Race and Class: The Color-Blind Myth

Against the Current, No. 99, July/August 2002

Malik Miah

HERE HE GOES again.  University of California Regent Ward Connerly, a prominent African-American conservative and former beneficiary of affirmative action programs, has submitted nearly one million voter signatures to place on the ballot a measure that would bar state and local governments from collecting race-based information.

The Republican conservative, author of the 1996 initiative Proposition 209, which dismantled affirmative action, views the Racial Privacy Initiative (RPI) as an extension of his campaign to make California through decrees a “color-blind” society.  State officials say the initiative will either be on the upcoming November or March 2003 ballot.

Connerly and Shelby Steele, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and another Black conservative opposed to affirmative action, argue that collecting racial data promotes a mentality of racial siege.  “The government ought not to be profiling us,” Connerly explains.  “The government ought to be treating us as individuals.”

An April Field Poll shows that the backers of the RPI have so far confused the public.  By a nearly 3-to-2 ratio voters favor the initiative.  African Americans are evenly split, with whites and Latinos in favor by 50 to 33 percent.  Asians are against it by 42 to 35 percent.

Connerly is a master at turning reality upside down and playing on the desire of African Americans and other ethnic minorities seeking to “fit in” as “Americans” without facing racial discrimination.  Most whites, who are not racist, likewise want “Americans” to be judged by “merit” and “ability.”

Of course the initiative is a scam and a fraud.  Connerly and other backers have exemptions to their “color blind” schema: For example, the initiative will not apply to the police.

Cops use racial profiling to target Blacks and other minorities for arrests and prosecution.  As a matter of course Middle Eastern and Arab peoples will be targeted to stop potential “terrorists.”  Yet data that could be used to force government to prevent discrimination and enforce civil rights laws would become illegal.

Federal civil rights laws would still apply; but any attempt by the state to promote ethnic heritage and culture (Cinco de Mayo, Asian Pacific Heritage Month or Black History Month among others now celebrated) would be frowned upon if not seen as a violation of law.

Who Needs to Know?

This is a strange debate.  Historically, race-based data was rarely collected since whites in power didn’t need it. They simply could look at the color of your skin to decide if you had equal rights, which you didn’t.

Whites controlled all institutions of the state.  They simply choose their own for college admissions and corporate hiring.  What changed this reality was a powerful civil rights movement that became massive after World War II.

That revolution (a domestic manifestation of the worldwide anti-colonial revolutions in Asia and Africa) ended legal segregation and opened the door to affirmative action and other socio-economic gains for Blacks and all ethnic minorities.

It also led to the situation, ironically, where Black conservatives in the 1980s and 1990s opened a debate toward ending all discussion of “race” as a primary reason for the second-class status of African Americans.  Legal equality, in their view, put the onus on individuals not society.

The civil rights laws won in the 1960s, however, only weakened that domination of the rich white ruling class.  It’s been a long battle to get the data collected to prove both intentional and covert discrimination.

Although California is probably the most multiethnic state, after Hawaii, it is not a color-blind society.  There is discrimination especially against the working poor who are Black, Latino and Asian.  If race data collection becomes illegal in California, discrimination will rise since it will become harder to prove intent.

Under Siege

This doesn’t concern Connerly, and his co-thinkers among Blacks in the middle class, who falsely believe that discussing racism is a way for individuals not to take responsibility for their own actions.  They call it a mentality of “racial siege” and permanent victimization.

What the supporters of RPI have is a simplistic view of a “color blind” society.  It can’t simply be decreed.  The basis of racism is powerful economic interests.  “Skin color” remains a factor in how people are treated no matter one’s social class.

It is not an accident that Blacks with identical educational and income qualifications as whites pay more on average for loans and other services.  The fact that many Blacks doing well can live a good middle class life doesn’t alter these facts.

The truth is that most Americans don’t support racial discrimination and don’t like the fact it still exists.  This is a significant change from the days of Jim Crow segregation, but to say so doesn’t mean progress can’t be eroded or reversed.

One novel argument of the RPI backers is that California is already on its way to becoming a truly multi-ethnic society so racial data isn’t needed.  M. Royce Van Tassell, a former director of research for the misnamed American Civil Rights Institute, writes in an op ed piece in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Racial privacy will happen regardless of what happens at the polls.  Whether the initiative is passed this fall or not, its practical effects are inevitable.”

But that’s exactly why racial data collection is needed.  When California becomes a majority nonwhite state, that doesn’t mean people of color will wield political and economic power.  Economic levers remain in the hands of a wealthy layer of Caucasians.  And no group in history has given up its economic domination unless forced to do so.

The only way to see how much progress is being made in ending legal and de facto discrimination in government and other aspects of society is through objective statistics.  Without a scientific method of measurement, we won’t know if the cops have stopped racial profiling and if governments and corporations are living up to the laws against discrimination.

Subtle vs. Blatant Racism

Unless there is a serious counter campaign against the RPI it will be adopted as law. So far the unions, civil rights organizations and others opposed to “wedge issues” have simply hoped it would go away.

What’s ironic is that President Bush and others in high office are opposed to using such blatant wedge issues as the RPI to advance their own right-wing agenda.  They see no need to do so in the absence of any organized mass opposition or alternative to the Democratic and Republican parties running Washington.  Moreover, why stir up controversy when there continues to be a steady shift of wealth from the working poor to the wealthy?

From the U.S. ruling elite’s point of view, there is no need to whip up “racial” hatred as we see in parts of Europe today.  Even after September 11 the government only backed selective targeting of alleged Middle Eastern “terrorists,” not (officially) active discrimination against Muslims and Arabs as a group.

The elite itself has become more integrated, ethnically speaking, to the point that blatant race and immigrant bashing is not necessary as policy.

At the same time, the rightist social agenda of the federal movement encourages conservatives to go further than what’s advocated by those in power in Washington.  Thus we have the Connerly initiative—even when it makes the official state and national GOP leadership uneasy.

Malik Miah is an editor of Against the Current and a Bay Area airline unionist.  This “Race and Class” column appears regularly in this space.

ATC 99, July-August 2002