By Thomas Elias
If ever there was a contest that tested how much prejudice remains in California's melting pot, it was the fight over Proposition 8, restoring the ban on same sex marriages.
Yes, the presidential contest pitting the African American Democratic Illinois Sen. Barack Obama against Republican John McCain also provided a significant test, but not quite as direct.
If this had been a high school exit exam, California voters would have gotten mixed grades. The results in those two contests, a narrow victory for Proposition 8 and Obama's wide winning margin in this state, prove there's been considerable change here, but not as much as some had hoped.
For if there's one thing Proposition 8 represents, it is bigotry. No one has ever proven that giving full marriage rights to same-sex couples in any way diminishes or lessens the rights and privileges of more conventional married couples. The Yes-on-8 campaign never even made that claim.
Meanwhile, no one has shown any evidence that gay marriages harm anyone. Given the chance to list ways in which same sex unions do harm, the campaign for Proposition 8 could not name even one.
Instead, the anti-gay marriage forces harped on unsubstantiated claims that defeat of their initiative would force schoolteachers as far down as the kindergarten level to indoctrinate small children in favor of marriage between people of the same gender.
"Those on the Yes-on-8 side were successful in scaring just enough people," said Art Torres, chairman of the state Democratic Party. "They played on people's fears."
An initiative with identical wording to Proposition 8, of course, passed as Proposition 22 in March 2000 by a wide 61-39 percent margin. Because that measure merely changed legal statutes and not the California Constitution, the state's top judges were able to overturn it. The new law aims to preclude anything like that this time by inserting its language into the state Constitution.
It says, quite simply, "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California."
Because the language and goal of this year's measure were identical to what passed eight years ago, it became a true test of social change in California. Its victory, even though it came by a far smaller margin than in 2000, was a sign that anti-gay bias has eased a bit, but still remains strong.
Obama's big California margin, however, demonstrates significant progress on the racial front. Yes, California has occasionally elected minority group members to statewide office, but never before had one triumphed in a top-of-the-ticket race. Most voters take contests for governor, U.S. senator and president far more seriously than those for lesser offices. So it meant little that this state had a black lieutenant governor as far back as the 1980s (Mervyn Dymally), an Asian American as secretary of state in the 1970s (March Fong Eu) and more recently put minorities in offices like controller (John Chiang) and lieutenant governor again (Cruz Bustamante). None of that made Obama automatic in California, even though it's been 20 years since a Republican carried this state in a presidential election.
Obama's win stands in marked contrast to what befell the African American Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley in 1982, when every poll showed him with a wide lead in the run for governor in its last days, but he wound up losing by less than one percent. This led political analysts to believe for decades that many white voters who tell pollsters they will vote for blacks for major office won't do it in the end, simply because of race. Obama's showing demonstrated that they would follow through now, at least sometimes.
For sure, the Proposition 8 contest and the presidential race had very little in common, except as measures of change in the level of prejudice in California. Their outcomes demonstrate there have been deep and wide attitude changes, but there is still some distance to go.
The results indicate that campaign managers intending to use innuendo and counting on bias might still be successful at times, but that future use of these tactics may be limited even when it comes to race and sexual preference. For the vote proves there has especially been large-scale attitude change on race and some on gay rights. If that trend continues, it won't be long before there's an attempt to reverse the results of Proposition 8.