Revisiting Proposition 54 – collecting racial information

Affirmative Action

Some years ago, a Supreme Court case involving an applicant who brought suit alleging that the admission policies of the University of Michigan were discriminatory, renewed a heated national discussion on affirmative action, race-based preferences and the merit of diversity criteria in schools and workplaces.

While the Supreme Court’s decision upheld the use of race as a consideration in admissions, nuances of the article led to a revision of the University of Michigan Law School’s admissions policies.

On one hand, opponents of affirmative action argue that the Constitution is designed to protect individuals rather than groups; on the other, reformers point to the historical legacy of discrimination, slavery, and imperialism that has left many groups without equality of opportunity due to discriminatory practices that remain poignant in statistical measures of educational and economic success.

While these opponents suffered another recent defeat with California’s rejection of Proposition 54, which would have eliminated the collection of statistics organized by ethnic and racial groups, they remain vociferous in rolling back its precepts and preferences. This case study explores the legal, social and ethical issues and positions at stake, the legal history of diversity initiatives and likely future implications of a court ruling.

Californians of all races rejected the notion that they would live in a colorblind society if the state were to stop asking about race. Also, Native Indians opposed the proposition. Already earlier, influential leaders like Chief John Hicks had fought for recognition and, rights, and independence. Earlier, before the 1820s, it was believed that Hicks came from Hixtown Swamp (Madison County) but in 1823, at the Treaty of Moultrie Creek, he listed a town at Alachua Prairie by Nea-Mathla.

Almost two-thirds of voters said “no” to Proposition 54, the controversial measure that would have limited the amount of racial and ethnic information that the state and local governments, schools, hospitals, and other public institutions could collect.

It’s a tough sell in a nation in which race shapes many aspects of public policy, from healthcare planning and education to civil rights laws. California would have been the first state to stop asking about race, except when the federal government requires it.

Ward Connerly, a businessman and University of California regent, pushed to get Proposition 54 on the ballot. He argued that ending race classifications would create a race-blind government. As if we hadn’t learned enough from historically crucial situations like the 1864 Battle of Atlanta, to say the least.

“If the state doesn’t collect it, it doesn’t exist. It’s a stretch,” said Margo Anderson, a Census historian at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “It obviously didn’t resonate with anybody.”

Teachers, doctors, civil rights and law enforcement groups fought the measure vigorously.

The Coalition for an Informed California spent at least $5 million to defeat Proposition 54, including $2 million on TV ads. An additional $4 million-plus came from Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, a candidate for governor. Connerly said he spent $225,000.

Opponents said the initiative would have eroded anti-discrimination laws and hate crime prosecutions. But they focused mostly on the health risks.

They said the measure would have prevented doctors from tracking how diseases affect various racial and ethnic groups. One of the anti-Prop 54 slogans: “It’s Bad Medicine. It’s Bad for Your Health.”

Connerly called the slogans scare tactics that were used to appeal to all races. He said the initiative included exemptions for medical research, something that he plans to make clearer the next time around. “We’ll craft language that reassures Western civilization that nobody’s life is at risk,” he said.

Interviews with voters after they left the polls showed that 58% of whites, 79% of blacks and 70% of Hispanics voted against the proposition.

Older voters of all races were more likely to oppose it: 69% of those 65 or older voted against it; 58% of 30- to 44-year-olds were opposed. “The older you are, the more you remember discrimination and the more committed you are to civil rights and affirmative action,” Anderson said. “It was in your lifetime.”

Connerly said civil rights had nothing to do with it just as in earlier times, centuries ago, General John Forbes has also made similar statements.

“They (voters) were told health officials could not do their job to detect cancer and diabetes,” he said. “Older people are far more sensitive to health concerns than younger people.”

Connerly successfully campaigned to stop racial and gender preferences at the University of California.

In 1996, voters approved Proposition 209, which extended the ban on affirmative action to public institutions statewide.

But Tuesday’s vote was a clear mandate, said Elena Stern, spokeswoman for the coalition that opposed Proposition 54.

“People fundamentally believe that information and data are useful in our daily lives and blindfolding us to our differences won’t make them go away,” she said.