Due to the media blitz surrounding Arnold’s California coup last week, precious little attention accompanied a progressive victory with tremendous national implications — the defeat of Proposition 54, or the Racial Privacy Initiative, better titled the “Racial Prejudice Gag Rule.”
The Racial Privacy Initiative was the brainchild of Ward Connerly, who is most famous for paving the way for the whitening of California’s public universities by championing Proposition 209, which banned affirmative action in the state’s university system. Proposition 54 would have gone several steps further, mandating that state government “shall not classify any individual by race, ethnicity, color or national origin in the operation of public education, public contracting or public employment.” Proposition 54, seen by supporters and opponents alike as a crucial battle in the ongoing struggle over the proper role of race consciousness in American government and law, had a radical goal — to eliminate the category of race from all data about the impact of California’s government on the people it was elected to serve.
Radical solutions, indeed, are called for by the severe and persistent problem of racial inequality in the United States. This summer, Rhode Island completed the most comprehensive study of traffic stops ever conducted in the United States, mandated by the Rhode Island Traffic Stop Statistics Act of July 2000. The study found, according to the Attorney General’s office, “that in most communities in Rhode Island, police stop non-white motorists at a disproportionate level to their presence in the driving population,” and that, if stopped, “non-white drivers in more than half of the state’s communities are significantly more likely than whites to be subjected to a discretionary search.” These results remained robust even after adjusting for each of the other factors offered as justifications for the apparent prejudice and are rendered even more striking by the report’s finding that stops of white drivers were significantly more likely to uncover possession of contraband.
Few would argue that Rhode Island is a statistical outlier for racial prejudice, or that racial profiling by police is the last vestige of racial inequality in this country. The Rhode Island report provides one powerful demonstration of the persistence of inequality in this country and the urgency of understanding and confronting it. “Hopefully,” Attorney General Lynch wrote, “this study will serve as a starting point for ending any racially-based policing, whether practiced consciously or unconsciously, once and for all.” One member of the Advisory Committee, Onna Moniz-John, saw in the report a vindication of “the concerns expressed by the minority community for years–that were shrugged off as mere ‘perceptions of bias’–This report shows we were right.” It is telling that those most complicit in shrugging off personal accounts of bias are also those most ardent in working to ban statistical accounts of it.
Proposition 54 is a radical response to a radical problem, but this radically reactionary approach — make the problem disappear by hiding the evidence — offers only the potential for radical regression. This attempt at “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” politics would have imposed on the nation’s largest state a speech code far more ominous than the ones the Berkeley conservatives of another generation battled. That may be why Proposition 54 was condemned even by James Q. Wilson and John McWhorter — both black conservatives who, like Connerly, have made a career out of arguing that claims of racism are overblown and that a culture of victimhood, rather than material discrimination, is to blame for racial inequality. While — as Connerly anticipated — Wilson and McWhorter would find their agenda better served by laws that repress, rather than reveal, the facts of racial inequality, they deserve credit for arguing that social scientists of the left and right make better arguments when they have research to work with.
While Connerly, McWhorter and Wilson — and the overwhelmingly white conservative network backing them — may not have statistics on their side in blaming black people for their own problems, they have the implicit support of much of the mainstream media. In such outlets, those who speak about racial inequality in racial terms are “race-baiters” peddling “racial divisiveness” for personal gain. As Jacqueline Bacon noted in an article for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, African-American leaders “are charged with ignoring the problems of minorities, the poor or working people, yet when they get involved in a cause, they are deemed self-serving or divisive.” The greatest affront these leaders pose to the media establishment, most likely, is their rejection of the assumptions that since Dr. King was assassinated injustice has ceased to be a racial issue, that what America needs now is to stop talking about race, and that “racial issues” today amount to the question of whether white college students are being persecuted by American universities.
Connerly has taken on for himself the mantle of Dr. King, and American conservatives have been all too eager to validate the parallel. Henry Payne, in a recent article in the National Review, hailed Connerly as a leader of the “new civil-rights movement.” The same conservatives who have invested decades in promulgating myths of a “classless society,” would like similarly to see race, and racial inequality, erased from the political discourse. But Dr. King warned decades ago against those who seek a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, before a positive peace, which is the presence of justice. We live in a country in which people of color are systematically discriminated against on our roadways, in which welfare programs send Latina women to “dress for success” classes and white women to computer classes, in which black men are disproportionately likely among men to be arrested, among arrestees to be convicted, and among convicts to receive long sentences — or the death penalty — for the same crimes.
Last Tuesday, California voters resoundingly rejected an understandably alluring but fundamentally untenable approach to these injustices — bury the evidence. The task ahead, for Californians and for the nation, is to translate our consciousness of racial discrimination into a radical struggle against racial injustice. Ward Connerly called Californians to “seek a California that is free from government racism and race-conscious decision making,” and Californians were right to recognize that fighting racism in government and in our country demands a consciousness of race and of the role it plays in our civic and individual lives.
Josh Eidelson is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College.