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Jim Shultz: Echoes of Discrimination

The Democracy Center On-Line
Volume 56 - August 22, 2004

Echoes Of Discrimination


Jim Shultz
The Democracy Center

Current political events often carry in them the echo of history. Earlier this month, when the citizens of Missouri voted two-to-one to adopt a state constitutional ban on gay marriages, one could hear the echoes of another vote on civil rights four decades ago in California. It was exactly forty years ago this fall, in the 1964 general election, that Californians voted by the same two-to-one margin to let home sellers and landlords shut the door on people if they didn't like the color of their skin.

The movement to ban gay marriages caught its wind as a backlash against a decision by a court. California's movement to allow discrimination in housing was a backlash against a law approved the previous year by the California Legislature. Named for Byron Rumford, the black pharmacist-turned-Assemblyman from Berkeley who sponsored the legislation, the Rumford Fair Housing Act was a landmark step forward in the battle for civil rights.

It declared simply, that so far as the sale or rental of housing was concerned, "the practice of discrimination because of race, color, religion, national origin, or ancestry ... is declared to be against public policy."

Like the Massachusetts court ruling in favor of gay marriage, the Legislature's vote for non-discrimination was ahead of current public opinion. Immediately upon its passage a coalition led by the California Association of Realtors, ultra-conservative political groups (such as the once-powerful John Birch Society), and fundamentalist Christians went to work to repeal the law by circulating a constitutional amendment to appear on the fall 1964 ballot.

That amendment forbid the Legislature and all local governments from passing any law that limited the right of property owners to discriminate as they saw fit. Its backers needed just over 480,000 signatures to make the ballot. They gathered and submitted more than a million. The amendment went to the ballot as Proposition 14.

Fundamentalist Christian groups play a key role in the battle against gay marriage and they often invoke the idea of God's will in their justifications. As one Missouri voter noted as she left the polls, "Biblically, homosexuality isn't in the plan."

Backers of racial discrimination in housing also invoked God, the bible, and the dangers of intrusive officials in the name of their cause. The California Republican Assembly, in its endorsement of Proposition 14, declared that it was "recognizing the right to own and manage property as the God-given right not to be retracted at the whim of the government."

The Missouri vote, the first statewide vote of its kind, is being cited by opponents of gay marriage as the opening shot in a series of similar state votes coming up this fall around the nation. The California vote was also part of a trend toward housing discrimination votes around the nation, though none had as much impact.

Presidential politics, as it so clearly does on the gay marriage issue, also played a role in the vote on race and housing. In 2004 backers of President Bush are hoping that anti-gay marriage fervor among conservatives will help turn them out to vote this November. In 1964 key state backers of Senator Barry Goldwater's GOP candidacy were also among the most visible leaders in the Proposition 14 campaign. The pastor of the conservative United Community Church in Glendale, who regularly offered the opening prayer at Goldwater campaign rallies, also helped lead the attack against the Rumford Act, calling it, "a giant leap into socialism."

In the end it took a decision by the California Supreme Court, in 1967, to overturn the public's vote and to bring an end to legal racial discrimination in housing. The anti-court cries from Proposition 14's backers then were similar to those heard now from President Bush and others railing against the Massachusetts Supreme Court's decision which paved the way for gay marriage and sparked the current round of political action.

The real question worth asking today is what lesson can we learn from four decades of hindsight about California's vote to make racial discrimination the law of the land.

There are millions of people alive in California today who were residents and eligible to vote in 1964. It would be tough to find many now who would admit to having voted to make discrimination the law, even though a strong majority did just that.

Forty years from now will we look back on anti-gay marriage votes in the same embarrassed way? Will Missouri's vote look like the beginning of a new era or like the political equivalent of the Ford Edsel?

If there is one thing that leaps off the page in virtually every public opinion survey about gay marriage it is the wide gap between the views of the old and the young. According to one USA Today/CNN poll, sixty seven percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 and fifty three percent of those ages 30 to 49 say gay unions would have no harmful effect or might make society better. Among older people, however, opposition to gay marriage remains high.

Absent the unlikely scenario that young Americans will start to turn against gay marriage as they grow older, it seems quite clear that the Missouri vote and others likely to follow will find their place in history along side California's embarrassing embrace of racial prejudice - and gay rights opponents will end up looking just as extremist and silly.

The gay marriage debate is a debate between the past and the future, a debate that the future always wins, eventually. It is in precisely these cases, where a majority would deny a minority its rights and use the ballot box to do so, that our courts have a vital role in making the future begin as soon as possible, even if it means angering the public. The list is long of circumstances where US courts have had to do just this in American history, as courts had to do in the aftermath of California's vote four decades ago. The California Supreme Court will soon be asked to do this once more when the Constitutional case over gay marriage comes before the Court. Opponents of gay marriage are walking in history's footsteps, but the footprints point undeniably backwards.

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COMMENTS FROM READERS

So-called "gay marriage" is not a normal, natural union. The blind person learns to cope with that disability and the fact that he or she will never be allowed to drive a car. Gay people.must learn to cope with that disability.

# # #

Your arrogance is amazing! How can a judge override the will of the people and that be good for society? Socialist like yourself think that forcing acceptance on people will change their hearts over time. The misguided youth of today buy into anything that organization such as your push. Your peddling drugs in another form.

# # #

It's just like racial discrimination. No it's not. I'll bet those Bolivians you claim to help agree with me.

*********

THE DEMOCRACY CENTER ON-LINE is an electronic publication of The Democracy Center, distributed on an occasional basis to more than 2,000 nonprofit organizations, policy makers, journalists and others, throughout the US and worldwide. Please consider forwarding it along to those who might be interested. People can request to be added to the distribution list by sending an e-mail note to mailto: info@democracyctr.org. Newspapers and periodicals interested in reprinting or excerpting material in the newsletter should contact The Democracy Center at "info@democracyctr.org". Suggestions and comments are welcome. Past issues are available on The Democracy Center Web site.


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