California tests racial boundaries

The state unveils its slave-holding past – and ponders ending official ethnic data.

On a day last week that will likely be forgotten by all but the most avid historians, California's racial experiment took yet another most peculiar step.

On one hand, the state became the first to lay bare its slave-era past, releasing insurance records that list hundreds of slaves and their owners – opening the door wider for those who seek reparations for the past.

At the same time, a pollster announced that Californians generally support a first-of-its-kind ballot measure to eliminate race from almost every public document in the future – a move that, critics say, would undermine anti-discrimination efforts.

The contradiction would be startling, were this not California. Instead, it is simply further evidence that this most diverse state is America's leading laboratory on issues of race and ethnicity.

The question of how to deal with race is one that convulses the Golden State. As the first major state with no ethnic majority, the topic is unavoidable – and without precedent. The result has been a legal patchwork frequently shaped by political extremes – such as bans on affirmative action and bilingual education – which often seem improvised, and always fuel controversy.

But with fewer and fewer corners of America left untouched by immigration or racial strife, California is no anomaly. Rather, to many, it is a window on how the nation will evolve. As California probes the boundaries of racial policy, it is providing the rest of the country with guideposts for the decades ahead.

"California is like America, only more so," says Kevin Starr, the state librarian. "It is the scale and intensity that makes it interesting."

A polyglot kingdom

On issues of race and ethnicity, California's scale is without equal. From Bakersfield to Berkeley, it is a polyglot kingdom the likes of which America – perhaps the world – has never seen before.

California is home to roughly one-third of the nation's Latinos and Asian Americans. As in New Mexico and Hawaii, non-Hispanic whites are not a majority.

But unlike its state colleagues, which historically have had substantial Hispanic and Hawaiian populations, respectively, California's demographics have shifted dramatically. Just 20 years ago, the state was two-thirds Anglo. Twenty years from now, Hispanics are projected to be the largest ethnic group.

"We're in the midst of creating a new society that has never taken place anywhere else in the nation," says Mark Baldassare of the Public Policy Institute in San Francisco.

At times, this multicultural concoction seems as volatile as a Molotov cocktail, combusting in the Los Angeles riots. Most of the time, though, it is a picture of the globalized world, played in fast forward, and many residents are struggling to find how they fit in.

'Defining people by hyphens'

The Racial Policy Initiative is part of that. Written by the same man who created the anti-affirmative-action initiative, this one would ban state collection of racial data, except in certain cases, such as medical research and federal reports. A poll found that 48 percent of Californians supported the initiative – which is likely to make the November ballot – although only one-quarter had actually heard of it before.

To author Ward Connerly, it's time for California to change its attitude on race. Not only does race mean less as intermarriage grows, he says, but also, the state should not "define people by their hyphens."

It's a noble goal, critics acknowledge, but one that misjudges California's progress. The concern is that a lack of racial data will devastate programs and studies aimed at ending discrimination and helping traditional minorities.

Mr. Connerly counters that it's a natural next step. The exemptions address many issues, and others – such as anti-racial-profiling efforts – could be continued so long as they were local. The state Legislature, he adds, could create more exemptions with a two-thirds vote in both houses.

Even at this early stage of the campaign, the debate provides insight into California's often-polarized racial policy. In addition to bans on affirmative action and bilingual education, California voters decided to stop benefits to illegal immigrants – a move that was later struck down in court. To many, the Racial Policy Initiative seems part of that conservative backlash to the state's growing diversity.

Yet the decision to open slave-era insurance records is something that even the most liberal states have not attempted. The law, which mandates that insurance companies operating in California open their records, has revealed lists of slaves who were covered by their policies. In turn, lawyers and would-be plaintiffs now have a chance to see whose ancestors are listed, potentially bolstering lawsuits.

A clash of ideals

True, California can be sure that its part in assisting slavery was peripheral, given that slavery was never legal here. But the state has also asked its universities to examine California's role in slavery, and a dollar figure for damages might even be suggested. When asked, Gov. Gray Davis didn't discount the idea of reparations. "Clearly, he's the most prominent politician to voice even conservative support," says Elazar Barkan, author of a book on reparations called "The Guilt of Nations."

For his part, Connerly draws a clear line between his initiative and the opening of slave-era records. "The contrast could not be greater," says Connerly, who is African American. "Here's this reparations movement saying, 'Look at these poor black people.' This is looking to the past. On the other side, you have this idea: 'Let's move forward.' "

What emerges from this clash of ideals, experts say, will not be a conclusion, but rather an ever-changing road map of starts and stops, successes and failures.

"California is exploring the boundaries and the consequences of racial diversity," says Mr. Baldassare. "We're just finding our way as we go along."

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