FOOTNOTES
homeprev issuesexecpublic affairsSTAFFASA home
 
 

Public Forum

Researchers Challenge California Initiative to Ban Racial Data

California will soon be the testing ground for an effort to block researchers’ and policy makers’ access to governmental information needed to address the legacy of three centuries of racial discrimination. In March, 2004, California voters will be asked to approve an amendment to the state Constitution that would bar state agencies from categorizing people or collecting data based on race, national origin, or ethnicity.

This ballot initiative seeks to write into the state Constitution a ban on racial data collection that was first instituted as an executive order in 1997 by then-Governor Pete Wilson in the aftermath of the termination of public affirmative action programs by Proposition 209. Wilson’s executive order was subject to a lawsuit by one of us in 1998 and 1999 (Barlow v. Davis), reported in ASA’s Footnotes newsletter in January 1999. When the California courts failed to overturn the executive order, University of California Regent Ward Connerly initiated the current ballot initiative.

The American Sociological Association has a compelling interest to oppose this ballot initiative. Sociologists can explain to the public that governmental efforts to track race are not mere efforts to force people to proclaim an arbitrary identity, but are necessary to overcome racial inequality. The 2002 ASA Statement on the Importance of Collecting Data and Doing Social Scientific Research on Race (available at www.asanet.org) makes this case. A vast body of sociological research demonstrates that people in the United States today are treated differently on the basis of physical characteristics that are socially designated ‘racial.’ Racial privileging and discrimination takes place in a wide variety of public settings, ranging from employment, education, and health care to the criminal justice system. As the ASA Statement puts it, “as long as Americans routinely sort each other into racial categories and act on the basis of those attributions, research on the role of race and race relations in the United States falls squarely within [the] scientific agenda…. Studying race as a social phenomenon makes for better science and more informed policy debate.”

Scientists and policy-makers broadly share concerns about the potential banning of race-based data. National and California public health associations and the California Medical Association oppose the California effort to ban racial classification. The ban would leave public health officials unable to track or measure one of the most significant variables in all health surveys. We acknowledge that some researchers regrettably confuse cause and effect in analyzing health disparities data, by race, but this does not warrant eliminating such data. Educators who work to overcome the debilitating effects of increasing school segregation and inequality in educational outcomes would be unable to devise equitable education policies. Lawyers seeking to demonstrate racial discrimination, or to fashion remedies to it, would be stymied in many situations.

The effort to ban racial data collection can also be seen in the larger context as part of a politically motivated trend to restrict the public’s right to know what government is doing. The current Bush administration has moved to close court proceedings previously open to the public, has greatly restricted Freedom of Information Act requests, has granted the power to designate information as ‘secret’ to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Agriculture, and has barred access to previous administrations’ records that had been guaranteed by the Presidential Records Act. Various states, including California, have refused to collect data on the race of people stopped by the police or the race of contractors receiving public monies.

Government, however, is expanding its collection of data about the public at the very time that the public is being denied access to government data. New laws and technologies are enabling government officials to monitor immigrants, and to scan Internet and computer databases in the name of a “war on terrorism.” As a reflection of this trend, the California ballot initiative would exempt law enforcement officials from its ban on the use of racial data, while it would ban citizens from monitoring racial discrimination by the police.

The politics of controlling information needed to remedy racial discrimination is fast becoming a pressing issue. A conference assessing the potential national impact of the passage of this California ballot initiative will bring together researchers, civil rights lawyers, and journalists at Stanford University on October 2-5, 2003. Sociologists interested in attending the conference, titled “Colorblind Racism: The Politics of Controlling Racial and Ethnic Data,” can get further information by contacting Allegra Churchill at the Equal Justice Society, allegra@lccr.com.

Andrew L. Barlow, University of California-Berkeley (barlow@socrates.berkeley.edu), and Troy Duster, New York University (nitrogn@socrates.berkeley.edu)

[Editor’s note: see page 1 story on congressional briefing.]