Foes Warn Measure Could Hurt Efforts To Fight Bias

By Daniel Treiman

Published October 03, 2003, issue of October 03, 2003.
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Arnold Schwarzenegger’s gubernatorial bid is overshadowing a ballot initiative that will either — depending upon whom one asks — bring the Golden State one step closer to realizing the dream of a color-blind society or stymie government efforts to fight discrimination and serve an ethnically diverse population.

Proposition 54, a proposed constitutional amendment on the October 7 recall ballot, would generally prohibit state and local governments from gathering data on individuals’ race, ethnicity and national origin. Spearheaded by anti-affirmative action activist Ward Connerly, the initiative has drawn fire from an array of labor, health, business and ethnic advocacy groups, including two leading national Jewish groups, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee.

“We are not a color-blind society and there are discrepancies in the way people are treated based on color,” said the ADL’s Pacific Southwest region director, Amanda Susskind. “We think that the tracking of that information is not in itself perpetuating the behavior but is rather giving us the tools with which to address and redress that behavior.”

The anti-Proposition 54 campaign warns that the measure would impede anti-discrimination efforts, prevent health care professionals from collecting important information and set back efforts to address racial gaps in education. While the measure does not deal with religion, which the government rarely inquires about, Susskind said that it would “make it very difficult” to track hate crimes based on race, national origin and ethnicity.

The coordinator for the Yes on Proposition 54 campaign, Diane Schachterle, denied that the initiative would affect tracking of hate crimes or medical care or research, citing its exemptions relating to law enforcement and health. But critics say the exemptions are inadequate.

Some supporters of Proposition 54 accuse Jewish groups that oppose the initiative of hypocrisy, given historic Jewish opposition to government classifications on the basis of religion. Arnold Steinberg, a Republican political strategist and chief consultant to Connerly’s successful 1996 campaign to pass the anti-affirmative action measure Proposition 209, said that with both religious and racial classifications “the principle is the same.”

“Jews may wish to be proud of [being] Jews, just like African Americans may wish to be identified as African Americans, and that’s perfectly fine,” he said. “All we’re talking about here is should the government be classifying people?”

Jewish groups have historically fought efforts to include questions about religion on the United States census, said Marc Stern, assistant executive director of the American Jewish Congress, which has not taken a position on Proposition 54. He suggested, however, that backing government efforts to compile some racial data while opposing the collection of information on religion is a reasonable position. He explained that discrimination is more common on the basis of race than religion, and thus racial data is needed for anti-discrimination purposes.

“None of these are abstract questions. They’re questions of cost-benefit,” Stern said. “There are clear costs to asking both about race and religion. The benefits appear to be much less in the case of religion than they do in the case of race.”

While national Jewish groups have weighed in against the initiative, local umbrella groups representing organizations in the state’s two largest Jewish communities remain on the sidelines. A proposal before the San Francisco Bay Area’s Jewish Community Relations Council to oppose Proposition 54 fell just shy of the necessary three-quarters support. The proposal garnered 71% of the vote at the council’s September 9 meeting, according to the council’s executive director, Rabbi Douglas Kahn.

Barry Gross, a Proposition 54 supporter and member at large of the council’s board, said that some people who defended the ballot measure at the meeting were Russian immigrants who “pointed out that in Russia every time they filled out a form and had to write the term Jew down, it hurt them.”

Meanwhile, the Jewish Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has not held a meeting to discuss the initiative, according to Barbara Yaroslavsky, a member of the committee’s executive board. She attributed the committee’s inaction to the “upheaval” caused by the recent elimination of its executive director post in a controversial cost-cutting move by the local federation.

The Los Angeles-based Progressive Jewish Alliance and the San Jose Jewish Community Relations Council have stated their opposition to Proposition 54.

While the measure does have the backing of the state Republican Party, Schwarzenegger, the party’s leading gubernatorial candidate, has said he opposes it, although he has not been vocal on the issue.

Moreover, a few prominent California conservatives who backed Proposition 209 have criticized Connerly’s latest effort, warning that a ban on the collection of racial data would be counterproductive. Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley software developer who financed a successful 1998 anti-bilingual-education ballot initiative, told the Forward that “whether you support affirmative action or oppose affirmative action, and regardless of your position on all these ethnic issues, I mean without data you’re flying blind.”

Steinberg, the Republican strategist, said, “I think it’s going to be very tough for Prop. 54 to pass.” He contrasted the effort with the campaign for Proposition 209, which he said was better funded and easier to sell to voters, whereas “the benefits here would be more long term, that is, basically, that this would affect attitudes on race.” He also said that while most conservatives support Proposition 54, their support is less intense than it was for Proposition 209.

The latest polling data does not bode well for supporters of Proposition 54. Results of a Los Angeles Times poll released last week show the initiative trailing for the first time among likely voters — and by a margin of more than 20%.

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