Behind the debate about racial data, there are real people who are profoundly affected by the racial categorization system that exists throughout the nation -- and that Proposition 54 seeks to change in California. I have met many of them, but one example particularly impressed me.
A young man and his wife were in the delivery room of a California hospital rejoicing in the birth of their first child. As they held their newborn, a nurse entered the room with a form that she asked them to complete. Sitting on the side of the bed, the husband examined the form and came to a section where the "race" of their child was elicited. He found a worksheet providing a number of government classifications from which they could choose. Three seemed applicable: black, Chinese and "other," but they didn't like the choices.
What were they supposed to do?
This is not a hypothetical story. It was recounted to me about two years ago by the father, who was not only frustrated, he was angry that the government had injected itself into his family at the moment of his daughter's birth and forced them to make a choice about their child's identity.
"Obviously, my wife and I don't care about race; if we did, we wouldn't be married. And, if it doesn't matter to us, why should it matter to anybody else, including the government? When we sat in that hospital room and had to choose between her Chinese ancestry and my mixed ancestry to identify our daughter, we didn't know what to do. We were confused and we wondered whether our daughter would be any different if we checked black instead of Chinese or the other way around; and we were not about to check 'other.' She's a human being; not an 'other.' "
In a multiracial society such as California, scenes like this take place every day. 4-H Clubs are required to obtain racial information in order for children to participate in county fairs; school districts require that our kids be racially classified to preserve the "racial balance" of specific schools; job applicants are asked to "voluntarily" identify their race; contractors submitting bids on public jobs are asked to, again "voluntarily," reveal their race; and California Highway Patrol officers are required to complete a form noting the race of drivers whom they stop.
Some public agencies allow individuals to check only one race box, while others allow multiple choice. Some have five options, others more. The U.S. Census Bureau allows individuals to check as many as they want -- there are 63 race categories and one ethnic group, Mexican American/Hispanic. If multiple boxes are checked and one is "black," the individual is tabulated as "black," regardless of how many others are checked. Sorry about that, Tiger Woods.
This system is arcane, crude, arbitrary and immoral. Whether the original goal was to place a quota on the number of Jews who could attend college, to keep "Negroes" in their place, to intern Americans of Japanese descent or to disburse preferences so that Asians and whites would not overpopulate our more selective campuses, our system of government categorization has always fragmented the human family.
Proposition 54 seeks to prohibit "the state from classifying, categorizing and profiling" its citizens on the basis of race, color, ethnicity or national origin in public education, public contracting and public employment. This measure contains a number of reasonable, but significant, exemptions for all forms of medical research subjects and medical patients, law enforcement and federal mandates.
Although opponents of Proposition 54 have irresponsibly made public health the centerpiece of their desperate campaign to preserve racial categories, the legislative analyst of California, countless lawyers and others have underscored the medical exemption. The plain language in "Clause (f)" of the proposition makes it abundantly clear that this initiative does not apply to collecting medical and health-related data. The tumultuous civil rights movement did not have as its objective the preservation of racial data; it was a battle to acknowledge the God-given human dignity of every person and the right to be treated as an individual, not a racial statistic. To those who still embrace this ideal but who say "we are not there yet," I ask: "If not now, when?"
Those who believe that the government should be as blind to a person's race as it is to their sexual orientation or their religion should support Proposition 54.