Jewish World Review August 6, 2001 / 17 Menachem-Av, 5761
Clarence Page is one of my favorite columnists--witty, well read, and generally the author of very interesting pieces. Even when I disagree with his perspective, which isn't as often as one might suspect, I like Clarence's work. But, sometimes, Clarence gets it wrong. When it comes to "affirmative action" and racial classifications, my friend Clarence gets it wrong more often than he gets it right.
In the interview that I recently granted to Clarence, I could not have been more emphatic about my desire to get the government out of the business of asking its citizens about their "race," or the origin of birth of their grand daddies. I don't want my government classifying its citizens on the basis of their skin color or the texture of their hair or the size of their lips and nose, which is essentially all that this "race" business is about. There is certainly no scientific basis for this system of classification. But, reading Clarence's column, one gets the impression that I am ambivalent about this objective. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Clarence observes that many Americans--I among them--are "grumpy" about being asked about our race. You bet we are! And, we are going to get grumpier until the government gets the message that our ancestry is none of the government's business. Instead of recognizing this fact, and initiating a process for extricating government from this aspect of our lives, over the years public officials have made publicly sanctioned race consciousness more deeply entrenched, not less. For the most part, their motives have little to do with civil rights enforcement and everything to do with racial politics and the protection of racial turf.
The fact that the NAACP and other so-called proponents of civil rights were the strongest champions of color blindness back in the 1960s, but the most resistant to color blind policies today, speaks volumes about their motives. Such entities and individuals defend racial classifications because the classifications are crucial to the maintenance of preferential policies. The hipbone is, indeed, connected to the thighbone, just as classifications are connected to preferences.
The initiative that I am proposing for the November 2002 California Ballot is a reasonable attempt to alter the direction of government. This initiative seeks to move us from a paradigm in which race and ethnic background are used to "build diversity" in the public arena to one in which people are respected as individuals who are diverse in many ways that are more important than "race." In my view of America as it should be, race and ethnic background are matters of private concern that should be irrelevant in the public domain.
The fact that the Racial Privacy Initiative (RPI) contains exemptions is a strength of the initiative, not evidence of my ambivalence about government colorblindness. If the exemptions didn't exist, I am certain that Clarence would be among those who would describe the initiative as irresponsible.
Even if you consider the exemptions for medical research, controlling prison populations and enforcing laws against racial discrimination, there are a lot of those "silly little boxes" that would be prohibited by RPI. In other words, the burden to demonstrate the relevance and compelling value (or lack thereof) of racial data collection would significantly shift from the individual to the government for the first time in our history. Everything from birth certificates, to death certificates, to adoption forms, to college admissions applications, to state and local government job and contracting forms, to the purchase of insurance, to the application for a home mortgage, would have to phase out the "race" question under this proposed state constitutional amendment. If that's not a seismic shift in the way our government tracks, sorts and separates its citizens by "race," then I don't know what planet Clarence lives on.
I'm also struck by the catchy phrase Clarence uses: "Race matters because racism still matters." Is it not true that religious bigotry and hate based on sexual orientation still matter? Yet, if it's still a problem, why doesn't our government query all of us on our religious identity or sexual orientation every chance it gets? Because that doesn't solve the problem; it exacerbates it. Like race, religion and sexual orientation still matter to some extent (though bureaucratic snooping and obsession are not warranted). Like race, these characteristics can and should be a private matter, even though they are not immune from the scourge of "ism." But, these characteristics would serve to divide our society much more if the government was allowed to track, sort and separate us by such characteristics.
Finally, I am deeply troubled by Clarence's rather cavalier attitude toward "multiracial" individuals. Essentially, he argues that they need to "grow" their numbers before asserting their right to not have to choose one "race" over another. As a member of a multiracial family, Clarence is certainly more sensitive to the nuances of this issue than his column would suggest. But, like so many racialists, Clarence seems to accept the outdated "one drop" rule without protest. He told me, "You and I have been African Americans all our lives; it is too late to change now." In truth, we have been sequentially "colored," "Negro," "black," "African American," and, now, "persons of color." If we were able to navigate those sociopolitical changes in our identity, dropping the classifications altogether is not only possible, but also