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Thank you, Donald Sterling, for reminding us how far we've come

PoliticsColumnLaws and LegislationElectionsPro BasketballDonald SterlingSocial Issues
50 years ago, Californians voted overwhelmingly to legalize racial discrimination in housing
The state and U.S. supreme courts declared Prop. 14 to be unconstitutional
Then-Gov. Pat Brown denounced Prop. 14, which legalized housing discrimination, and was widely castigated

Personally, I'm grateful for Donald Sterling's retro racism. One glance at this knuckle dragger shows how far most other people have evolved. It's worth celebrating, particularly in California.

After that recently leaked recording in which the Clippers owner was overheard scolding his friend, V. Stiviano, for "associating with black people" and asking her "not to bring them to my games," many opined that the world should not have been surprised.

After all, they pointed out, Sterling, who owns apartment buildings all over Los Angeles, had been sued twice in recent years for discriminating against blacks and Latinos in renting. He settled both claims, paying $2.73 million to the U.S. government in one case.

He once said of his tenants, according to a 2003 lawsuit against him: "…all of the blacks in this building, they smell, they're not clean." He also allegedly said: "I don't like Mexican men because they smoke, drink and just hang around the house."

So he refused to rent to them. And he was publicly denounced, rightly so.

But time out for a memory jog — or, for most people, a history lesson.

This is the 50th anniversary year of Californians' voting overwhelmingly — 65% to 35% — to legalize precisely what Sterling was rapped for doing: discriminating because of race in the sale and rental of housing. Ultimately, both the state and U.S. supreme courts declared it unconstitutional.

But the racist measure, Proposition 14, probably was the most bitterly fought ballot initiative ever in California — and certainly among the most popular.

Then-Gov. Pat Brown — Jerry's outspoken and gutsy dad — called Prop. 14 a "cudgel of bigotry" and equated its backers to the "hate binge" of Hitler's Nazis.

The Times editorialized that Brown was being "inflammatory" and "overzealous." And it endorsed Prop. 14, asserting that while the paper opposed housing discrimination, it also supported "basic property rights." Fortunately, the courts later ruled that basic human rights trumped property rights.

A lot of ugly racism surfaced during that 1964 election campaign.

"Freedom to be unequal is really our national purpose," declared Nolan Frizzelle, president of the volunteer California Republican Assembly. "People have a right to discriminate in a free society." To prohibit it, he added, is "socialistic and communistic."

A member of the California Young Republicans board of directors said this in an open meeting: "Negroes are not accepted because they haven't made themselves acceptable." He was loudly applauded.

No, that wasn't Sterling, although he was around then, starting to erect his L.A. apartment-building empire. It's probably a safe guess how he voted — alongside 4.5 million other Californians who embraced Prop. 14.

The racial brawl had begun a year earlier, when Gov. Brown pushed through legislative passage of the Rumford Fair Housing Act, named after its author, Democratic Assemblyman Byron Rumford of Berkeley, the first black legislator elected from Northern California.

Soon after Brown signed the bill, the California Real Estate Assn. launched a repeal effort that became Prop. 14. Denouncing the Fair Housing Act as "forced housing," association president L.H. Wilson contended that "every American should continue to have … the right to refuse to rent, lease or sell to anyone, and for any reason."

Prop. 14 declared just that: An owner could sell or rent to any person "he, in his absolute discretion, chooses."

Another sign of the times: The measure didn't even acknowledge that a "she" could be a property owner.

So we, indeed, have come a long way in the past 50 years. Most of us. Maybe not Sterling.

That 1964 vote in favor of housing discrimination marked the beginning of a conservative counterrevolution against California liberalism as represented in the public's mind by Pat Brown and leftist civil-rights and anti-war activists.

In two years, conservative Ronald Reagan ousted Brown from the governor's office, campaigning on, among other things, his strong opposition to the Fair Housing Act. Once the courts killed Prop. 14, Reagan vowed to scuttle the act.

But Reagan was evolving politically and, despite his rhetoric, really didn't try very hard.

Assemblyman Bill Bagley, a Republican moderate from Marin County who had opposed Prop. 14, was appointed by Democratic Assembly Speaker Jesse "Big Daddy" Unruh to chair a committee tasked with retooling the act as Reagan and the electorate presumably demanded. But Reagan privately let Bagley know that it would be just fine with him if the act was left intact.

"I simply never convened the committee," Bagley recalled to me last year. "I saved the act. Reagan never thanked me, but he'd never have been in position to run for president if he'd killed it."

There's a Dodgers-Clippers symmetry, of course, that illustrates perhaps the biggest evolution from racial bigotry to equal opportunity.

Dodgers honcho Branch Rickey, back when the team played in Brooklyn, was the outlier who was criticized for making Pasadena-reared Jackie Robinson the first black major league baseball player. Now 67 years later, Sterling is the outlier team owner who makes a fool of himself by asking his friend not to hang with blacks. It shows how public attitudes have progressed.

Sterling's words may sting. But his racist actions are blunted because most people — and our laws — have turned against bigotry.

Thank you for reminding us, Mr. Sterling. Now sell the team.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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