Opposition to Ward Connerly’s Proposition 54—the “color conscious” initiative—has centered around what opponents call its “hidden agenda.” Prop 54, they say, is the unholy companion to Proposition 209, the 1996 initiative that gutted California’s affirmative action programs. Prop 209 made it more difficult to operate programs in California to counter discrimination against African-Americans and Latinos. In preventing the government from collecting race-based data, the argument continues, Prop 54 would cover up the effects of continuing anti-black and anti-brown discrimination. First the stab in the neck by the assassin’s stiletto. Then the assistant comes to sop up the blood and destroy any evidence of a crime.
All of that may be true. But actually, it’s the unhidden agenda of Prop. 54 that worries me the most.
“We are a multi-racial society that defies box-checking,” Mr. Connerly said two years ago in announcing the beginning of the Prop 54 petition campaign, the “boxes” referring to those little squares on forms we fill out, now and then, to designate our race or ethnicity. “The goal of [Prop 54] is to move us beyond the box and closer to a colorblind 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.’ Race classifications have never helped anyone. … It’s time California learned this history lesson, and became truly colorblind.”
The problem is, I don’t think it’s possible for human beings to be colorblind. And if some great god came by offering that as a “gift” to humanity, for myself, I’d pass up the opportunity.
As far as I can tell from my limited studies and readings, from the very beginnings of our existence it has been in the nature of humans to gather ourselves into small, distinct groups. At first, in the days when we first walked the African savannahs, you couldn’t make out an overall physical difference between these little bands of survivors. If you scrambled the bones of various groups from those early days, an anthropologist would find it impossible to put them all back beside the right campfire. This was before our wanderings into new environments colored our skins, broadened or narrowed our noses, retextured our hair, and generally shaped our bodies into the broad categories we call “race.” And yet, early on, with no physical distinction yet formed, we seem to have developed the habit of creating group distinctions among ourselves.
Part of this human drive for distinction is of the “us against them” category—the “my clan must survive by controlling the water hole and driving every other clan away” category—that type of visceral, antagonistic, hate-filled distinction from which all religious and racial intolerance has flowed: the Holocaust, the Maafa (the displacement of Africans through the slave trade), the tribal butcherings that have swept every continent, the witch hunts, the Inquisition, and all the world’s holy wars. It is a fear of difference.
But part of the human drive to divide ourselves into smaller categories comes not because we seek to deny the humanity of those outside our group, but because we can only begin to grasp the enormity of our human connection in small doses. How many people live in the world today? Six billion? Try spending a second—a pitifully inadequate period of time—just looking at the face of each person on earth. If you did that your entire life, and that’s all you did, and your life took up 80 years, at the end of it you’d have only looked at two-and-a-half-billion faces.
Or take a more horrific example.
Without looking it up on the Internet, I couldn’t tell you the number of people who died in the attack on the World Trade Towers on Sept. 11. The number wouldn’t mean anything to me, if I could remember it. What is most painful to me about that day—what resonates most in my mind—is the picture of a single individual jumping out of one of the topmost floors, arms flailing, endlessly descending to a certain death. He knew he was going to die in the jump, yet he preferred to jump rather than burn to death in his office. Understanding that single moment of horror allows me a small inroad into the overwhelming, unimaginable horror of that day.
And that was only one day in thousands and thousands of days of horror on this planet.
We understand humanity, first, in small doses, and from that which is closest to us. Something strikes a baby, and he experiences pain. At some point, he learns that if he strikes or scratches someone else, their experience will be similar. It is the beginning of empathic consciousness, the understanding that makes all human society possible.
Consciousness of ourselves, consciousness of our family, consciousness of our clan and tribe, consciousness of our race—these are all paths along the way towards consciousness of our common humanity. The problem is not in the path, I think, but how far we walk it, and what we do along the way.
To make ourselves colorblind, I think, would be to do away with what allows us to see. I think you’re wrong on this one, Mr. Connerly.