See No Evil: Bans on Racial Data Collection Are Thwarting Antidiscrimination Efforts

By Jenkins, Alan | The Nation, June 28, 1999 | Go to article overview

See No Evil: Bans on Racial Data Collection Are Thwarting Antidiscrimination Efforts


Jenkins, Alan, The Nation


The affirmative action wars have claimed another victim: the truth. Having scored victories in California, Washington and Texas-as well as setbacks in Congress and state legislatures around the country- opponents of affirmative action have set their sights on a more subtle target, yet one with similarly far-reaching implications. In the name of creating a "color-blind" society, a cadre of policy-makers and activists is seeking to ban the collection of racial demographic information and data on ethnic inequality-the very tools necessary to identify discrimination and to fashion ways of addressing it.

Consider some recent examples:

* In response to California's Proposition 209, which banned state and municipal affirmative action programs, San Diego County refused to collect and report the racial demographics of its public work force. Along similar lines, former Governor Pete Wilson ordered state agencies across California to stop maintaining statistical data on minority and female participation in state contracting, and subsequently vetoed state legislation that would have restored that record-keeping.

* Although it passed by a voice vote in the House, the Senate Judiciary Committee killed the Traffic Stops Statistics Study Act, which would have authorized the collection of data on the race and other characteristics of motorists stopped by police officers. Introduced by Representative John Conyers and supported by the Justice Department, that legislation would have investigated the phenomenon of police stops for "DWB"-Driving While Black or Brown. The act was squelched after the Fraternal Order of Police opposed it on the grounds that it was unnecessary and would have imposed bureaucratic burdens on police. Governor Wilson vetoed similar legislation passed by the California legislature, saying it would demand time, money and human resources while providing "no certain or useful conclusion."

* The compilation of a reliable, nationwide picture of hate crimes in America has been frustrated by underreporting and noncooperation by certain state and local governments with the voluntary provisions of the Hate Crimes Statistics Act. In 1996, for example, agencies in Alabama did not report a single hate crime, despite numerous burnings of black churches and other incidents in the state that year.

* The strategy of employing "testers"-similarly qualified mock applicants of different races who apply for the same job, apartment or other opportunity in order to determine whether discrimination is afoot-has been endorsed by the Supreme Court and used in the fair- housing context for three decades. Yet last year the House GOP leaders assailed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for employing the tactic to detect job discrimination. Republicans threatened to withhold funds needed to clear the backlog of cases at the EEOC unless the commission dropped its plans for expanded testing, which it did.

The assault on racial data collection has been led by opponents of civil rights enforcement and couched in the rhetoric of "color- blindness" and dismantling bureaucracy that has characterized anti- affirmative action campaigns. James Glassman of the American Enterprise Institute, for example, complains that "the tyranny of government racial policies forces us to define ourselves as white, black, Hispanic or Asian. The purpose may be benign (to track the progress of minorities) but the effect is vicious (to reinforce strict racial identity, the way segregationists did)." Dinesh D'Souza, also of AEI, argues in a 1996 National Review article that government agencies should not "embrace racial categorization." In the same article he endorses the policy of "allowing private actors to be free to discriminate as they wish."

Whatever one's view of affirmative action, racial don't ask, don't tell rules are bad public policy that frustrates principles and values that enjoy broad public support. …

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