California voters will be asked to confront the race issue once again when the Racial Privacy Initiative (RPI) appears on the October 2003 ballot. The measure would prohibit the state and other public entities, such as universities, from collecting information on a person's race, ethnicity, or national origin.
Backers of the initiative claim it would be a major step toward creating a color-blind society. Asking people to check a box identifying their race or ethnicity prolongs "race consciousness," they maintain. "The only way to make race not count is to stop counting it." Those who support RPI insist that race and ethnicity are not the most important things to know about people—hence their desire to eliminate statistics of race and ethnicity from the records of California.
Striving toward a color-blind California is a noble goal; unfortunately, the RPI initiative will do nothing to make that goal a reality. The sad fact is that race remains, as author Richard Rodriguez has observed, "the sine qua non of American transactions."
One may look forward to a time when racism and discrimination no longer scar our lives yet still oppose a measure such as RPI that would prevent policymakers from discovering areas where whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians are treated differently by everybody from loan officers to teachers and doctors.
One thing seems certain. As San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders has argued, "Not knowing the facts will not put an end to discrimination or make racial equality a more immediate reality."
"But isn't it discrimination," some one will ask, "to classify people by racial categories?" The answer is no—unless the intention is to pit one minority group against another. It is not discrimination to record a person's race or ethnicity when the openly acknowledged purpose is to eliminate racial inequities, not perpetuate them.
Statistical evidence about racial and ethnic groups helps track various forms of discrimination, especially as it affects the everyday lives of people of color. Equally important, race- and ethnic-based data can also assist in charting the economic progress of black Americans who have significantly improved their situation. As Harvard demographer Edward Glaeser has noted, the facts represent not just changes for the better but "big changes in terms of historical trends."
Everyone in this increasingly fierce debate wants to see a time when people will treat each other equally and fairly. But it is a mistake to replace empirical observations with ideological or moral preconceptions. Race and ethnicity continue to be real forces in American life, and it is wishful thinking to pretend they are irrelevant or "artificial." By making constructive use of racial and ethnic data, state planners and legislators can determine not only which policies may be succeeding (and which ones are not) but how closely many issues of race and inequality remain intertwined.