Jewish World Review August 6, 2001 / 17 Menachem-Av, 5761

Clarence Page

Clarence Page
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Consumer Reports

Not ready for 'color-blindness' yet -- WARD Connerly says he wants to get rid of racial classifications, but he really doesn't.

At least, he didn't sound like he did in a recent telephone conversation I had with the California businessman and famous foe of affirmative action.

Connerly, you will recall, gained national fame with his successful campaign to pass California's anti-affirmative action "Proposition 209" five years ago. Now, the founder of the American Civil Rights Coalition is taking his crusade for "color-blind" government a giant step further:

He is trying to put an initiative on California's November, 2002, ballot that will get rid of what he calls "those silly little boxes" on state government forms that ask for your race.

If the national fallout from Prop 209 is any guide, a victory for his new "Racial Privacy Initiative" could start a snowball of similar measures in other states.

Connerly sounds like a lot of other grumpy voices I have heard across this great land of ours when he says, "It seems like every time we fill out a government form, the government wants to know, 'What are you?' 'What's your race?,'" he said. "Why should it matter to the government?"

Why? I'll tell you why. Race matters to the government because racism still matters.

In fact, Connerly seems to answer his own question in his proposed law. As proposed, the law would not apply to California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing, which enforces anti-discrimination laws.

The law would also exempt medical researchers and law enforcement officers who use race to carry out normal duties, including where to put prisoners and assign undercover officers. It also would have no effect on any existing court orders or consent decrees.

That's why, with exemptions like that, Connerly sounds to me like he doesn't really want to get rid of racial classifications.

As much as he hates "racial preferences" and "this silly labeling of people," he is not so naïve as to believe racial discrimination is no longer a problem. That's why, if labels are necessary to protect equal opportunity, he's in favor of it, he says, at least for a few more years.

So what's his big complaint? It's those racial labels and "boxes." He's fed up with other people telling him who he is. "Frankly, I don't think my race is any of the government's business."

But of course it is. Connerly may call his proposal a "Racial Privacy Initiative," but if race could be a "private" matter, racism wouldn't be an issue.

I agree with Connerly that the growth in interracial marriages, especially in California, and of individuals who identify as "mixed-race," is encouraging. America is moving in the right direction, but slowly.

Connerly, for example, thinks of himself as mixed-race, he says, but, "If I talk about my Irish heritage, whites laugh and blacks accuse me of trying to be white."

I sympathize with him. Everyone should have the right to call themselves what they want to. But the government, acting on decades of legislation and court decisions, doesn't really care about what we call ourselves. It is more concerned with what others see when they see us.

As a group, mixed-race people have a lot of growing to do to make racial labels obsolete. Despite the growing number of exceptions, most Americans still put themselves in one racial category or another.

In the latest census, for example, when Americans were able for the first time to check more than one race, only 5 percent of blacks selected more than one race. That's twice as high as the bureau's demographers projected, but it's still pretty low.

Such data about race satisfies more than what Connerly bemoans as idle curiosity. It helps to clear up widespread misperceptions that serve to divide Americans even more.

In one recent example, a poll by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University found between 40 percent and 60 percent of white Americans incorrectly believe that blacks now are as well off as whites in terms of their jobs, incomes, schooling and health care.

In fact, blacks have narrowed the gap but still lag significantly behind whites in all of those areas. Blacks, for example, are still about twice as likely as whites to be unemployed, hold lower-paying jobs and lack health insurance. But perceptions that blacks and other non-whites have closed the economic and opportunity gap with whites can lead to more racial divisions, not less.

We Americans need to face our changing racial times with healthy debate and argument based on as much information as possible. As long as color counts, we have to take color into account.

Comment on JWR contributor Clarence Page's column by clicking here.


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