REAL ID, the Race Card

I testified in Congress yesterday, at a hearing on the REAL ID Act in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia.  My testimony is here.

An issue that I sought to highlight comes from studying the REAL ID regulations carefully: The standard that the Department of Homeland Security selected for the 2D bar code that would go on REAL ID compliant cards includes race/ethnicity as one of the data elements. 

DHS does not specifically require inclusion of this information, but states are likely to adopt the entire standard.  Thus, starting in May 2008, many Americans may be carrying nationally uniform cards that include race or ethnicity in machine-readable formats – available for scanning and collection by anyone with a bar code reader.   Government agencies and corporations may affiliate racial and ethnic data more closely than ever with information about our travels through the economy and society.

This was not intended by the authors of the REAL ID Act, nor was it intended by the regulation writers at the Department of Homeland Security.  The Belgian colonial government in 1930s Rwanda had no intention to facilitate the 1994 genocide in that country either, but its inclusion of group identity in ID cards had that result all the same.

The woman in the image below, believed to be a genocide victim, is categorized as a Tutsi just below her photograph.  Her name is not seen, as it appears on the first page of this folio-style ID document.  The names of her four children, though, are written in on the page opposite the photo.

The lessons of history are available to us. The chance of something like this happening in the United States is blessedly small, but it is worth taking every possible step to avoid this risk, given an always-uncertain future.  In a society that strives for a color-blind ideal, the federal government should have no part in creating a system that could be used to track people based on race. 

 photo by Jerry Fowler, USHMM