»  National Review Online

June 25th, 2002

  Mind Your Own Business


As has often been said, the most interesting arguments in our public life today are not those between Left and Right, but those within the Right. The political Left has had no new ideas since 1968.*  Their old ideas have "won" in the sense that they dominate the media, universities, the legal profession and the public sector, but the price of victory has been the stultification of leftist thought, and a decay of the critical faculties. Nobody on the Left has anything interesting to say. Our best debates now are all within the political Right. One that has currently got my attention concerns Ward Connerly's "Racial Privacy Initiative."

Ward Connerly is the Sacramento businessman who is Chairman of the American Civil Rights Coalition. He was a prime mover in the 1996 "Proposition 209" campaign to ban racial prefences in California public hiring, education and contracting. Now he is arguing that since, following the success of that campaign, it is illegal for the state to discriminate by race, there is no reason why the state should continue to gather data on race, or to operate systems of racial classification for any but a small number of very restricted purposes. (You can read the precise wording of the RPI on the website tagged above). He is trying to get this new initiative on the ballot for either this November or next March.

That the Left should be hostile to the RPI is not at all surprising. Racial head-counting is now deeply imbedded in America's public-sector culture, where most Lefties work. What on earth does a "civil rights lawyer" or an "equal opportunity" bureaucrat do, without some statistics to prove that "discrimination" is going on? The entire premise of large areas of our social policy is that greedy, pitiless white people will stomp on the faces of helpless minorities the instant the government relaxes its vigilance. To prove the truth of this, you need statistics to show that "disparate impact" has occurred. Then you have your case: for "disparate impact" is caused by that sinister desire, lurking in the hearts of all white folk, to insult, humiliate and impoverish people with dark skin. What else could it possibly be caused by?

Nor is it very surprising that California's Republican Party will not touch the RPI with a barge-pole. Republican politicians know that getting themselves associated with any policy of this sort will quickly be manipulated by opposition spinners to reinforce the impression of Republicans as the Unkind Party, the party of people who are for ever striving, in sly and underhand ways, to bring back the evils of the past. They are scared witless to be seen out in public with the likes of Ward Connerly; and, from a strictly psephological point of view, they are probably right to feel that way. Millions of not-very-attentive voters choose their candidate not because they favor this policy or that initiative, but from vague feelings that party A is nicer than party B. Colored people have made so much progress! Now this Connerly fellow wants to stop it? That's not nice! Yes, of course this attitude is idiotic. Millions of voters are idiots. You didn't know that? The pols know it, and they act accordingly.

What is surprising, and makes for a good debate, is that some conservatives are against RPI. They have two sets of arguments: one respectable and one less so. The more respectable argument is: "Without hard data on race differences in attainment and the progress of racial minorities, the race hucksters — the Sharptons, Jacksons, McKinneys and Mfumes — will be able to make any claims they like, and nobody will be able to refute them." The less respectable argument goes something like: "Real progress in dealing with racial issues won't be possible until the 'no such thing as race' dogmas have been decisively refuted. You can't build sensible policies on falsehoods, and you can't refute falsehoods without data. If you pretend that every group is equally capable of everything, or even just equally interested in everything, you get into absurdities and counter-productive policies — look at the Title IX fiasco."

The counter-argument, put forward by Connerly himself, is that our governments need to stop taking notice of our race (or, in the case of "Hispanics," pseudo-race) as decisively as they stopped taking notice of our religion when the First Amendment was ratified. It's none of their business. True, it's difficult for our governments to wean themselves off their race fixation, which is as old as the Constitution iself. And we all know that once they have their fingernails dug into any one part of your flesh, it's awfully hard to pry them away. But if we could once get government people out of the race business, we might have a fair shot at racial peace, as we have had religious peace for 209 years

Connerly further adds that there is nothing to stop anyone collecting data on racial progress if they want to. His initiative, if approved by the voters, will only forbid the state government from doing so. Objectors respond that, yes, but the hucksters would have a field day with privately-gathered data, arguing that those who gathered it were working to an "agenda." In some cases, of course, this would be true, and it is a fact that government statistics have an authority that private polls and surveys do not. If you believe that we need reliable statistics on racial disparities, the objectors have a point.

For myself, I find Connerly's First Amendment analogy persuasive. If our legislators are forbidden to make any law respecting an establishment of religion, why should they not be similarly forbidden to make any law respecting the establishment of "protected categories" of citizens defined by other accidents of geography, biology or upbringing? And if, absent social engineering, different groups end up in different proportions in different walks of life — so what? Different religions have. Nobody minds that, and our governments are constitutionally forbidden to notice it. How many Episcopalian stand-up comics are there? Who cares?

As a conservative, I should be glad to see our bloated, arrogant, intrusive state and federal governments rolled back from any part of our private lives … But especially this part.

* When Norman Thomas died.