The Berkeley City Council unanimously voted to oppose the Racial Privacy Initiative Tuesday night, an initiative that would prohibit state and local governments from collecting or using information about race, ethnicity, color or national origin.
The RPI, submitted by UC Regent Ward Connerly for the November ballot, proposes to phase out racial check-off boxes on state and local government forms by 2005, with exemptions for medical research and treatment, law enforcement and the Department of Fair Employment and Housing.
"The fundamental question we have to ask ourselves is why would we not want to have access to information on these topics," said Councilmember Linda Maio.
The City Council, along with other opponents of the initiative including the ACLU, the NAACP and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund claim that the RPI would damage efforts to monitor racial data and enforce anti-discrimination laws.
“It would be detrimental to many different information gathering efforts used to address racial and ethnic inequalities,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington.
Worthington contends that if the initiative makes it to the November ballot, it would hide the discrimination and racism that currently exists by forcing people to debate issues without facts, documents or proof.
Supporters of the initiative claim that the collection of racial and ethnic data is not reliable and represents a governmental obsession with race. According to Kevin Nguyen, Executive Director of the American Civil Rights Coalition, “the collection of racial data is a political exercise, not a scientific one. The information is not reliable. Information on race is devoid of standards and consistency.”
Nguyen added that data collection does not solve problems but instead leads to confusion and inconsistencies. Supporters of the initiative claim that individuals from multi-racial backgrounds are forced to check off one box on surveys of race or ethnicity leading to inaccurate data.
Nguyen also added that UC Berkeley's student newspaper The Daily Californian has decided to support the initiative.
Councilmember Worthington cited the effect that the initiative could have on health issues. Because health campaigns often focus on community or ethnic specific issues, an elimination of ethnic and racial data would compromise the efforts of those campaigns, he said.
“The other side says we should be colorblind and simply focus on merit, a wonderful idea if it worked in reality. The reality is racism still exists,” said Worthington.
City Council plans to send letters of opposition to Gov. Gray Davis, state Assemblywoman Dion Aroner and state Senator Don Perata. The council is confident that Aroner and Perata will oppose the initiative and hopeful that Davis will also decide against the RPI as well.
The initiative, proposed as a result of the lack of compliance with Proposition 209 according to Nguyen, is currently waiting for approval from the Secretary of State before it can legally be placed on the November ballot.
According to the ACRC, nearly one million signatures have been collected from California voters in favor of placing the initiative on the ballot.
Many opponents of the initiative claim the RPI could damage protections the data collection allows for members of ethnic minorities. Opponents of the initiative expressed a desire to evaluate individuals on a basis of merit and without regard to color as the RIP supports, but claimed that such evaluation is not possible in our modern, multi-ethnic, multi-racial society.
“Connerly seems to want to say that everything is fine, that we don't need to do any more work on the topic of race but that's a self-delusion, a myth,” said Maio.
Jim Hausken, a board member from the Berkeley-Albany-Richmond-Kensington chapter of the ACLU, believes that the initiative will hamstring many well-intentioned efforts to reduce discrimination.
According to Hausken, the initiative claims that certain realities, such as figures on race and ethnicity, would be deemed unimportant. According to Hausken, such determinations are dangerous and parallel battles over censorship.
Maio hopes that the topic will continue to produce a large amount of public discourse and hopes the city will plan future public forums on the issue.