Magazine article Insight on the News

Ethnic Activists Foster Rivalry and Tension

Magazine article Insight on the News

Ethnic Activists Foster Rivalry and Tension

Article excerpt

It has been 30 years since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 131 years since Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, yet the noble objective of a color-blind, merit-based American society still seems ages away.

Now President Clinton's Office of Management and Budget may be shoving this elusive goal even further into the future. OMB has launched a series of public hearings on "Race and Ethnic Standards for Federal Statistics and Administrative Reporting." These meetings in Boston, Denver and San Francisco are airing proposals to create finely tuned racial classifications "reflecting the diversity of the nation's population," according to an OMB announcement.

The OMB and the House Census subcommittee have heard ethnic activists argue that the usual black, white, American Indian, Asian and Hispanic categories are too broadly. drawn. The parents of some mixed-race children are calling for a new "multiracial" rubric to reflect the ethnic makeup of the estimated 1 million kids of biracial unions. The Arab-American Institute wants a Middle Eastern box available on the next census. There are Latinos who wish to slice the Hispanic label six ways. Even some Hawaiians are torn between calling themselves "native Americans" and "Pacific Islanders." Their solution? A "native Hawaiian" designation.

Where might such racial hairsplitting end? Can it be long before white folks march into competing camps of Anglos and Saxons?

Deciding who fits into such new categories could put government into a business chillingly akin to eugenics. As Sally Katzen, OMB administrator of information and regulatory affairs, blandly observes in the Federal Register, "The issue of self-identification of race and ethnicity versus third-party identification also has been raised:" Are government ethnicity inspectors - armed with eye-color charts and DNA testing gear - beyond imagination?

If the White House yields to pressure to classify Americans as if they were species. at a zoo, it will accelerate a dangerous trend. The core democratic value of equality before the law is being undermined by myriad schemes of racial favoritism that replace consensus and amity with ethnic rivalry and tension. Ideas such as those before the OMB could lead to a Rwanda on the Potomac.

For instance, racially gerrymandered legislative districts, often shaped like swatted spiders, cobble together minority voters in disparate communities to give black and Hispanic candidates virtually prepaid tickets to Congress. Some civil rights activists already fret that counting light-skinned and dark-skinned blacks separately could require the remapping of legislative constituencies. …

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