Racial Privacy

By Williams, Patricia J. | The Nation, June 17, 2002 | Go to article overview

Racial Privacy


Williams, Patricia J., The Nation


Ward Connerly, figurehead for California's anti-affirmative action Proposition 209, is up to more mischief. This time it's a push to prevent California's public agencies from classifying "any individual by race, ethnicity, color or national origin in the operation of public education, public contracting or public employment." Classification is defined as any "act of separating, sorting or organizing by race, ethnicity, color or national origin including, but not limited to, inquiring, profiling, or collecting such data on government forms."

Shrewdly titled the Racial Privacy Initiative, it sounds like a plan to protect us from the manipulative purview of Big Brother, or perhaps an act to prohibit police profiling or to protect medical records from being misused or to prevent consumer credit and employment histories from being revealed in ways that discriminate against minorities. "Racial privacy" beguiles with the promise of removing race and all its contentiousness from public view, keeping its secrets in a vault for only the rightful owner to know. A kind of "don't ask, don't tell" stance of racial revelation.

In fact, the proposed enactment contains a series of crucial exceptions that quickly turn such rosily "color-blind" expectations completely upside down. First, in a blatant concession to Big Brother writ large, there is an exemption for police. Sociologists Troy Duster and Andy Barlow have worried that this exemption will allow police alone to collect racial data: "What about the concern of many citizens that police practices need to be monitored for racial profiling? The racial privacy initiative would not allow such data to be kept."

Similarly, while permitting racial and ethnic classification of "medical research subjects and patients," the initiative bars the collection of data for population-based surveys that are the cornerstone of public health administration. And while there is a superficially charitable exemption for the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, that much of a given is rather severely constrained in that the department "shall not impute a race, color, ethnicity or national origin to any individual." In any event, this particular exemption "shall expire ten years after the effective date of this measure."

In fact, the Racial Privacy Initiative is not about protecting data from being misused; instead it effectively eliminates data collection at all. If enacted, it would continue a trend begun by Ronald Reagan and pursued by every Republican administration since: limiting the accountability of public institutions by making vital public information unavailable. In such a world, there can be no easy way to know whether Native American women are being sterilized at higher rates in public hospitals than other groups. One would not be able to determine whether public schools were tracking black students into remedial classes and white students into advanced placement. Documentation of ghettoization and other patterns of residential segregation would be magically wiped from census data.

With no impartial public archive of such data, the burden of compiling such statistics would fall either upon independent academics who would have to find funding for their studies on a project-by-project basis; or upon a cacophony of competing interest groups--a competition that no doubt will be more than skewed by better-funded conservative think tanks like the Manhattan Institute and the American Enterprise Institute. …

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