By: Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League
Ignorance is bliss.
When it comes to facing America's still-serious problems—and opportunities—that spring from the racial and ethnic differences of its populace, and expanding our commitment to equal opportunity, that's what proponents of Proposition 54, the ballot initiative California voters will decide October 7, recommend.
The initiative would bar California's state and local governments from collecting data on the basis of race and ethnicity—including on such forms as birth and death certificates—and from classifying people by race and ethnicity.
This, its advocates say, would be "progress."
In other words: Forget reality. Retreat into a world of fantasy where you deny that race and ethnicity have any impact on the way different individuals and different groups of Americans live their lives, on the opportunities they have or don't have to gain a good education, get a good job, get a mortgage that will enable them to buy a house, live in a neighborhood that receives its full share of government services, and so on.
And forget history, too. Forget that time and time again some in America have cried for a retreat on civil rights for African Americans and other people of color. Those efforts to wish away reality and responsibility, albeit the tremendous damage they did, litter the dustbin of history.
Forty years ago Martin Luther King, Jr., in his "I Have A Dream Speech" during the March on Washington, spoke of that indulgence in denial and fantasy with powerful words when he referred to Mississippi, "a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression," and Alabama, "whose governor's lips are dripping with the words of interposition and nullification."
But, of course, King was well aware that that pretense also thrived in milder and colder climates, too.
America has traveled a long road since August of 1963 when Americans of all kinds gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to press the case for America as a full, not just a partial democracy.
Now, Americans in California must stage their own march for the continued pursuit of justice and tolerance and equality of opportunity.
They must march to the polls October 7 and vote against the Proposition 54—in order to avoid turning back the clock of tolerance and justice in California, and leaving all its citizens ensnared in a tangle of extreme difficulty.
Why would anyone want to pretend that California can face the issues of inclusion and democracy it has to face by not knowing who its residents are? California is the nation's most diverse state, the only state where no one racial or ethnic group constitutes a majority of the population: 46 percent of its residents are white, 35 percent are Latino, 12 percent are Asian and Pacific Islander, 6 percent are African-American, and 1 percent are Americans of other backgrounds.
Knowing that fact alone is important to trying to understand what has happened and is happening within the state, and to what can be done to build a stable, prosperous future for as many Californians as possible.
But, under Proposition 54, state and local governments could not even gather such data—nor all the other data for a variety of areas those figures suggest need to be gathered—let alone, use it to help formulate the policies that are supposed to help Californians.
The U.S. Census Bureau just released figures showing that nationally more than 1.6 million more Americans fell below the poverty line from 2001 to 2002. That data was not only presented as a total national figure; it was also differentiated by race and ethnicity—showing, among other things, that the poverty rate rose by more than one percent for African Americans, while it remained relatively stable for whites, Asian Americans, and Latino Americans.
But, again, under Proposition 54, California state officials could not seek to measure the poverty rate among specific racial and ethnic groups. Would such a restriction help solve the problem of poverty and lack of opportunity in California?
It's not surprising that some continue to propose that not gathering data about and not discussing issues of race and ethnicity is the way to "solve" the problems that exist along the color line. That's an old American story.
But these issues can't be wished away, for the issue of how far are the gates of opportunity to open to Americans on all sides of the color line is at the core of the discussion of what it means to be an American.
That's why Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech resonated so powerfully that day, and why it continues to resonate: Because its fundamental message was that In the real world, ignorance isn't bliss. It's dangerous.
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