Catholic Charities Focus

Colorblind or Blindfolded?

Rick Mockler
Executive Director
Catholic Charities of California

August, 2003
For Catholic Diocesan Newspapers (reprinted with permission)


Catholic Charities Archives:

Child Care and Public Safety (5/01)
Caught in the Farm Squeeze (7/01)
Mothers, Babies, the State Budget (8/01)
Community Supported Ag (10/01)
Serving the Victims of Backlash (11/01)
Hope at Christmastime (12/01)
Disaster Relief Struggles (1/02)
Reforming Welfare(3/02)
Why Sacrifice Health Care (2/03)

Colorblind or Blindfolded?

When Catholics began arriving in the United States in large numbers in the 1800s, many Americans wished that the boats would turn around and return us to Ireland, Germany, Italy and all our other countries of origin.  Our forefathers were often denied jobs, housing, and decent education for their children.  Priests and bishops were burnt in effigy, along with convents, churches and homes of foreigners whom belonged to the “Whore of Babylon.”  While violence subsided in the 1860s, only after several generations did many of our families emerge from the Catholic ghetto and successfully integrate into mainstream America.

Given many of our ancestors’ experiences, Catholics were largely supportive when Congress enacted civil rights laws in the 1960s.  While not erasing the problem of racism, those laws installed protections and penalties for discrimination.   They were a step forward, although as Latino, Asian, Black and immigrant Catholics have shared with me, discrimination continues today in less overt ways in the workplace, schools, law enforcement and elsewhere.  Our willingness to acknowledge and face that racism is again being tested in an initiative on the October 7th ballot.

The “Racial Privacy Initiative,” drafted by UC Regent Ward Connerly, proposes to prohibit state and local government from collecting or using data that identifies people by race, ethnicity, or national origin.  It is different from Prop 209, the 1996 initiative which abolished affirmative action, because instead of targeting privileges it focuses on information and knowledge.  It would eliminate racial and ethnic identification in state and local government, including schools, contracting and employment.  Supporters of Proposition 54 argue that intermarrying has blurred historic categories of race, and conjecture that ending the collection of this data will promote colorblindness.

I have a several problems with the initiative.  First, as with all ballot initiatives, it is a blunt instrument fraught with unintended consequences, in this case obstructing access to public health data.  In Catholic Charities’ work to decrease tobacco use among youth, for example, we need to know how many kids are smoking or chewing, at what ages they start, if use is up or down and most importantly, why kids are starting.  Patterns vary dramatically by ethnicity, but Prop 54 would block us from knowing this.  Tobacco prevention is one example, but this information is useful in all kinds of outreach – drug abuse, suicide prevention and even lead paint abatement. 

While Prop 54 allows data to be collected on medical research subjects, the clumsy wording prevents the tracking of broader disease and health patterns across ethnic groups and it even prevents the state from using federal or private sector data.  In the medical field, diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and sickle cell anemia vary widely by ethnicity, which is why dozens of health groups, ranging from the California Medical Association to the American Public Health Association are opposing the initiative.

On a more fundamental level, I’m offended by the sponsors’ passive stance towards racism, treating it as something that would disappear if we’d just ignore it.  In conversation with our staff, volunteers and parishioners, I regularly hear experiences of discrimination and disrespect based on skin color.  Churches have been leaders in fighting racism, from the prohibition of slavery to the civil rights movement, because we believe that racism is a scourge that demands action – it is something to be actively rooted out and not merely hoped to die out over time.

Finally, I’m suspicious of any proposed solution that relies on the withholding of information.  While we don’t have all the answers, our society is ahead of where we were 170 years ago and some of that progress is due to better data and a greater willingness to ask questions.  If racial groups are faring better or worse, we can tell objectively and not rely on anecdotes or opinion.  While being color blind is a goal I share with the initiative’s sponsors, until we reach that end we need data, not blindfolds.

As an Irish-German Catholic, I’m grateful to the sacrifices that my ancestors endured, immigrating to a sometimes hostile land over a century ago.  I’m also aware that many Catholics today are living through a similar experience, asking only that they be given a chance at a livelihood, safety and education for their children, regardless of the color of their skin.  It seems the least we can do is to ensure a level playing field.


Rick Mockler is Executive Director for Catholic Charities of California and serves on the board of trustees for Catholic Charities USA.  Visit the Catholic Charities of California web site for more information.  Rick Mockler’s e-mail address is [email protected].