"Oh, wait a minute."
Dr. Nancy Bowen groaned briefly when told she was on a list of opponents of Proposition 54, the so-called Racial Privacy Initiative that California voters will get a crack at Oct. 7, along with deciding the fate of Gov. Gray Davis.
As the county's public health officer, Dr. Bowen doesn't take kindly to being immersed in such roiling political debates. "I don't remember signing anything in my official capacity," she wondered aloud. "No, that's not correct-I am a government official, and I cannot take an official position related to it."
And yet, there's her name (minus mention of her county position), topping the endorsement roster of health officials on the informedcalifornia.org website, cyber-home to the "No on 54" camp.
Gripes about her name being emblazoned on the literature notwithstanding, the good doctor is frustrated by the measure, and she's not alone. The initiative was authored by anti-affirmative-action warrior Ward Connerly, a University of California regent, and financially backed by his American Civil Rights Coalition, which is reportedly under investigation by the state's Fair Political Practices Commission.
The proposition is deceptively brief-just 15 paragraphs long-but it packs a wallop. If passed, it would alter the state Constitution dramatically, as indicated by the first line of the measure: "The state shall not classify any individual by race, ethnicity, color or national origin in the operation of public education, public contracting or public employment."
Dr. Bowen, who said she had no interest in delving into the "political messaging" surrounding the Prop. 54 debate, won't come right out and say she opposes the measure, but she acknowledged that its passage would raise troubling issues.
"We are concerned that we may have less information to help us understand disease and to target our interventions effectively," she said.
Backers of the measure say such concerns are unfounded, that Prop. 54 will simply give the state and local governments a push toward becoming more colorblind by restricting data that separates people by skin tone. Opponents, who have dubbed the measure the "Information Ban Initiative," argue that Prop. 54 would make it more difficult to identify and correct inequities.
While the state Legislative Analyst's Office has determined that government agencies would be banned from collecting some race-related information, some data collection would be allowed to continue under the measure.
According to an LAO report, "the measure allows the continued collection and use of race-related data for a variety of reasons, including: to comply with federal law; to remain eligible to receive money from the federal government; to comply with a court order in force as of the effective date of this measure [Jan. 1, 2005]; to allow law enforcement agencies to describe individuals, to place prisoners and assign undercover law enforcement officers; to collect and use information related to medical research subjects and patients; [and] to allow the Department of Fair Employment and Housing to collect certain race-related information through 2014."
Instances in which government could no longer collect race data, the report stated, include companies doing business with the state, public-school students participating in some state education programs and tests, prospective University of California and California State University students, high school students participating in some UC educational outreach programs, college students taking part in the state's loan forgiveness program, and students taking state teacher credentialing exams.
The report adds that "for some current governmental activities, the effect of the measure is unknown and would depend on future interpretation of the measure's language by courts and future actions by the Legislature," including use of federal census information.
Recent polls show support for Prop. 54 slipping to about 46 percent, a level that political experts say does not bode well for the measure's passage. Opponents, a wide swath of political interest groups including gays and lesbians, Latinos, blacks and other minority groups, say pointing out the measure's support from many right-wing groups has helped temper the proposition's earlier lead in polls.
"The coalition is very diverse and broad and contains what some people might consider unusual bedfellows," said Dale Kelly Bankhead, public affairs director for the local American Civil Liberties Union chapter. "But almost everybody has become highly sensitized to the fact that proposition after proposition is put on the ballot, each one targeting a single group of people with minority status, and people have said, "Alright, enough!'.... We need to demonstrate that you cannot divide and conquer us in this way."
Billy Vaughn, president of San Diego's Diversity Training University International, an online university that targets corporate clients, said he has read as much as he can on Prop. 54 in preparation for a Sept. 18 forum he's organizing on the measure.
"What I realized is that no matter where I look, I just can't find any substance to it," Vaughn said. "It's clear that we don't have a society that's gotten to the point in which discrimination isn't a problem."
What the pro-Prop. 54 people have failed to do is provide empirical data that shows that race no longer matters in this country, Vaughn said. "That's the weakest side of the argument for this proposition. They can't show any data."