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What will Prop. 54 do?
Berkeley grad students assess possible impacts of Racial Privacy Initiative

| 03 September 2003

The Racial Privacy Initiative on California’s October ballot will hamper public-health efforts, present a mixed bag for education, and reduce accountability for some crimes, according to graduate-student researchers at the Goldman School of Public Policy. But contrary to the assertions of many of its proponents, they say, it isn’t likely to produce a colorblind society.

The report is posted on the website of the Institute for Governmental Studies at repositories.cdlib.org/igs/igspp/.

Researchers Richard Michaelson, Michelle Probert, Van Swearingen, and Marc Wolf caution that, due to Proposition 54’s broad wording, it is difficult to predict how every state program will fare if the initiative passes. Among the proposition’s provisions is one allowing collection of so-called CRECNO (Classification of Race, Ethnicity, Color, or National Origin) data in state operations for a “compelling state interest,” if approved by the governor and two-thirds of the California Senate and Assembly.

The researchers did, however, zero in on probable impacts in the fields of public health, education, law enforcement, housing, and employment discrimination. Their report also looks at what difference the measure might make on Californians’ sense of privacy and identity, as well as on how they are treated and how they treat others.

“Overall,” they conclude, “[Proposition 54] will likely not result in a colorblind society. People will still likely categorize and identify by race, although they will not receive official state recognition in most cases. Differential treatment will probably continue, and in the case of discrimination, [it] may increase.”

Big effect on health programs
Public health may bear the biggest brunt of the initiative, the student researchers say. Those who work for government-run and -funded public-health programs and research projects that use clients’ or subjects’ CRECNO data will no longer be able to collect such information themselves. They also will not be able to use such data — even if provided by other sources — to target programs to identify and address health problems and disparities that affect particular racial or ethnic groups. This, the report notes, could lead to the state’s inability to identify and address effectively all Californians’ health needs, which in turn “may well result in increased costs to the state.”

Although Proposition 54 exempts medical-research subjects and patients, the students say that exemption applies only to participants in studies of particular drugs or procedures.

Schools and universities
The federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 mandates significant data collection in public K-12 schools to track student performances by race, the report says. This means that California public schools “will not be substantially affected in their efforts to address achievement gaps” between different racial and ethnic groups. However, the researchers note, if Proposition 54 passes, it will prevent the use of racial and ethnic information about students by the state in such efforts as pursuing school and classroom integration.

At the higher-education level, researchers and faculty at California’s state colleges and universities who have developed data using ethnicity and race may be unable to continue collecting such information, because they work for the state. And official state sources for data with racial and ethnic information will cease to exist.
The study says all this could limit the academic freedom of faculty members and affect recruitment and retention programs at state universities.

The researchers also reported that if Proposition 54 passes, the state will no longer be able to collect information needed to monitor compliance with Proposition 209, a state law for the past seven years.

Law enforcement
Proposition 54 will specifically limit the use of racial and ethnic classifications within law enforcement to suspect descriptions and the assignment of inmates to institutions.

Hate crime and racial profiling will remain illegal if the measure passes, but the empirical data collection typically relied on in such cases will cease, except for agencies that rely on racial and ethnic information as a requirement for federal funding or a court-ordered consent decree.

“As a result, hate-crime prevention and outreach programs will likely rely largely on anecdotal evidence to determine which communities are most in need,” the researchers say. “Law-enforcement agencies will be unable to prove or disprove whether racial profiling is taking place.”

Reduced accountability may open the door to increased discrimination by individual officers, the report says.

Employment and housing
If Proposition 54 passes, the state’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing will be exempt from its requirements for a full decade.

The department can collect information on workforce composition from employers with 100 or more workers as well as from public contractors, and can collect such data to investigate complaints of discrimination involving employers with five or more employees. Such investigations also can include individuals or agencies involved in the rental, sale, financing, or management of housing.

If the agency is not allowed to continue collecting racial and ethnic information after Proposition 54 has been in effect for 10 years, it too will be forced to rely on anecdotal evidence to determine claims of discrimination, the report says.

A colorblind society?
“Overall, [Proposition 54] will likely not result in a colorblind society,” the researchers conclude. “People will still likely categorize and identify by race, although they will not receive official state recognition in most cases. Differential treatment will probably continue, and in the case of discrimination, may increase.

“Nonetheless, some still feel that the first step toward a more colorblind society is a less color-conscious government, and that racism can never disappear as long as ‘races’ are still recognized.”

The researchers note that many people do not realize that disclosing ethnic and racial data about themselves is voluntary. Those who feel pressure to provide such information may experience a greater sense of privacy should Proposition 54 pass, the report says. So may those who feel it is intrusive for the government to ask for and collect such data.

“In the longer run, [Proposition 54] could decrease privacy for individuals who find that some compensatory strategies adopted by the state to infer individuals’ races are more invasive than questions that explicitly requested [such] data,” the students say.

For example, someone may be offended that an admissions committee makes an assumption about his or her racial identity based on a last name or affiliation with a certain group.