In recall's shadow, a major initiative on race

A California measure to stop agencies from tracking race would have big implications.

Past the question about whether Gov. Gray Davis should be "recalled (removed)," beyond the seven-page list of would-be replacements, a mostly ignored initiative on Tuesday's ballot promises big changes in the way the Golden State looks at race.

If Proposition 54 passes, California's state and local government agencies will be largely forbidden from gathering or tracking information about race and ethnicity. Countless little "check off" boxes would vanish from the forms required for everything from school enrollment to state employment.

Armed with a multimillion-dollar budget and television ads featuring a former surgeon general, a bipartisan coalition appears likely to beat back Prop. 54's poorly funded campaign. "It's not going to pass at all," predicts John Matsusaka, an expert in ballot initiatives and professor of finance at the University of Southern California. A Los Angeles Times poll last week found that 54 percent of likely voters in Tuesday's election were opposed to the proposition.

But in a state where ballot initiatives are as much a part of the landscape as plastic surgeons, no one expects a single low profile defeat to kill off the march of conservatives toward what they call a "colorblind society." Not to mention that Ward Connerly, the influential conservative behind Prop. 54, seems unlikely to go gently into a life of political inactivity.

In 1996, Mr. Connerly - a black man and outspoken regent of the University of California - was the prime mover behind Prop. 209, which banned several kinds of affirmative action. After the victory, says "Yes on 54" spokeswoman Diane Schachterle, "Connerly realized that if the state could no longer take race into account in public contracting, education, and employment, then there was no reason to continue classifying people."

He created the "Racial Privacy Initiative."

The measure aims to prevent the government from making decisions based on race by depriving it of information, says supporter Glynn Custred, a professor of anthropology at California State University at Hayward, who was the coauthor of Prop. 209.

"When the state constantly asks people about their race, they're making it more solid and more concrete and not less so," Mr. Custred says. "What I want to do is transcend this sort of thing, leave it to the private sector and encourage unity and not divisiveness."

He uses the example of a community-college program targeted at minorities with reading problems. "If you start with race, you can't get past it," says Custred, who prefers to see education geared toward all students who can't read, not just members of certain racial groups.

On the other side, the leader of the 335,000-member California Teachers Association says the measure will rob teachers of the ability to understand which ethnic groups are having more trouble.

"If you don't have the data, you can't fight discrimination in the same way you can now," says Barbara Kerr, president of the association.

Prop. 54 does include several exceptions to the "don't ask, don't tell" rules. Federal programs are exempt, as is law enforcement. Work involving "medical research subjects and patients" would not be affected. The measure would also not apply to the state's housing discrimination agency - but only for 10 years.

"We understand that this notion of racial classification is not going to disappear overnight," says Ms. Schachterle, the campaign spokeswoman. "This is only a measured step."

Not measured enough, claim a number of public-health officials, including former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. They say the initiative language is so vague that it could prevent research into health-insurance disparities and the relationship researchers observe between race and illness.

All the concern about the measure may be moot. To the disappointment of its supporters, Prop. 54 has been a forgotten stepchild of the unusual October 2003 ballot, seemingly doomed along with another measure that would dedicate as much as 3 percent of the state's general fund budget to infrastructure.

Lost amid recall mania, the pro-Prop. 54 campaign has raised no more than a minuscule $250,000, according to Schachterle, and polls have shown support dropping as citizens have become aware of the measure.

The various complications turned Prop. 54 into a "much more tricky issue" for voters than the comparably simple Prop. 209, says professor Matsusaka.

So what comes next? More of the same, or at least the very similar.

"We're going to see this thing, or things like it, in the future as people try to see how far they can go in terms of getting race out of things," Matsusaka says. "I expect to see actions like this push the boundary to find out where the boundary really is."

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