There is always something new out of California. Watch out for an initiative on the state ballot in March 2002 that will take the first step towards barring the identification of Americans by race. It could overturn, in time, the whole apparatus by which government delivers social policy. It could mark the start of the end of "hyphenated Americans": those who call themselves African-American, native-American, Chinese-American and so on. A new generation is arriving that may spurn the definitions their parents sought.
Ward Connerly, a black Sacramento businessman who sponsored a successful anti-affirmative action measure in 1996, promises to produce a "Racial Privacy Initiative". This, says Mr Connerly, would "protect a person from disclosing his identity to the government". Except for medical or law enforcement purposes, racial identification would stop altogether. Citing his own marriage to a white woman and their multiracial children, Mr Connerly argues that intermarriage, which is several times more common in California than in any other state, is making the concept of race irrelevant.
"At this point," says Tamar Jacoby, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, "those of us who think that the government's need for race data has become intrusive have to ask ourselves whether we should be patient as racial mixture renders the categories meaningless, or do we attack the system head on, thereby risking the possibility of backlash."
Political observers fear that the Racial Privacy Initiative could also prove to be as emotionally charged and socially wrenching as were Propositions 187 and 209, the anti-illegal immigrant and anti-affirmative action ballot measures that shook California in the 1990s. Wary of yet another potentially divisive political measure, many Californians are likely to ask themselves whether the end of this initiative is worth the means.
Over the past several decades, an increasing number of multiracial Americans have demanded the right to identify themselves outside of the four racial -- and one ethnic -- categories normally provided by government agencies. Finally recognising this, the 2000 Census became the first to allow people to mark more than one racial box on their questionnaire.
"Race in America is increasingly becoming a matter of subjectivity," says Peter Skerry, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. Before 1960, when race was considered an objective characteristic, census enumerators were entrusted with selecting the race of American citizens. But since then, the federal government has deemed racial self-identification one more individual right to which Americans are entitled. "Self-identification is sacrosanct now," says Mr Skerry. "But we're beginning to wonder whether these government categories make sense."
Although relatively few respondents -- 2.4% -- took advantage of the multiracial option in 2000, the 7m, largely youthful, generation of multiracial Americans (half are under 18) who did, have opened the door to a whole new era. "Over time, people will begin to answer the race question in more complex ways," says a Harvard sociologist, Mary C. Waters.
The government's growing dependence on this morass of racial data to make public policy is on a collision course with the public's growing desire to resist the questions. For example, in 1998, the first year the University of California abolished affirmative action in admissions, the number of applicants who declined to state their race shot up by 213%. Citing the need to get a full picture of the impact of race-blind policies, admissions directors at the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of California at San Diego later admitted they peeked into SAT exam results in an attempt to ascertain those students' racial backgrounds.
Over the past few years, in an attempt to root out racial profiling by police, roughly 400 local law-enforcement agencies around the country have begun collecting data on the racial and ethnic backgrounds of all drivers stopped. Because departments generally discourage officers from directly asking a citizen's race -- for fear of inviting even greater distrust -- they are essentially obliged to guess each driver's heritage before recording it.
Despite the noble purposes of this monitoring, the prospect of the government prying into or guessing the racial backgrounds of citizens will cause increasing concern in American society. "We paint ourselves into a corner," says Ruben G. Rumbault, a sociology professor at Michigan State University. "In order to combat discrimination, we monitor race, which, in turn, only solidifies and hardens these racial categories."
In 1978, when Supreme Court justice, Harry A. Blackmun wrote his famous dictum, that to go beyond racism, we first must consider race, most Americans could grasp his logic. A generation later, however, racial data collection efforts that make the public even more race-conscious than it already is may strike Americans as a vicious circle.
Copyright 2001, The Economist