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Erasing Race: The Ward Connerly Approach by Jabari Asim

When I was growing up, my elders were fond of reciting a bit of homespun sarcasm that had been sharpened and polished through the years, making it applicable to a variety of contexts. It was invoked most often when responding to a request considered beneath one's dignity to accommodate. Imagine, for example, a youngster pulling his mother's coattail while begging for an undeserved treat. "But I want it," the child would demand. "You have to get it for me. You have to!" To which the mom would reply, "Ain't but two things I have to do in this world: Be black and die." It was the ultimate closing argument, a self-evident truth that neither time nor legislation could ever destroy.

As it turns out, Mom was only half right - at least as far as Ward Connerly is concerned. The California activist believes no one is obligated to adhere to that imaginary social construct known as race. Furthermore, whether or not one chooses to adopt a racial identity is nobody else's business - especially the state's.

Connerly is leading a movement to place a Racial Privacy Initiative on California's November ballot. Co-founder and chairman of the quaintly named American Civil Rights Coalition (ACRC), Connerly wants to prevent state agencies from "classifying any individual by race, ethnicity, color or national origin in the operation of public education, public contracting or public employment."

When he announced his campaign in April, Connerly issued a statement declaring, "We are a multi-racial society that defies box-checking. The boxes can no longer define us just as the 'one-drop rule' can no longer divide us. The goal of the Racial Privacy Initiative is to move us beyond the box and closer to a color-blind society. The government should respect our privacy and not collect such personal information, especially since our state constitution no longer allows discrimination or preferences based on an arbitrary social construct such as 'race.'"

To his credit, Connerly's proposal allows for reasonable exceptions with regard to fair employment and housing guidelines and even includes a loophole allowing such classification when it "serves a compelling state interest," a wonderfully flexible phrase that brings to mind the "all deliberate speed" stipulation in Brown v. Board of Education. In addition, the measure would make illegal the kind of racial profiling that law enforcement officials have been known to pursue with disastrous consequences.

I find Connerly's avowed dedication to privacy more appealing than his aversion to what he regards as widespread abuse of perceived racial difference. I'm not convinced that a truly color-blind society is preferable to one in which difference is recognized but seen as a cause for celebration instead of contempt. Like Connerly, however, I regard the right to be left alone as a precious and fundamental American freedom - the very kind of liberty that certain forms of overzealous racial classification make difficult to attain. "If the 1st Amendment means anything," Thurgood Marshall once said, "it means that the state has no business telling a man, sitting alone in his own house, what books he may read or what films he may watch." Nor, he might have added, does the state have any business telling a man when, where or in what manner he should categorize himself.

Connerly probably overestimates the relevance of the one-drop rule, an old custom that classified as black anyone known to have even "one drop" of "black" blood in their family background. He's right, though, to condemn its affect on Americans such as Tiger Woods, who'd rather take an equal interest in every aspect of their ethnic heritage. Besides, no one should have to be considered black if they don't want to, despite what our elders used to tell us. What's more, blacks are as confused as anyone else about the increasing varieties of racial classification. Last year, Ebony Magazine's annual roundup of black baseball players omitted an alarming percentage of them, all of whom certainly "looked" black but had surnames such as Sosa and Guerrero.

Citing recent studies, Connerly's website ( suggests that the tendency of people to indulge in racial stereotyping can be assuaged through initiatives such as his. Once freed from their formerly restrictive viewpoints, Connerly's fellow Californians could move past that broken-down black - white paradigm and engage in genuine multicultural fellowship. Such mutually enriching interaction would certainly be welcome and doubtless ease the exasperation of all the red, yellow, and brown Americans who are still frequently shunted aside during national discussions about race.

Connerly's faith in human potential is expansive and apparently long-standing. In his memoir, Creating Equal, he expresses admiration for Ralph Ellison's concept of "heroic optimism," which Connerly describes as "the belief that a combination of work, endurance, and the ultimate goodness of this country" will lead to personal success.

I, too, admire such can-do spirit, but I'm wary of its dangerous resemblance to mere wishful thinking. I don't profess to know any more than Connerly about how to solve our most persistent national dilemma, but his proposal leaves me with a number of nagging questions. Unlike the authors of the studies that Connerly cites, I continue to doubt the power of language to correct deeply held misconceptions and the harmful behavior that often results from them.

For instance, if Rodney King had informed his pursuers that he was not black but simply American, would they have spared him his notorious beating? If Amadou Diallo's assailants had believed him to be not a black man but simply a New Yorker, would his wallet have remained just a wallet? And if changing or removing racial labels truly influences behavior, why do White Citizens' Councils by any other name smell just as foul?

It is perhaps unfair to demand of Connerly answers that no other activist or public official has been able to provide. Surely it is reasonable, however, to wonder if proposals such as his can ever amount to more than simple semantic exercises that comfort our souls but do little else.

Jabari Asim is a senior editor of Washington Post Book World and editor of Not Guilty: Twelve Black Men Speak Out on the Law, Justice and Life (Amistad/HarperCollins). Jabari Asim can be contacted via e-mail at:

Jabari Asim

Monday, April 8, 2002

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