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The State | George Skelton CAPITOL JOURNAL

Connerly Initiative Makes Mistake By Censoring Data

September 11, 2003|George Skelton

SACRAMENTO — SACRAMENTO

Proposition 54 is seen differently by different folks. Backers behold it as another death blow to racial preferences.

Democratic pros, although opposing the measure, welcome it as a tool to prod the party faithful into voting in the recall and saving Gov. Gray Davis.

Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante is treating it like a casino jackpot. He's using it to launder Indian gambling donations -- too large to legally handle in his gubernatorial campaign -- into anti-54 TV ads intended to energize Latino voters and elect him.

But at its core, Prop. 54 is about shutting down information. It's about deeming certain information to be unnecessary -- even bad for people -- and preventing its collection.

The initiative was created by Ward Connerly, a University of California regent and Sacramento land use consultant. A black man of many races and ethnicities -- African, Choctaw, French, Irish, with a white wife and part-Vietnamese grandkids -- Connerly is pursuing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of a colorblind society.

In 1996, Connerly sponsored the landmark Prop. 209, which ended racial, ethnic and gender preferences in public contracting, hiring and university admissions -- or what people on the other side call affirmative action. The measure passed with 54% of the vote -- whites overwhelmingly for it; blacks, Latinos and Asians overwhelmingly against.

Now comes the much less contentious Prop. 54, which Connerly dubs the racial privacy initiative. It would prohibit state and local governments from collecting and using information on race, ethnicity or national origin in public contracting, hiring and education, among other operations. Since California governments no longer can provide racial and ethnic preferences, Connerly says, it doesn't need to collect the data.

Opponents counter that the information is still needed, among other reasons, so government can investigate racial discrimination.

Connerly asserts that we've still got a "17th century racial classification system." He contends that people in their private lives "can celebrate their identity all they want. But it's not the government's business to be asking them who their ancestors are.... There are 63 different racial categories acknowledged by the U.S. Census. That's truly idiocy.... Personally, I wouldn't have the census do it [collect racial data]."

But here he's proposing only a very modest, incremental step, Connerly says. There are several exemptions to allow data gathering, including information needed for medical research. Indeed, the nonpartisan legislative analyst says "it appears that this [health data collecting] activity might be allowed to continue."

It's all very murky, however, and definitely in dispute.

Some data might be collected because the federal government requires it -- at least it does currently. But it's not clear whether the state still could sort the numbers and analyze them.

The California Medical Assn. and several health groups oppose the measure, fearing a shut-off of research information -- data that help to learn, for example, why white women have a higher rate of breast cancer and Latinos are more likely to die from diabetes.

Law enforcement's also up in arms.

State Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer says the measure's bad for crime prevention. For instance, he says, "there are fewer and fewer murders of spouses. But for some reason in the last couple of years, there has been a very significant uptick of black women killing husbands or partners. We want to try to figure out what's going on ....

"I see a benefit in knowing that sort of thing. I don't see any benefit in not collecting the information."

Then there's the potential political impact of Prop. 54. Democratic pols are using it to fire up blacks and Latinos, trying to push them to the polls where, presumably, they'll reject the Davis recall.

"It's probably the only thing on the ballot that will catalyze African American voters," says Assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles). "They think of Prop. 54 as the son of Prop. 209. And they think of Connerly as an expletive."

Larry Grisolano, Davis' campaign manager, sees "great potential" in the measure attracting Latinos, especially with Bustamante planning to spend $3.8 million on anti-54 TV ads.

Meantime, Prop. 54 is slipping in the polls. In July, voters favored it by a large margin. Today, they're evenly divided, according to a new Field Poll. Both Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger oppose the measure.

Connerly figures the opposition will spend $6 million; the sponsors maybe $200,000, not including the $1.9 million cost of collecting signatures for the ballot. "But we're not quite to the point of throwing in the towel."

Lockyer says something that makes sense: "This has nothing to do with affirmative action, pro or con. This is about collecting information."

Prop. 54 rejects the American notion that the more people know, the better off they are -- the more equipped they are to participate in democracy. We need to know about our changing world and we don't want to guess. We need facts.

Striving toward a colorblind society does not mean closing our eyes to knowledge.

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