Another controversial race-focused initiative will soon be placed before the Californian electorate. This ballot measure, called the Racial Privacy Initiative, would prevent many state agencies, including all public universities and other government entities, from collecting information on race, ethnicity and national origin.

This race-focused initiative raises some important and provocative questions, especially in light of California’s minority-majority status. Why do we consider race and ethnicity in making policy? Are these designations antiquated and unnecessary in today’s multiethnic environment? Or do race and ethnicity remain an essential element in understanding social, political and economic realities?

Long before the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, hard data has been the foundation of successful constitutional challenges on behalf of civil rights. In all subsequent equal access cases, race data has provided tangible proof of a significant imbalance in the distribution of public benefits based on race.

For example, in studies in 2002 on housing discrimination, race data has clearly confirmed that African-Americans pay more for their homes, receive less favorable mortgage rates and continue to be disproportionately concentrated in segregated enclaves.

Historically, persons of color have been sent blunt signals that not being white is undesirable, that one’s identity is a reason for shame and that asserting pride in one’s racial and cultural identity is a form of troublemaking which should be stifled in the workplace. The Racial Privacy Initiative simply seeks to convert these negative messages into state law: It will be better for everyone if no one asks and no one tells anything about race. Thus, perpetrators of hate are being given a guilt-free pass, since data substantiating their discriminatory behavior would not be available under the Racial Privacy Initiative.

A more realistic approach – since entryway bigotry is still alive and well in too much of America – will depend heavily on racial data to verify whether obstructions to equality are real or imagined. Perception may be an individual’s reality, and hard racial data confirm or reject patterns of negative perceptions.

The Racial Privacy Initiative supporters allege that racial data forces people into jobs and institutions in which they otherwise would not be interested simply to satisfy artificial racial quotas. To the contrary, public officials’ access to data about race and gender differences in the workplace have been become valuable tools in identifying areas in which recruitment and issues of access were explored from both an empirical and workforce-balance perspective. Analyses and documentation of racial data in turn have resulted in the opening of possibilities to previously excluded people of color who then enhance our collective competitiveness.

Discrimination, racial profiling and prejudice continue to exist in our society, even as racial demographics shift. In experiments using candidates of different races but matching qualifications, research organizations like the Urban Institute have shown racial preferences and stereotypes are still at play when decisions are made about housing and hiring. The notion of becoming a colorblind society can’t happen overnight.

Unless we gather information about race and ethnic groups, we will have no way of knowing if this fundamental goal – the colorblind society championed by both sides in the racial privacy debate – has truly been achieved. But surely we know that racism and structural inequalities are pervasive within the fundamental workings of our system of government. The racial privacy initiative seems to move us backward in our struggle for inclusion and equality for all.

There will be a community informational session on the Racial Privacy Initiative on Thursday, May 29 at noon at the Santa Barbara Public Library. For information call 884-6800.

Annette Cordero is a chair of the Santa Barbara County Human Relations Commission.