A Shameful Proposition

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Call it the Schwarzenegger effect. Reporters and pundits across the country have been pumping out hundreds of column inches about California’s upcoming special election. But, while the Terminator, the Governor, and even Gary Coleman have been getting plenty of press, a controversial ballot initiative is just beginning to draw national attention.

The all-but-overlooked measure — Proposition 54 — directs the state to eliminate the collection of racial data in areas like education and public employment (police, though, are exempt). But is the ballot measure (strategically named the “Racial Privacy Initiative”) anything more than just another attack on the fragile legacy of the Civil Rights movement?

The answer to that question might be found in the folks fighting for Prop. 54.

The measure is the brainchild of Ward Connerly, a University of California regent who argues that racial categorization reinforces social inequality. Of course, this isn’t the first time that Connerly has hitched his agenda to a ballot initiative; he was the driving force behind Prop. 209, the 1996 ballot initiative that banned the use of affirmative action in California’s public universities. And the same cadre of ultra-conservative affirmative-action haters that lined up behind Connerly seven years ago is back to fight for Prop. 54.

Among the voices hailing Connerly and his ‘colorblind campaign’ is Woody West, associate editor of Insight on the News, the rampantly right-wing magazine published by the stridently conservative owners of The Washington Times. West, recycling the familiar rhetoric of the anti-affirmative-action crusade, declares that passage of Prop. 54 will be nothing less than “another victory against state-sponsored discrimination.” His rant begins:

“One day when the last neo-Marxist professor has been retired from a public university, when the last ‘diversity’ trainer and the last “multicultural facilitator” have been told to vacate their cubbyholes by sundown, and when the American Association of University Women reluctantly announces it no longer will issue its scathing annual report on how the nation’s schools discriminate against females because 75 percent of undergraduate degrees are being awarded to women — on that glorious day — there should be a cheer for Ward Connerly.”

That cheer won’t come from the members of the Los Angeles City Council, however; the council voted unanimously last week to oppose the measure. And it won’t come from the editorial board of the San Jose Mercury News, either. In a scathing editorial, the Mercury News declares that Connerly’s creation will “cripple efforts to fix racial inequities.”

“On its face, Proposition 54 sounds like a legitimate move to protect personal privacy rights. It’s not. It’s a short-sighted attempt to deny California’s new reality as a multi-racial society and would hamper a host of agencies working to end discrimination.

… Supporters of Connerly’s plan say it would take race out of the equation and move us closer to a color-blind society, starting with our government. The idea is to make race irrelevant.

But race matters.”

Steven Rosenfeld of TomPaine.com strikes a similar note. But Rosenfeld also sees a dangerous “rhetoric-versus-reality” dynamic at play in California. As they did in 1996, he writes, supporters of Prop. 54 are “using the language and emotion of the civil rights movement to eliminate the very tool that the state uses to measure progress on racial issues: its own data.”

“‘Ward Connerly envisions a perfect world, where there’s equal access to education and hate crimes don’t exist,’ said state Assemblyman Mark Leno at the “vote-no” campaign’s opening rally. ‘Ward Connerly lives in a dream world, but we live in California.’

‘This initiative is dangerous. It’s irresponsible. It’s deceptive,’ said Rep. Barbara Lee, (D-Calif.), at the same San Francisco rally. ‘This is a multi-racial democracy.’

‘We have said the initiative and language is deceitful and misleading,’ said Paul Turner, a steering committee member. ‘It is a mockery of the civil rights movement. It’s intended to appeal to mainstream white voters that this is something they can support and feel good about, without any guilt or responsibility to be inclusive on racial matters.’

‘Once people read this [ballot measure], they don’t bother to educate themselves,’ he said. ‘People want to believe it, but it’s not true.'”

One of only a few pundits outside the Golden State to take notice, Miriam Pepper of The Kansas City Star writes that the self-deluding debate around Prop. 54 is “another case where conservatives have outwitted liberals in the word game to frame public issues.” But Pepper argues that the right-wing wordsmithing can’t hide the real intent of the initiative.

“Goals of a colorblind society, equal opportunity and fairness are words that have been recast by those who argue the level playing field is here.

It’s not. In little-discussed ways, race remains our nation’s great divide.

Those who recognize that the level playing field is not as flat as Kansas also recognize that stripping away the ability to gather racial data is a perfect way to avoid the topic of racial inequities. Proposition 54 backers argue that enough exemptions exist to permit medical research, and there is leeway for the state legislature to add more exemptions. Medical associations and civil rights groups disagree.

The nice ring of ‘Racial Privacy’ can’t disguise what’s still true: We are not yet a colorblind society and we won’t get there by burying the facts.”

Predictably, Connerly and his supporters aren’t backing down. But support for the initiative is slipping. According to a survey released last week by the Field Poll, 46 percent of likely California voters said they would vote yes on Prop 54, while 35 percent said they would vote now. Both numbers show the gap narrowing. In July, more than half of those surveyed said they would vote yes, and only 29 percent said they would vote no.

And Connerly is facing a slew of new questions about the money behind his campaign. As Jim Sanders of The Sacramento Bee reports, “Unlike other ballot measures, the Yes on 54 campaign has been funded largely through a single nonprofit group — Connerly’s American Civil Rights Coalition — whose individual donors are not disclosed.”

“Of $1.87 million contributed by proponents since 2001, $8 of every $10 has come from Connerly’s nonprofit agency, according to records filed with the state through Friday.

Opponents of Proposition 54 say voters, set to cast ballots Oct. 7 as part of the recall election, are being deprived of key information that could sway their vote.

‘They have a right to know if this campaign is being financed by the extreme right in American politics — and we have no way to find out,’ said Jay Ziegler, co-director of the No on 54 campaign.”



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