CHASING RAINBOWS: It was ridiculously sweet pressing the flesh this Monday with all the happy hoi polloi celebrating the fact that the giant, rectangular, rainbow-colored Chromatic Gate hovering over the Cabrillo Ball Fields had just gotten a brand-new paint job. Yes, it is true that Santa Barbarans will celebrate just about anything. But there’s more to it than that. Twelve years ago — when Herbert Bayer’s famed rainbow statue got its first “new” coat of paint — there was nary a peep and certainly no poet laureate to issue forth stirring words. But this year’s event came two days after Santa Barbara’s annual gay pride bash at the beach and just two weeks after the Supreme Court all but legalized gay marriage. Given how the rainbow has become the de facto national flag for gay pride, clearly more changes were being celebrated than a few much-needed coats of paint. Movie director Mike Mills was on hand to speak about how his father Paul Mills — former director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art — moved heaven and earth to get the Gate located in some prominent public space. Paul Mills has since become famous for coming out as gay after his wife of many years died; two years ago, his son made a movie — Beginners — about just that. But back when Mills was battling public inertia, indifference, and hostility regarding his beloved Gate, neither he nor it had come out.
Back then, the Gate was just big, bold, and beautiful. But art, like dreams, can mean whatever people need it to, and clearly, there’s much now to celebrate where rainbows are concerned. The same, however, cannot be said for the world of black and white. Last week, a Florida jury may have correctly found George Zimmerman not guilty for the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, but Zimmerman was anything but innocent. A neighborhood-watch wannabe vigilante, Zimmerman went out on patrol looking for trouble. When he spotted a young black dude wearing a hoodie walking by a gated community, Zimmerman found his man. Police dispatchers instructed Zimmerman to back away and get back in his car. He chose not to. Had he done so, Zimmerman would never have triggered the chain of events that made it “necessary” to shoot Martin in self-defense. But prosecutors over-charged the case far beyond what the evidence would bear, so the verdict is what it is.
Lost in the din, however, is a recent Supreme Court ruling that promises to inflict lasting violence on basic voting rights for anyone but middle-aged white guys like me. By a 5-to-4 vote, the Supremes cut the heart out of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which, among other things, required communities with documented histories of voting discrimination to clear any proposed changes to their voting protocols with the Department of Justice first. Opining that was then and this is now, Chief Justice John Roberts declared — in a lawsuit brought by Shelby County, Alabama — times had changed but the documentation relied upon for designating communities covered by this provision was 40 years old. The facts, however, are otherwise. It’s true literacy tests are no longer used to keep black people from voting; instead, district boundaries are gerrymandered to dilute the non-white vote; at-large election schemes replace district elections because district elections are notoriously more sensitive to minority participation. Between 1982 and 2004 — a time when Roberts would have us believe racism fell asleep and has not woken up since — the Department of Justice felt compelled to reject more than 800 proposed voting-scheme changes in “covered communities” because they were deemed discriminatory in intent. Another 800 such proposals were withdrawn or altered because of similar concerns. And in more than 100 cases, the Department of Justice successfully sued to stop changes that were made without pre-clearance.
We’re not talking subtle either. In 2001, the five white councilmembers of Kilmichael, Mississippi, for example, canceled the town’s regularly scheduled election when an unprecedented number of African Americans registered to vote. Things like that. Although “covered communities” account for only 25 percent of the population, since 1982, they’ve accounted for nearly 60 percent of the voting-rights litigation, suggesting the problem may not be as firmly in the rearview mirror as we’d like to think. Lastly, it’s worth noting that 200 communities since 1984 have managed to opt out of their covered status by demonstrating they held clean, fair elections for 10 years. Alabama — where the challenge originated — may have made great strides since the good old days when cops could beat civil rights protesters with impunity and immunity, but it’s sparked the second-highest number of voting-rights infringement lawsuits from 1982-2005 of any state in the union. Even the Supreme Court was forced to issue two rulings in the 1980s smacking down schemes designed to deny black voters in Alabama equal access to the ballot box. One federal case in 1986 found no fewer than 183 Alabama cities, counties, and school districts had discriminatory voting systems in place. And more recently — in 2008 — the Shelby County community of Calera pushed a plan that would have eliminated that city’s only district with a majority of black voters. Get the picture? The paint’s not just fresh; it’s still wet. Lastly, the voting-rights act so blithely overturned by Roberts and The Supremes had only just been reauthorized by Congress and the Senate. In 2006, the Senate voted 98-to-0 in favor of reauthorization; Congress voted 390-to-33. That was back in the day they could agree on anything but keeping the filibuster alive. And they did so after holding 21 hearings and amassing a record 15,000 pages long highlighting the extent to which the bill was still needed, a fact attested to by none other than George W. Bush — whose “election” the Supremes secured by the wholesale disenfranchisement of Florida voters — when he signed it into law.
One step forward, two steps back. The rainbow’s so bright I got to wear shades.