Lost in the sea of
interest in the Gray Davis recall election is California Proposition 54,
also known as the Racial Privacy Initiative. It is a citizen initiative
designed to prevent the State of California and its political subdivisions
from collecting racial data on job applicants, college admissions, and so
on. Presumably, the data has been kept for statistical purposes, but
this type of data has also been used on occasion to support allegations of
race-based discrimination of one sort or another.
For some reason, one of the most vehement critics of the measure whom I have
encountered is a Vietnamese American. In his diatribes against Proposition
54 he has gone as far as to compare Mr. Connerly to Adolf Hitler, to contend
that it “will destroy all ethnic minorities,” “prevent the Hospitals, Nurses,
and Doctors to take care of people when they get sick,” and “will exterminate
all ethnic minorities identity for your family amusement.” If this is not
enough, he goes on to say that it will take away race, ethnicity, and cultural
identity today, and brainwash children’s minds tomorrow. Somehow this
seems a pretty tall order, even for legislation sponsored by Mr. Connerly,
but it seems that this critic is serious, based on the number and intensity
of the items emanating from his desk.
I have always wondered how an ethnic minority could be turned into a racist.
It seems the way to do this is to have him (or her) sponsor something clearly
anti-racist and then make it look as if his attempt to make government colorblind
would actually do the reverse. Or better still, accuse him of trying
to destroy the identities of minorities, including his own. Of course,
this could not happen if we all looked at each other as Americans, and not
as hyphenated people. As for Connerly’s own view, he says that the
number of multiethnic, multiracial Americans make those "silly little boxes"
on official forms irrelevant.
Of course, there are a lot of loopholes for anyone to exploit if they are
personally ignorant, or can bank on public ignorance to do the job for them.
For example, take the contention that this measure would prevent minorities
from receiving medical care, or medical researchers from having proper information.
Look closely at the text of the bill, and nowhere will you see anything about
limiting health care for anyone. Besides, any good doctor or nurse
will not ask a person’s skin color as a basis for taking care of them. And,
after having reviewed probably close to ten thousand medical files over the
years, ranging from asbestos injuries to kidney transplants to car accidents,
it is obvious that even if there is no racial “check box” on the hospital
admission form, a doctor in the course of his or her notes on the case is
going to indicate the patient’s racial background for precisely the reason
that it might be relevant to researchers or for other reasons. Subpart (f)
of the measure states, “Otherwise lawful classification of medical research
subjects and patients shall be exempt from this section.”
However, this is small potatoes compared to the contention that Connerly
is out to destroy ethnic or other minorities. For years there have
been ethnic minorities of all sorts in America. Many Asians are often
quick to point out that they cannot all be grouped together. In fact,
many have pent up historical animosities, some dating back centuries, and
some only as far back 1945. By the same token, so called “white-Americans”
are made up of distinct subgroups. As Nathan Glazer and former US Senator
Daniel Patrick Moynihan pointed out in “Beyond the Melting Pot,” discrimination
was rife among the various white ethnic groups, leading to people with similar
backgrounds crowding together and in some cases using their cultural or ethnic
ties to obtain jobs. Lest anyone forget, this is how the Irish cop
in the city of New York became a cliché. It wasn’t so long ago
that white on white slurs such as “Mick,” “Spick,” or “Wop,” were commonplace.
Just check out the 1970’s film “Breaking Away,” in which the father becomes
incensed when his son uses what he refers to as “Itie talk” when he calls
the family cat Felini.
Actually, the critic of Connerly has very little to complain about.
Asian Americans have probably been the least discriminated against of any
racial group in the United States. Possibly their will to perform intellectually
and professionally has something to do with it. They came here, in
many cases with just the clothes on their backs, and arrived at Angel Island
just as the Europeans arrived at Ellis Island, and set to work washing clothes,
running restaurants, building the railroads, and other work few people wanted
to do. European immigrants sacrificed so that they could point to “my
son the doctor.” The Asians did the same, and many are still doing
it. Most of them don’t seem to care a fig about discrimination because
they have seen that it only holds them back when they let it. The results
show up in a recent Manhattan Institute study, “Public High School Graduation
and College Readiness Rates in the United States,” authored by Jay P. Greene
and Greg Forster. That study found that the 2001 American high school
graduation rate for white students was 72%, but for Asian students it was
79%. The college readiness rate for white students was 37%; for Asian
students, 38%. Not bad for a minority suffering from discrimination.
It wasn’t so long ago that I had a discussion with a high school student
about another Connerly initiative, Proposition 209. The student believed
that 209 was a bad idea because it would eliminate preferential treatment
for ethnic minorities seeking admission to the University of California system.
The facts were simple: she sported a 4.0+ GPA, had taken several advanced
placement classes and even some junior college courses to enrich her high
school program. Her SAT score was exemplary. Still, she had to
wait a term to enter Berkeley because of the intense competition. It
didn’t take her long to realize that she was better off not having to compete
against people who received extra credit because of their skin color.
She had to agree that it was only fair that people who worked hardest and
achieved the most should get first crack at the best schools.
As for Ward Connerly, I really don’t know if he would be where he is today
without affirmative action. Certainly he wasn’t appointed a UC Regent
based on his skin color. However, what he and others like him know
is that Martin Luther King Jr. was working for exactly the type of world
encompassed by the principles of Proposition 54. A world where color
does not matter, except in those rare situations where genetics may make
a difference that is more than skin deep.
Steven Laib is a practicing attorney.