October 03, 2003,
California voters Tuesday will pick a winner in the surrealistic pillow fight for the governor's office. They also may bring the ideal of colorblindness closer to reality.
Proposition 54, the California Racial Privacy Initiative, occupies a quiet corner on the boisterous recall ballot. With limited exceptions, RPI would forbid state and local governments from ethnically classifying residents for public education, employment, or contracting. Although it has been overshadowed by the gubernatorial brawl, RPI enjoys surprising support among the Golden State's minority voters.
The 2003 Multilingual Survey of California Voters found that every ethnic group polled favors RPI. Hispanics endorse it 46 percent to 33 percent. Asian-descended voters are pro-RPI, 42 percent to 40, while blacks back it, 41 percent to 33. Whites, interestingly enough, support RPI 31 percent to 25 with a hefty 44 percent undecided.
Still, as Miami-based pollster Sergio Bendixen told the Sacramento Bee: "Mathematically, it is impossible for Proposition 54 to be defeated unless minorities oppose it." Bendixen's private company interviewed 1,608 voters between September 6-16 in Cantonese, English, Korean, Mandarin, Spanish, and Vietnamese.
"This poll gives me hope that a broad coalition of individuals can think outside the box and reject the racialist company line," says San Franciscan Kevin Nguyen, RPI's official proponent and a Saigon native whose father spent six months in a Vietcong reeducation camp. Nguyen recalls placing a Buddha pendant in his mouth to hide it from pirates as he and his parents fled Vietnam in a rickety boat. He laments that America historically has used racial data to oppress Chinese railroad workers, jail Japanese Americans during World War II and "most recently to suppress the number of Americans of Asian descent in our public and private colleges and universities."
Martha Montelongo Myers, a Monterey radio host and RPI advocate, believes Hispanic support for Prop. 54 parallels her experience. She remembers how upset her Mexican-born father became when she returned from school near Los Angeles with racially nosy paperwork. "He always said: 'Why are they asking? What difference does it make? It's none of their business.' Then he just checked the 'white' box."
"I can't think of anyone more 'American' than black people, one of our oldest populations," says Joe Hicks, a 1960s Black Power activist and RPI supporter in Los Angeles. "Blacks have a vested interest in voting against the notion that they are members of a group, rather than individuals."
RPI sensibly would permit racial-data collection for medical research, police identification, and compliance with court orders and federal law. That aside, it dramatically would diminish race-obsessed policies that teem with difficulties, among them, defining who belongs to which ethnic group. Intermarriage and mixed children have rendered ethnic taxonomy nearly unworkable.
One attempted fix is detailed self-identification. However, this produces box-covered government forms that resemble crossword puzzles. The U.S. Census Bureau now lets Americans fill however many boxes they wish so they may describe their ethnicity almost molecularly. This has produced 126 official skin tones including this hyper-diverse shade: "White-Black-Asian-American Indian or Alaska Native-Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander-Some Other Race."
How could anyone measure whether someone of that heritage felt more discrimination than, say, a "Black-Alaska Native-Pacific Islander-Hispanic?" (Inconceivable? I happen to be a black American with a Scottish surname and roots that burrow from Costa Rica, Jamaica, and Martinique clear through to India and China.)
Even worse, some bureaucrats add racial labeling to their duties. New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein fell into hot water last month when he directed principals to judge the backgrounds of mothers and fathers who lead local parent associations.
"You should provide the information to the best of your knowledge based on your own visual identification," said Klein's September 18 memo to school principals. "If you are uncertain about a person's race or ethnicity, or if a person appears to be of mixed race, please indicate 'other.'"
The RPI could doom such un-American nonsense from coast to coast. Prop. 54 could help unite us as citizens rather than keep us divided into increasingly meaningless micro-categories based on skin color, hair thickness, or the angles at which our eyes see the world. The beautiful irony is that California's voters of color may lead a new American march toward colorblindness.