Ward Connerly, the leader of the successful anti-quota Proposition 209 campaign that officially banned racial preferences in California government in 1996, is back with his Racial Privacy Initiative. This would prevent the state of California from collecting data on its citizens' racial or ethnic identities (although it allows sensible exceptions for medical research and the like).
The Racial Privacy Initiative would make it more difficult for the bureaucrats to carry on illegally discriminating by race in the name of affirmative action, since they couldn't demand that, say, University of California applicants check off race and ethnicity boxes. (Hopefully, the constitutional amendment would be interpreted to require that admissions officers could only be shown a number instead of a name for each applicant.) This data collection ban may seem like a minor obstacle to government officials intent on privileging some groups over others, but it could be startlingly effective. Consider how the otherwise powerful gay lobby has never won preferences for homosexuals—with no good data on what percentage of the population is homosexual, quotas for gays have been a nonstarter.
Connerly has collected enough signatures to put his RPI on the ballot in November, but not enough contributions to finance a first-rate campaign. (You can send him some financial help here.) So, he's attempting a delicate maneuver to delay the initiative from showing up on the ballot until March 2004 by submitting barely enough signatures to qualify. If California's Secretary of State Bill Jones has to take beyond the last week in June to certify that the minimum number of RPI signatures are valid, then Connerly gets the 21 month lead time he wants. If not, the RPI will be on this November's ballot.
Connerly certainly understands the politics better than I do, but I think his ballot measure might do surprisingly well even with an under-financed quickie campaign. Racial privacy is simply an intuitively appealing concept. In its first public opinion poll, the measure enjoyed a solid 48%-34% lead, even though 74% of the respondents had never heard of it before.
This movement appeals naturally to Connerly. He's always identified as a "black Republican," in part because he looks like a typical African-American. (The average self-identified African-American is 17%-18% white, while the average American white is 0.7% black, according to population geneticist Mark D. Shriver of Penn State. Only about 10% of adults who call themselves black are more than 50% white.) Connerly, however, makes no secret that he's only 25% black, with the rest of his ancestors white or American Indian. He even has grandchildren who, like Tiger Woods, are "Caublinasians" (Tiger's made-up word for people like himself who are Caucasian, black, Indian, and Asian). Not surprisingly, he finds racial categorization by governments viscerally distasteful.
Conservative intellectuals have not particularly warmed to the Racial Privacy Initiative, in part because it threatens to reduce the flow of free government-gathered data about race that us op-edsters find so convenient. Still, Connerly draws a persuasive analogy to the government's refusal to collect statistics on religion. During the Fifties, the Census Bureau announced plans to ask every American to check off his religion on the 1960 Census. Jewish groups strongly opposed this plan and it was eventually deep-sixed.
As a stat geek, I'd love to be able to download all the Census data sorted by religion. But as an American, I'm glad I can't. There are some huge disparities among the followers of the various religions in America, but we think about these differences much less than we think about differences among categories about which the government collects statistics. And that's good for American unity.
Still, there are a lot of people who'd like to see Connerly, a charismatic and commanding figure, run for the U.S. Senate in 2004 against the less than prepossessing Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer.
June 20, 2002