Here’s a scary thought: the electorate doesn’t take institutionalized racism seriously anymore.
Private ownership of land occupies a central position in American law. In the nineteenth century a link emerged in West Coast states between property ownership and race, exemplified by the 1859 Oregon Constitution, which declared that no “Chinaman” could ever own land in Oregon. During this period, “race” was legally constructed along a white-nonwhite binary, with Chinese immigrants categorized as “nonwhites.” For the Chinese in the United States, this subordinate racial status entailed strict labor and residential segregation from whites, as well as a vulnerability to mob violence. Their inability to become citizens only compounded their subordinate racial status.
White antipathy to foreign laborers from China culminated in the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred Chinese immigration for a ten-year period (it was later extended a number of times). This anti-Chinese racism was easily transferred to Japanese agricultural workers, who began entering the country in increasing numbers after 1890. Like the Chinese before them, Japanese agricultural laborers were classified as “nonwhite,” and they were therefore barred from becoming U.S. citizens. Yet despite the radicalized disabilities imposed upon them, Japanese immigrants thrived in the first decade of the twentieth century. Their success in agriculture was held against them, however: White farmers viewed them as unfair competitors because entire Japanese families would work their farms and save labor costs.
This racial animosity congealed into efforts to prevent the Japanese from owning or acquiring agricultural land. An “Alien Land Law” was passed by the California legislature in 1913. The law granted aliens eligible for U.S. citizenship plenary property ownership rights but limited “aliens ineligible to citizenship” to those rights explicitly granted by treaties. The relevant 1911 U.S.-Japan treaty, however, did not mention protecting the property rights of Japanese persons residing on agricultural land in the United States. While facially neutral, this law relied on the federal racial prerequisite to naturalization—one had to be a “free white person” to become naturalized—to bar Japanese farmers from land ownership. This legal sanction was a response to the economic success of Japanese truck farmers in California in the early twentieth century.
Despite the 1913 law, Japanese land holdings increased. Japanese farmers used various strategies to circumvent the law, such as assigning title in the name of citizen children, with land held in trusts or guardianships, or forming title-holding agricultural corporations with noncitizen farmers as shareholders. By 1920 anti-Japanese activists—including members of the California Grange, which was supported by the Hearst newspapers—placed an initiative on the ballot outlawing the methods used to circumvent the 1913 law. The 1920 initiative passed with a majority in every California county and resulted in a decline in acreage under Japanese ownership throughout the decade.
Other western states soon followed. Arizona had enacted an Alien Land Law in 1917, and between 1921 and 1925 Washington, Louisiana, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Kansas passed similar laws. During World War II Wyoming, Utah, and Arkansas also passed Alien Land Laws.
In 1923 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the constitutionality of these laws. In Terrace v. Thompson (1923), the Court upheld the Washington Alien Land Law on the ground that a state could rightly restrict property ownership to U.S. citizens, and that doing so did not amount to impermissible racial discrimination. Porterfield v. Webb (1923) upheld California’s 1920 initiative amending the 1913 Alien Land Law. In Webb v. O’Brien (1923), Frick v. Webb (1923), and Cockrill v. California (1925), the Court upheld the 1920 initiative’s various restrictions on circumventions of the law.
After World War II the California law was challenged in Oyama v. California (1948). The U.S. Supreme Court overturned, on equal protection grounds, a provision of the 1920 initiative that forbade an “alien ineligible to citizenship” from being a guardian to a minor U.S.-born child. The California Supreme Court finally overturned the entire 1920 law in Fujii v. State of California (1952), and the Oregon and Montana supreme courts also set aside their Alien Land Laws in Namba v. McCourt (1949) and State of Montana v. Oakland (1955), respectively.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled during the 1920s that such state laws were constitutional, but invalidated a portion of California’s law in 1948. During the next decade, the supreme courts of California, Oregon and Montana struck down the laws entirely for violating 14th Amendment protections against racial discrimination.
Florida and other states adopted their own alien land laws, fearing that Asian farmers driven from their property by restrictions in western states would head east, according to the Organization of Chinese Americans. Florida’s law gives the state the right to regulate more heavily or ban altogether land ownership by those ineligible for U.S. citizenship.
The truth of this statement was likely a major contributing factor to the defeat of Florida’s Amendment 1 during the November 4 election, a ballot measure that would have repealed an alien land law barring “aliens ineligible to citizenship” from owning property.
Presently, Florida is the only state in the country that has yet to repeal its alien land law. The law, which directly violates equal protection laws and the Fourteenth Amendment, is obviously not enforced, so its repeal would be nothing more than a cost-free symbolic gesture. It needed 70% of the electorate’s approval to pass, yet ultimately failed by a measure of 52%-48%.
The 1790 Naturalization Act in the U.S. limited naturalized citizenship to “free, white persons,” which makes the phrase “aliens ineligible to citizenship” racially charged. This law’s pieces of legislation included the 1924 Immigration Act, which served to exclude most Asian populations, and the Supreme Court decision of Takao Ozawa v. US. The number of times the term “aliens ineligible to citizenship” has been used in US history to restrict the rights of Asian Americans makes it patently evident that this is a racist law.
The amendment’s outcome would most likely have been different if everybody knew this, and post-election, many people that lamented the ballot measure’s defeat pointed their fingers at state Senator Steven Geller’s and Asian communities failure to do enough outreach and clarify the law’s confusing language, as many voters would think the law targets illegal aliens instead of Asian Americans. Whatever the cause, proponents of the measure did enough to gain 48% of voters’ support. It should be noted that the history and original intent of the act were covered in every news article to have featured the amendment, both pre- and post-election.
Once the voting public is given a chance to speak, however, the culprit becomes clearer: Amendment 1 failed because the electorate disconcertingly refuses to take institutionalized racism seriously. Online articles that brought attention to the proposal are riddled with comments from users who deliberately misinterpret the amendment and refuse to even entertain the notion that the term “aliens ineligible to citizenship” is grounded in legislative racism: some claim that there is no explicit reference to race and the controversy surrounding Florida’s law is a result of over-analysis, some maintain that this is a detrimental measure to relax immigration restrictions, some believe that the highly confusing law has probably prevailed for so long for a good reason, and some make superficial and blatantly incorrect claims as, “Do you not understand the ‘ineligible (sic) for citizenship’ means either you entered this country illegally or that you have committed (sic) a crime once you got here. Either way you are an alien criminal or need to be sent back to your home country. There is absolutely nothing racist about that.” Given the backlash against the P.C.-movement of the last decade and the triumph of having elected the first black president, it is tempting to believe that racism is over and those who cry racism are oversensitive.
Additionally, illegal immigration is a huge issue in Florida, and, as Pacific Citizen assistant editor Lynda Lin states, it is very easy to misinterpret the law due to its use of such controversial keywords as “property rights” and “aliens.”
Florida is now the only State where an “alien land law” remains on the books. Florida never has attempted to implement its version of the law, which has remained slumbering in the state Constitution, safe from court challenge.
In the midst of all this, however, it is utterly disgraceful and incredulous that the majority of a state’s electorate, denying the reality of legislative racism in history, actually voted a textbook example of institutional racism into state legislation.
Florida’s electorate needs to act and repeal a dark chapter of history by wiping out the discriminatory language. Doing so would be “purely symbolic,” because neither Asians nor any other ethnic group are barred from citizenship based on their race.
In doing so, it is ostensibly important that WE focus our efforts in trying to educate a populace that consciously refuses to learn.