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VOTER GUIDE

Prop. 54: Coping With Race Distinctions

The initiative, which would bar state collection of many kinds of racial and ethnic data, is hotly debated. Backers look to a colorblind society; opponents fear damage to anti-discrimination efforts, among other things.

September 28, 2003|Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writer

It's the other hotly contested issue on the Oct. 7 ballot.

Along with a decision on the political future of Gov. Gray Davis, Californians will vote that day on Proposition 54, which would amend the California Constitution to stop the state from collecting and using most kinds of racial and ethnic data.

The initiative, though overshadowed by the gubernatorial recall, has nonetheless generated heated, occasionally bitter, debate about what many believe to be its potentially far-reaching effects.

The measure's chief sponsor and author, Sacramento businessman Ward Connerly, says it would propel the state toward a more colorblind society. Connerly, a University of California regent who helped lead successful campaigns at the university and statewide in the 1990s to end the use of affirmative action at state agencies, argues that classifying people by race and ethnicity is a holdover from the time of slavery and should have no place in 21st century society.

Connerly, whose own background is multiracial and multiethnic, points out that, like him, increasing numbers of Californians do not fit neatly into the race boxes on census and other government forms.

But opponents of Proposition 54, including civil rights activists, educators and public health researchers, say that, while the goal of a colorblind society is admirable, it is unlikely to be achieved simply by removing information about race and ethnicity from public records.

They contend that the measure, by suppressing such information, would undermine the state's hard-fought school reforms, make disease harder to track and treat, and hurt anti-discrimination efforts in the state.

"We'd all like to live in a society where race doesn't matter," Ramona Ripston, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said at an August rally against the proposition. "But this initiative ... will not end racial discrimination in this state. It will only hide it."

Proposition 54 would prohibit the state and other public entities, including local governments, colleges and universities, from classifying individuals on the basis of race, ethnicity, color or national origin. It has several exemptions that would allow the continued collection of data to comply with federal law, to establish or maintain eligibility for federal programs and for certain law enforcement and medical research purposes.

Supporters of the measure include former Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon, commentator George Will, research fellow Shelby Steele at Stanford's Hoover Institution and several state legislators. It has also been endorsed by the state Republican and Libertarian parties.

Although upstaged by the drama surrounding the gubernatorial recall, the measure, called the "Information Ban" by its critics and the "Racial Privacy Initiative" by supporters, has gained a heightened public profile in recent days as the two sides have begun airing broadcast advertisements and prominent politicians have made their positions known -- virtually all lining up against it.

Davis has come out strongly against the measure. Among the major candidates on the ballot to replace the governor, should he lose the recall, only one -- Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) -- is on record as supporting the initiative. The rest, including Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, the leading Democrat among the recall contenders, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the top Republican, have said they oppose it.

Bustamante, in a move later ruled illegal by a Sacramento judge, donated nearly $4 million he had received from Indian tribes and labor unions to pay for a series of television ads denouncing the proposition and boosting his own candidacy. In the ruling last week, the judge ordered Bustamante to return the contributions, but his campaign said the money had already been spent. The ads, it said, would remain on the air.

Meanwhile, the spots, which feature Bustamante, appear to be having an effect. Polls show that public support for the measure has slipped from a high of about 50% of respondents in July to about 40% in surveys this month.

Attorneys and analysts who have studied the language of Proposition 54 say its potential effects are not clear and would probably have to be resolved by the courts and Legislature if it passes.

But leading opponents, including law enforcement agencies, civil rights leaders, teachers and public health researchers, say the effects could be severe.

"The information it would ban is not what creates the discrimination that still exists in our society," said Maria Blanco, national senior counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

"What this information helps us do is identify these disparities so we can put solutions into effect," Blanco said.

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