At first glance, the work of these CLA researchers may seem to dovetail with the spirit of Proposition 54 and its assumption that classification can never serve good purposes.
Coupled with certain cultural assumptions, or with a simplistic or distorted view of diversity, classification enables us to create unwarranted hierarchies, to attach values and judgments to large swaths of people. But it would be a mistake, Craddock and Ferguson argue, simply to dismiss classification as inherently evil and embrace colorblindness instead.
"Those of us who see the importance of maintaining some spotlight on difference do so because racial identification still has adverse effects on marginalized communities and ethnic minorities," Craddock says. In other words, people are not color blind--they do recognize differences, and make judgments about them. And to counter the negative consequences of that reality, institutions need to be sensitive to those differences.
But she offers a caveat: "Categories of race and ethnicity should be maintained only to the extent they help us address the multiple effects of oppressions and racisms," Craddock says. "For example, if they can point out how to deliver better and more appropriate resources to communities."
Ferguson notes that the ideal driving proponents of Proposition 54—the desire for a society of race-less individuals—is the same ideal that led sociologists to declare that African American culture was pathological. "They're two sides of the same coin," he says.
What's needed, Ferguson says, is not the abandonment of institutional sensitivity to difference, but a more cautious and skeptical approach to interpreting the data collected. Social scientists should avoid presuming that their results "capture all aspects of the groups that they're looking at," he says. "They would then understand that their interpretations are part of a range of interpretations," an approach that might forestall broad declarations of cultural incompetence or dysfunction.
Ultimately, an institution's use of classification is only as good or bad as the principles and people that guide the institution, Craddock says. "We need to be training professionals in public health and medicine who aren't going to be assuming that high infant mortality rates result from mothers' lack of a 'get up and go' mentality," she explains, referencing recent news. "That kind of comment is biased and ill informed. People with institutional authority need to find ways to intervene in stereotypes of race and gender, not mobilize these stereotypes in ways that further marginalize vulnerable communities."
By Jack El-Hai and Danny LaChance