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UC Regents Oppose Connerly Race Initiative

Friday May 16, 2003

The University of California Board of Regents dealt a symbolic blow to one of its own Thursday, coming out in formal opposition to Regent Ward Connerly’s controversial Racial Privacy Initiative. 

The initiative, which will go before California voters in March 2004, would prevent state and local government from collecting data on race. Supporters say the ballot measure marks an important step toward a color-blind society, but opponents say it would block vital research and erase any evidence of racial discrimination in public health, housing and education. 

“We cannot create a color-blind society by making government blind to discrimination,” said California Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson (D-Culver City), who is an ex officio member of the board. 

Connerly, the leading force behind the voter-approved Proposition 209, which dismantled many of the state’s affirmative action programs, dismissed the regents’ vote as inconsequential. 

“The University of California, with all due respect, is irrelevant,” he said, predicting victory at the ballot box in March. 

A recent, independent Field Poll found 48 percent of voters in favor of the initiative and 33 percent opposed, with 19 percent undecided. 

Jay Ziegler, co-director of the Campaign Against the Information Ban, a coalition of health care, education and civil rights groups opposed to the Racial Privacy Initiative, said he is not concerned about the poll numbers. 

“The debate hasn’t been joined yet,” he said. “The more voters learn about this initiative, the more the playing field dips in our favor.” 

Some regents expressed regret that the board, which voted 15-3 to oppose the initiative, was weighing in on such a politically charged issue. 

“The regents are not a debating society,” said Regent George Marcus, adding that he was baffled that UC President Richard Atkinson had placed the resolution, opposing the Racial Privacy Initiative, on the board’s agenda. 

Regent John Davies said the board’s action will have no bearing on the voters’ decision next March and argued that it will only alienate those who support the ballot measure. 

But others said Connerly, as a regent, has inevitably linked the Racial Privacy Initiative to the university, forcing the board to take a stand. 

“We have been drawn into this,” said Regent Alfredo Terrazas. “We have to clear our name.”  

The initiative, formally known as “Classification By Race, Ethnicity, Color or National Origin” (CRECNO), has sparked concern among UC professors and students who fear that it will restrict their ability to conduct policy-shaping research on education and health care. 

“A whole lot of the state databases that our researchers utilize would disappear,” said Gayle Binion, chair of the UC Academic Senate, which voted unanimously to oppose the Racial Privacy Initiative. “No appropriate information should ever be taboo.” 

But San Diego State biology professor Stuart Hulbert, who supports Connerly’s initiative, said academic research focused on race only divides the nation. 

“Business as usual has been bad business,” said Hulbert. 

Critics say it is naive to brush aside race when it still plays a major role in American society. 

“It is not good to be blind,” said student Regent Dexter Ligot-Gordon, who attends UC Berkeley. “We need to be cognizant of the issues we deal with. We need to be cognizant of the people we serve.” 

But Connerly rejected the critique, arguing that the state must take the lead in changing the national “obsession” with race. 

“I concur with those who say California will not become a color-blind society just because we wish it so,” he said. But “by its decrees and conduct, government charts the course for its people to follow.” 

Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, an ex officio regent who frequently clashes with Connerly, said the initiative threatens medical research which has demonstrated, for example, that Hispanics suffer disproportionately from diabetes and Vietnamese women have the highest incidence of cervical cancer of any ethnic group in the nation. 

“This is about identifying people at risk,” he said. 

But Connerly, pointing to an exemption for “medical research subjects and patients,” said Bustamante was using scare tactics. 

“This goes beyond the pale,” Connerly said. “It’s irresponsible to frighten the people of California and the people of the nation.” 

Critics, including Kaiser Permanente and the California Medical Association, say the exemption is vaguely worded and may not protect all medical research. 

“Because California is one of the most racially diverse states, physicians and health officials need data on race and national origin to help them make critical decisions,” said Ron Lopp, spokesman for the California Medical Association. 

In addition to the medical exemption, the initiative protects information on prisoners’ race and any data collection required by the federal government. 

Washington, D.C., requires public universities to keep tabs on the race of enrolled students, but does not require records on applicants. Opponents of CRECNO say the applicant data is vital in monitoring the successes and failures of UC’s outreach programs for underachieving communities. Without the data, they argue, UC will not be accountable. 

“They removed our bodies from the campus,” said UC Berkeley graduate student Mo Kashmiri, referring to Proposition 209’s ban on affirmative action in admissions. “Now they want to remove the evidence.” 

But Connerly said the university’s constant focus on the plight of “underrepresented minorities” — black, Hispanic and Native American students — sends the wrong message. 

“We instill in students the notion that underrepresented minorities can’t help but underachieve,” he said. 

About 100 UC students, who spoke out against the initiative over the course of the board’s two-day meeting and hissed at Connerly’s arguments, hailed the final vote. 

“It was a resounding victory,” said Cintya Molina, a UC Berkeley graduate student. “It really showed the power of the students to put on pressure.” 

Diane Schacterle, spokesman for the Sacramento-based American Civil Rights Coalition, which favors the Racial Privacy Initiative, said the university, which sometimes uses racial data to win funding for research grants, was simply protecting its interests. 

“It’s not surprising,” she said. “The university is too vested in the research monies.”