Photo by Ted Soqui

YOU REMEMBER WARD CONNERLY. He touched off a political earthquake in 1996 when California voters — by a nearly 10-point margin — ratified his Proposition 209, which outlawed affirmative action in state hiring and contracting, and in college-admissions policy.

Now, the 63-year-old UC regent has authored a new initiative that takes the next logical step. It would prohibit the state government from using racial classifications in the compilation of official data (except for law enforcement and medical research).

This is make-or-break time for Connerly's latest. In the next handful of days, he must gather tens of thousands of voter signatures if he wants his Racial Privacy Initiative (RPI) qualified for the November ballot.

“Freedom from race is the most precious gift we can give to an individual,” Connerly told a conservative group in Beverly Hills last week. “I still believe that the government should be as blind to the color of my skin as it should be to my religion or sexual orientation.”

You'd think those are words that liberals and lefties would agree with. But, as with Prop. 209, Connerly's support comes from the Right and the opposition fire from the Left. The latter argues that while racial colorblindness is a laudable goal, the unfortunate reality is that racism still exists, and therefore the government must continue to collect information about race to help guard against discrimination.

I think the issue is much more complex. And I fear the real debate will never happen. But partisan battle lines are already being charted and the political ammo stockpiled. The resulting fireworks are likely to drown out all rational discourse.

If the RPI makes it onto the ballot, this will be the third time in six years that the liberal Left has been caught off guard by a much more agile array of rivals.

AFFIRMATIVE ACTION, A BAND-AID slapped onto the body politic by none other than the Nixon administration, was always a problematic call for the Left. We knew that something needed to be done to batter down racist and sexist hiring and admission policies. But we also knew that affirmative action was insufficient and often unfair. Some minority students, women and workers clearly and justly benefited. But so did unscrupulous contractors and scads of upper-middle-class professionals with the right surname or skin color.

I need go no further than my own family. I have a Latino wife, and my daughter has a hyphenate surname, so she can legally classify herself as Latino. Should she then have the same preferential right to college admission as the daughter, say, of the Guatemalan immigrant who services our swimming pool? The Left has remained silent on the issue for three decades. So when Connerly's Prop. 209 came down the pike, liberals and progressives found themselves cornered and defending to the death what they knew was a flawed remedy.

Likewise with bilingual education. A liberal education bureaucracy did nothing to readjust a statewide program that had begun with noble intentions but had burgeoned out of control. The impulse to serve unprecedented numbers of immigrant children was the right one. But the program could also be viewed as a federal cash cow for a veritable bilingual industry, one from which children derived a questionable gain. Once again the Left defaulted, and conservative Ron Unz barreled right in with his 1998 Proposition 227, which sharply curtailed these programs.

In both cases, the one-size-fits-all ballot props of Connerly and Unz were far from the best remedies. Reform and re-evaluation of affirmative-action programs should have been carried out on a case-by-case basis and not by voter decree. Ditto with bilingual education; educators and parents should have been able to assess and reform those programs that worked and abolish those that didn't. But if the Left continues to lament how the Right keeps coming out on top on these issues, then maybe it's time for the Left to take the high road instead of the low.

Such an alternative approach is particularly urgent given that the Left's sky-is-falling scenarios around 209 and 227 never came to pass. Minority admissions in the UC system are now back to where they were five years ago, without affirmative action. Wiping out bilingual education seems to have had little effect on public education. If anything, California test scores are up a bit since 1998.

Yet, here we go again. I am opposed to Connerly's RPI. As in the two cases cited above, I think it's too draconian a remedy. I also understand that, Connerly's sincerity aside (and that is something I
do not question), the RPI serves a broader conservative agenda — one that goes beyond the privacy issue and looks to shut down anything that even smells like affirmative action.

But for chrissake, where's the Left been on this issue of Big Brother compiling ever more race-classification data, sometimes to the point of absurdity? In a word, silent. Or more accurately, complicit. Too many on the Left have acquired a stake in race-identity politics fueled by such data, and they are not about to kill off the golden goose.

Come November, this same Left that justly howls about an intrusive Ashcroft Justice Department, for example, is going to be forced into publicly defending the state's right to know if you are an octoroon, a quadroon, a high yellow, or an Asian-Pacific Islander with a Euro-Hispanic hubby. And this in a state where, more and more, race is diluted by marriage and where there are millions of kids like mine who could check three, four or more of those silly little boxes on government forms.

I think there's a wholly legitimate need for some government compilation of racial data. It can tell us much about who does and does not have equal standing. Just as much as I think a whole lot of it should be abolished. And that we as a society could actually differentiate between the two.

But instead of a debate on these issues, we are more likely going to get the kind of scare and smear campaigns from both the Right and the Left that erupted around 209 and 227. I expect that from the Right. I am appalled when it comes from the Left — which ought to know better. I think Ron Unz was wrong. Still, he is anything but the sort of racist his liberal opponents portrayed him as being. (Did they forget he was a keynote speaker in the massive street rally against Proposition 187?)

During the Prop. 209 campaign, Connerly (whose lineage is Irish and Native American as well as African-American!) was branded as a Klansman, no less. The same liberals who defended affirmative action then slashed him for being a black man who had fought his way through the system to wealth. San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown referred to the offspring of one of Connerly's allies as “idiot children.” Then­L.A. City Councilman Richard Alarcon compared Connerly's 209 to Mein Kampf. The anti-209 campaign (which I supported) went so low as to tie the initiative to David Duke. Others argued that Connerly wasn't a “real” black man, because he was a friend of Pete Wilson. (And what about Jews who today oppose the policies of Israel? Are they then not “real” Jews?) Former state Senator and now U.S. Congresswoman Diane Watson said of Connerly: “He's married to a white woman . . . He wants to be white. He has no ethnic pride. He doesn't want to be black.”

Those sorts of comments alone tell me we desperately need to get to that place where people are judged solely by the content of their character rather than by the composition of their blood.

Maybe Connerly's Racial Privacy Initiative will give us the pretext to calmly examine how much we move toward that goal — or away from it — by still remarking on race. I'm hoping for the best. But I'm bracing for the worst.

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