Racism, Ward Connerly, and Proposition 54

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 Hospitals, Nurses, and Doctors from taking 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 multi-ethnic, 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.

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