Privacy Initiative will now appear on the 7 October 2003 California election ballot due to the planned recall of California Governor Gray Davis and not on the March 2004 ballot as initially scheduled.

For those of you not familiar with the Racial Privacy Initiative, a PDF file of the full text can be found here. In addition, you may want to check out the initiative's official Web site, which is here. Put simply, the main thrust of the Racial Privacy Initiative is to prohibit the State of California from classifying any individual by race, ethnicity, color, or national origin in public education, public contracting, or public employment. However, the initiative would exempt data collected for medical research, in descriptions of prisoners or crime suspects, and in cases where the federal government requires that agencies report racial data.

Connerly, by the way, is not only the initiative's champion; he thought it up, along with Proposition 209, which has banned the use of race in college admissions and government contracting in California since 1996. Indeed, you should be aware that Connerly's latest foray into the contentious arena of race and influence is widely viewed as an extension of Proposition 209. It has even been dubbed the Son of 209 by some groups.

As you alluded in your question, the idea of racial privacy and eliminating checkboxes for race on all government forms seem relatively harmless and may even represent a step toward achieving a colorblind society. However, upon further consideration, you may begin to realize that even if the intent of the initiative is to help Californians (and eventually the entire U.S. population) become increasingly colorblind, the actual outcomes could be very different and may possibly have quite the opposite effect.

You don't have to take my word for it. The majority of the UC Regents themselves do not support the initiative. As staff writer Kelly St. John outlined in an article that appeared in the 16 May issue of the San Francisco Chronicle, the regents voted by 15-3 to reject the initiative because they feared it might impede basic research and limit the university's ability to gauge the effectiveness of its admissions and outreach efforts. One regent, Tom Sayles, stated, "We still value diversity, but if we don't know who our students are, how will we know how we are doing?" UC Berkeley student Mo Kashmiri, who's comments were also reported in the Chronicle article, said he fears passage of the initiative will make it harder to track the progress of the university's efforts to diversify its student body. Since Proposition 209 passed, the UC minority student population has continued to decline; a state of affairs that has had a significant impact on minority students presently attending UC campuses. St. John goes on to say, "As one student of color told me, 'they already removed our bodies from campus. Now they want to remove the evidence.' "

Although the concerns of the majority of the regents are valid, the bigger concern in my view is that this initiative may allow public employers, schools, and contractors to evade accountability for meeting the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This important piece of legislation required equal access to public places, outlawed discrimination in employment, and significantly alleviated the plight of minorities and women in the U.S. It is alarming to think that someone might try to circumvent this law. However, that is exactly what might happen if the Racial Privacy Initiative passes in California.

It's like this: If the state is prohibited from collecting racial data, it will be impossible to determine whether racial discrimination is taking place in a systematic manner. For example, if you have reason to believe a pattern of discrimination exists in the awarding of contracts to minority businesses at the state level, this initiative would make it impossible to document; therefore, "legally" hiding discrimination.

Equally alarming to me are the exceptions that are made in the initiative for collection of racial data when it comes to descriptions of prisoners or crime suspects. I believe this exception keeps minorities vulnerable to abuse in the criminal justice system. In a country where racial profiling is often practiced but deemed deeply problematic, why aren't the supporters of the racial privacy initiative against the targeting of ethnic minorities as criminals simply based on their race? In addition, I must say at the risk of causing an uproar, that this is a particularly sensitive topic in communities that have been affected by post-9/11 paranoia. I am quite sure that Arab and Muslim Americans would not want to continue to be harassed due to their race or religion, or denied adequate health care initiatives based on ethnicity in their communities.

Which brings me to the provision that exempts medical research from the initiative. This exemption applies only to private medical records and "public health experiments that call for volunteer subjects of a certain racial background." Forget research for a moment. ... What about access to health care? Almost a third of Latino children and 41% of nonelderly adult Latinos are uninsured in California, according to the Latino American Medical Association. The Racial Privacy Initiative's medical research exemption fails to address these social concerns--as well as the impact on large-scale research projects and surveys that depend on state agencies for data on race and ethnicity. Despite the current discrepancies between resources allotted to communities of color and those allotted to whites, researchers would be unilaterally forced to overlook race as a factor in health care if the Racial Privacy Initiative passes.

For more information about the groups that oppose this initiative, please see the box to your right.

Organizations and Individuals That Oppose the Racial Privacy Initiative

For a more extensive listing, please click here.

Many individuals and organizations support the Racial Privacy Initiative, and in fairness, you should also hear what the other side has to say. In their view, the initiative serves to help eliminate "racial quotas" and race-based affirmative action programs. Proponents of the initiative also say government inquiries about race, ethnicity, and national origin are as intrusive and inappropriate as questions about religion and sexual orientation. They conclude that the proposed changes would actually help to put an end to discrimination.

For example, a CalNews.com Web site article written by Stuart H. Hurlbert, professor of biology at San Diego State University, states that the Racial Privacy Initiative is one of the best, fairest, wisest, and most far-seeing initiatives that will ever be put before California voters. Hulbert declares that although racial data have been used occasionally in hiring practices, they've never been used to fight discrimination or even to enforce Proposition 209. He presumes, therefore, that any racial data currently being gathered aren't being used effectively, so why continue to gather them?

You might also want to take a look at the reader's guide to the Racial Privacy Initiative that appears on The Abolitionist Examiner, a publication of the American Civil Rights Coalition. Here, you will find a summary of most of the arguments in favor of the initiative. In addition, please take a look at the list of supporters of the initiative to your left and see who else believes that it is the right way to go.

Organizations and Individuals That Support the Racial Privacy Initiative

See the initiative's official Web site for more information and links.

Lastly, I would like to remind you and MiSciNet's other readers that although the initiative is going to be on the 7 October 2003 ballot only in the state of California, its content should be of interest to all Americans. After all, it's not unheard of for ideas that have their start in California to spread to the rest of the country.

Again, I appreciate your bringing this issue to the forefront and I look forward to a lively debate on this topic on the MiSciNet Advisor thread on Next Wave's forums!

--Dr. Clemmons