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Racial data impacts public policy

Tom Bates
Thursday July 18, 2002

To the Editor: 

The Racial Privacy Initiative is very much alive and is one to watch. The initiative cleverly wraps itself in the banner of individual rights and protecting personal privacy. But it is not at all about rights. It’s about denial: denial that racial inequalities continue to persist in our society. If passed, the initiative will amend the California Constitution to prohibit the state government from collecting information on the race and ethnicity of people needing or receiving government services. 

The major reason for the government to collect racial data is to allow us to evaluate the effects of special policies and actions taken by the government and the private sector. For example, physicians and epidemiologists have demonstrated that collecting data about race and ethnicity is of great importance in improving public health measures. The social and economic health of our citizens is no less important, and indeed, directly impacts physical health. 

Racial data are essential to assure that bank loans and mortgages are made in accordance with nondiscrimination laws, and to see where our educational delivery may be falling short. We need to collect racial data to assure that everyone is being treated in a fair and equitable way. Why would we not want to have this information? We all benefit when public health programs target specific ethnic groups with appropriate health education, based on their experiences and needs. We all benefit when public contract money is distributed in a fair and racially nondiscriminatory way. We all benefit when our friends and neighbors are treated ethically by lending institutions. We need to continue to know if our policies and actions are increasing or decreasing the health and well-being of different racial groups. Our obligation to know is directly linked to the 14th Amendment, which guarantees “equal protection” of all citizens. 

I’ve had to ask myself why the Racial Privacy Initiative would be placed on the ballot. Even if the sponsors and supporters of this initiative have the best motives (which they assert is to try to reduce racial inequality) the effect of its passage would mean that we will not be able to identify racially discriminatory practices. By making it illegal for racial data to be collected, the Initiative would deprive policy makers and the public of the only way we can follow compliance with long-standing nondiscrimination laws. If we don’t gather information we won’t know, and if we don’t know, as a society we certainly won’t be able to act. 


Tom Bates 

former state Assemblyman