Colorblind or Blindfolded?
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.
“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
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