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When I was 14, I tagged along with my older brother one night in 1965 to see what was happening in Watts.  We were simultaneously scarred and excited about the possibility of the mass public action that the TV heads were calling riots.  When we got there, we parked and walked around the chaos clinging to the shadows so that our out-of-placeness would be less obvious.  I remember seeing a dark man with a cleric's collar get hit several times with a white policeman's night stick.  The blood was the same color as mine.  I didn't understand the underpinnings of the problem until much later.

In 1963, the California legislature adopted a law called the Rumford Act that made illegal the then-widespread discrimination in housing on the basis of race.  At the time, the real estate types were openly engaged in racial "steering" to supposedly protect the neighborhood resale values. The Act was named after one of the first black California legislators and was enacted during Edmund G."Pat" Brown's term; Jerry "Moonbeam" Brown's father.  

At the time, I didn't appreciate that there was an organized political backlash to the Rumford Act.  All I knew was that the cowboy actor Ronald Reagan was championing the repeal of the Rumford Act and in favor of allowing property owners "absolute discretion" in picking their renters or buyers.  At the time, I didn't appreciate the impact on Human Rights and the linkage to what I saw acted out in the Watts riots.  I also didn't know that the repeal effort's Proposition 14 was financed by the Real Estate industry and the Republican Party.

Well, Prop 14 passed with more than 2/3 of Californians then in favor of racial discrimination as of 1964.  It was challenged on the basis of the Federal Constitution and invalidated two years later by the Cal. Supreme Court.  Reagan campaigned for governor on the platform that he would repeal the Rumford Act and won the governor's office.  The Rumford Act was not repealed and in fact anti-discrimination laws were enhanced by the adoption of other fair housing laws in California that go beyond the list protected by Federal law.

This is the Prop 8 difference.  Federal Law does not seem to protect people based on their sexual orientation, while California law does.  The good folk challenging Prop H8 have to get the Cal Supreme Court to invalidate it on the basis of other California contitutional provisions.  The moderate Republican majority led by Chief Justice George may not be willing to step up to that political plate without a "trump card" violation of federal law.

It's a different case, but it is also a different time.  The Neanderthals that argue for strict construction of constitutional law ignore the "safety valve" social benefits that flow from constitutional interpretation that evolves along with evolving social standards of decent treatment for all.  For example, I'm sure you would be shocked to know that during the railroad era with its high level of asian immigration, it was illegal for a Chinese to testify against a white in California courts.

Evolving social standards are legitimately recognized by the courts.  They should prevent the "tyranny by the majority" of any minority.  I thought that we might have learned from the Watts riots.  If you don't like gay marriage, don't have one.

Originally posted to RichardfromHB on Wed Feb 18, 2009 at 10:15 AM PST.

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