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UC Regents Reenter Racial Politics War

The board votes to oppose a measure on the March ballot that would stop California agencies from collecting most data on race.

May 16, 2003|Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Stepping once again into the charged arena of racial politics, University of California regents voted Thursday to formally oppose a state ballot measure sponsored by regent Ward Connerly that would stop the state from collecting most kinds of racial data.

UC President Richard C. Atkinson, joined by faculty leaders, had urged the university's governing body to oppose the initiative, saying it could hurt the institution's ability to conduct research, inform public policy and evaluate the effectiveness of its efforts to eliminate discrimination.

The vote -- 15 to 3 with board Chairman John Moores abstaining -- followed two hours of often impassioned debate. Some regents called on the board to step back from considering such politically volatile issues and others exhorted their fellows to take a stand, at least on this one.

"It's important to let voters know the potential effect of this initiative," said regent Monica Lozano, who urged the board to vote to oppose the measure.

As the lopsided tally was announced, students who had filled the board's basement auditorium at the Laurel Heights campus of UC San Francisco -- occasionally hissing at Connerly -- broke into applause and cheers.

Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson and state schools Supt. Jack O'Connell attended the session and urged a vote against the Connerly measure. All are regents by virtue of their elective offices.

"We should all say clearly and loudly that we are against this initiative," Bustamante said.

The vote was one of the first public tests of the controversial statewide initiative, which would bar the state and other public entities, including UC, from classifying people by race, ethnicity, color or national origin. Often called the Racial Privacy Initiative, the measure will be on the March ballot.

Coming two years after the repeal of the university's ban on affirmative action, a decision that allowed UC officials to step back for a time from the wrenching national debate over race-based preferences, the vote Thursday marked the regents' return to the sensitive issue of race.

Connerly, who championed the university's anti-affirmative action initiatives of the mid-1990s and helped lead the campaign for Proposition 209, the statewide initiative that barred racial and gender preferences for all public entities, appealed to the regents to endorse what he called a colorblind California.

He said his sponsorship of the measure stems in part from his experience as someone who is part black, part American Indian and part white.

Connerly urged the board to make "a common cause of eliminating America's horrible legacy of racism" and said the initiative's opponents risked "standing with the segregationists of the past in a belief that human beings should be divided, cataloged and subdivided" by race.

In response to concerns that the measure, if passed, would hurt medical research, Connerly also noted that the initiative has several exemptions. It would permit the collection of data to comply with federal law, to establish or maintain eligibility for federal programs, to prevent the loss of federal funds, and for medical research subjects and patients.

But opponents expressed fears that research on pressing medical and public health issues could be harmed nonetheless.

Jeremiah Mock, an assistant research scientist at UC San Francisco, told the regents that if it passes, the initiative could halt his research into the causes of the high rate of cervical cancer among Vietnamese American women.

That research is dependent on statistics collected by the state Department of Health Services, Mock said.

Jessica Quindel, a UC Berkeley graduate student in education, said she feared that passage of the initiative could hamper her research on how to improve the teaching of math to underrepresented minority students. "Please, please vote no on this information ban," she told the regents.

Gayle Binion, a UC Santa Barbara political science professor who heads UC's systemwide faculty organization, said research indicated that the measure "would be injurious to UC and to the state of California."

Regent George Marcus argued that UC should not weigh in on a political issue.

Marcus tried to postpone the vote indefinitely. When that failed, however, he voted with the majority in favor of the resolution.

Those voting against it were regents John Davies and Peter Preuss, along with Connerly. Moores, who last year held a fund-raising event for the initiative at his home, abstained in Thursday's vote, saying afterward that he considered it inappropriate to take a position on a political matter in his capacity as board chairman.

After the vote, Connerly said he believes the regents are out of touch with the state's mainstream voters.

"We may have lost touch with the regents, but we'll win at the ballot box next March," he said.

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