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Opinion: How the L.A. Times helped write segregation into California’s Constitution

Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty, left, and Ronald Reagan
Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty, left, and Ronald Reagan, after Reagan defeated California Gov. Pat Brown. White populism played a role in the victory.
(Associated Press)

In September of 1963, California lawmakers passed what had the potential to become one of the most important civil rights laws in America.

The Rumford Fair Housing Act, as it was known, prohibited discrimination and racism in California’s housing market. In a state where housing segregation was rampant thanks to decades of racially discriminatory policies explicitly aimed at keeping people of color confined to urban ghettos and out of the expanding suburbs, Rumford was a potential civil rights game changer. It predated the federal Fair Housing Act by five years and could have helped turn California into a model for how to create a more equitable, racially integrated society.

Instead, it was dead within a year — as white Californians overwhelmingly fought to override the measure and preserve segregation.

The backlash to Rumford began almost immediately after its passage, as the real estate industry rushed a measure onto the ballot to make overt housing discrimination part of the state’s constitution. Proposition 14 allowed a property owner — meaning white people, who through discriminatory policies controlled most of California’s real estate — to refuse to rent or sell property “to any person as he chooses.”

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With a flourish of Orwellian doublespeak that would feel right at home in 2020, Proposition 14‘s backers called the measure the “California Fair Housing initiative” and argued that property ownership was the most important of American civil rights.

Spewing carbon monoxide across L.A. on the freeway system feeds into a pot of racism and segregation that’s been stewing for nearly a century.

One could have forgiven white voters for falling for the Trojan Horse “property rights” argument — had California’s Gov. Edmund G. Brown not explicitly warned them that ratifying Proposition 14 would enshrine into California’s constitution “a provision for discrimination of which not even Mississippi or Alabama can boast.”

Powerful Proposition 14 supporters blew the dog whistle right over Brown’s warnings.

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The Los Angeles Times editorial board threw its then-considerable weight behind the measure, endorsing Proposition 14 and lending the paper’s credibility to the sponsors’ disingenuous argument. According to The Times’ board, the ability to discriminate against home buyers or renters by race, color and creed was a “basic property right.”

Unsurprisingly, Black voters lobbied against the bill. Latino, Jewish and Asian civil rights groups joined the opposition.

Their fight was doomed from the start.

Proposition 14 passed by a 2-to-1 margin along racial lines, with overwhelming support from white voters. It earned an astonishing 70% of the vote in Los Angeles County.

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While police brutality is often casually cited as the primary the reason behind the 1965 Watts Riots, the McCone Commission, which investigated the riots on behalf of the state of California, found the naked discrimination of Proposition 14 to be a root cause.

Ronald Reagan would go on to use the white populism generated by Proposition 14 and the riots to crush Brown in the California governor’s race in 1966. And he openly adopted Proposition 14’s Trojan Horse strategy to do so.

“If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, he has the right to do so,” Reagan argued on the campaign trail, while decrying racism from the other side of his mouth.

Racism and discrimination are bad, went the argument, but actually doing something about them is worse.

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Just like the historical amnesia that has largely erased Proposition 14 from California’s collective memory, Reagan’s approach, which he kept up throughout his political career, has somehow been recast as a model of political civility.

Proposition 14 revealed the shameless lengths to which white Californians were willing to go to prevent people of color, particularly Black Americans, from becoming their neighbors. The overwhelming support that the measure received from white voters, and the casual bigotry of Reagan and the L.A. Times — masquerading as reason — is a reminder of how deeply the ideology and mechanisms of white supremacy were embedded in the state’s DNA.

The California Supreme Court shot down Proposition 14 in 1966, and the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 made sure it stayed dead. But the racism that empowered an overwhelming majority of white Californians to overturn a landmark civil rights law, in defense of segregation, didn’t just disappear. Nor did the Trojan Horse strategy of channeling that racism by stoking white resentment under the guise of individual liberty. We see its echoes in the arguments against affirmative action and Proposition 16, a measure California voters appear poised to reject.

About a half-century after the passage of Proposition 14, Los Angeles is known as one of America’s great liberal bastions, but it remains the most segregated city in the country for Latinos and the 10th most segregated for Black people. Black and Latino children in Los Angeles are less likely to live in integrated neighborhoods than adults. Ironically, gentrification is now displacing Black and Latino people from the very neighborhoods to which institutionalized white supremacy once confined them. Meanwhile, wealthy white communities have stayed white largely by fighting new housing that could make their neighborhoods more integrated.

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Let’s be clear: These conditions are not coincidental. They are the product of decades of racially discriminatory policies, white populism and the continued failure of white Californians to relinquish enough unearned privilege to remedy those policies.

California is not a liberal paradise. It never has been. And it won’t be until voters learn the full history of how white supremacy shaped and continues to shape their state — and do something about it.


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