Send in the Clowns

Send in the Clowns

I was a child who, when taken to the circus, spent all her time trying to see past the greasepaint and illusion.


I was a child who, when taken to the circus, spent all her time trying to see past the greasepaint and illusion. “The flipper-footed man in the Raggedy Andy wig looks worried about something,” I’d whisper to my mother. It was an exasperating trait in a child but much more useful now that I’m old enough to vote. Whenever an election turns into a three-ring circus, I cast my baleful eye upon the proceedings and wonder what’s really going on in the heart that beats beneath the fright wig. In California, there’s a doozy of a show being staged these days, a veritable medieval joust for the governorship, with big brass bands and colorful sideshows featuring the World’s Strongest Man, the World’s Smallest Man, tattooed contortionists in skimpy costumes and a stream of clowns that just keep pouring out of a little toy car. It’s so entertaining that it’s almost sacrilege to wonder what else might be on the ballot.

Until the first weekend of September, in fact, you’d have been hard pressed to find any media mention of Proposition 54, which would limit the state’s ability to collect data pertaining to race, ethnicity and national origin. But that was when candidate and Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante donated $3.8 million of his campaign chest to the effort to defeat the proposition. That much money always raises the volume, I guess. CRECNO, or the Classification by Race, Ethnicity, Color, or National Origin Initiative, prohibits such classification “in the operation of public education, public contracting or public employment.” The measure also prohibits the gathering of data by “any other state operations” unless there is a specific legislative as well as executive finding of “compelling state interest.” The only exemptions to the law are compliance with federal law, data about specific medical research and the “assignment of prisoners and undercover law enforcement officers” or other “law enforcement duties.”

Proposition 54 is the brainchild of businessman Ward Connerly and the American Civil Rights Institute. Connerly, who wants to create what he calls “race-blind government,” is someone whose name is almost invariably followed in news accounts by the phrase “who is himself black.” This is usually followed by a short quote from Connerly proclaiming that he’s not only black, but also white, French, Irish and Native American. It is paradoxical: Connerly’s blackness is almost always mentioned as a kind of rhetorical nod to his “authenticity” in proclaiming the stigma thereof–and always with the coda labeling every last one of his ancestors, as though to imply that he’s oh-so-much more interesting than mere labels can convey.

But if we really want to eliminate the stigma of race, it might be better to explore precisely the multiculturalism of Connerly’s heritage–a heritage that is shared to some degree by virtually every African-American, by many Latinos, as well as by more “white” people than will ever be admitted. Troy Duster, president-elect of the American Sociological Association, which opposes the proposition, says, “It’s perhaps easier for Americans to understand the continuing effect of apartheid in South Africa or the caste system in India than the lingering power of race at home. You don’t do away with hundreds of years of stratifying practices just by saying, ‘Let’s not talk about it.’ If this were farther away from home, maybe we’d understand it as merely masking a social phenomenon that has real centrifugal force.”

Also called the Racial Privacy Initiative, Proposition 54 received modest attention late last year before dropping completely off the radar screen. In June 2002, I wrote in this column: “Eliminating official knowledge of race and ethnicity in the public sphere at first sounds like part of the same enterprise as eliminating Jim Crow laws…. In fact, however, ‘racial privacy’…eviscerates essential civil rights enforcement mechanisms…. Ward Connerly insists that this measure will keep the state from ‘profiling’ its citizens. If one accepts that to most Americans ‘profiling’ connotes the unethical use of data to discriminate (as in Driving While Black), this conflation with the neutral act of data collection itself is tremendously misleading.” Moreover, while the measure allows police to identify individuals by race, it provides no way for them to analyze crime trends by race. And it certainly provides no mechanism for analysis by other agencies charged with overseeing potential bias in police practices.

CRECNO is always described as barring “racial” data, but it also bars information about ethnicity and national origin. If “race” speaks primarily to historical and social forces–from housing patterns to rates of mortality from preventable causes–ethnic and geographic origin can be related to genetic risk factors for certain medical conditions. “It just doesn’t make sense,” says Troy Duster. “We’re at a moment when scientists are mapping the genes of Icelanders, and when pharmaceutical companies are creating drugs supposedly tailor-made for African-Americans, yet we’re eliminating the primary means of tracking the truth or falsity of such developments.” The devastating impact of such a bar on tracking disease has led the American Public Health Association to oppose the measure in unusually strong terms: “People die prematurely because of inequalities in health care and health status…. We call on the people of California to consider the impact of this initiative on the health of their neighbors and loved ones and to reject it.” The measure is also opposed by powers as diverse as Kaiser Permanente, the Anti-Defamation League, the Armenian American Medical Society, the Asian Pacific American Bar Association, the Sierra Club, the American G.I. Forum of California, Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, La Raza Centro Legal, the League of Women Voters of California, the regents of the University of California–and, yes, even Arnold Schwarzenegger. Ordinarily, such broad opposition would be news in and of itself. But as of this writing, the media silence on the subject has been intriguing, particularly since what begins as initiative in California almost always goes national. In the absence of public debate, polls show that the measure is likely to pass by a very large margin indeed.

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