Racism has been alive in California since the arrival of the Spanish in 1769. Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, California was home to an Indigenous population of around 300,000 people.
Spanish and Mexican rule (1769-1848) was devastating for California’s Indigenous population. It has been estimated that the pre-contact indigenous population was reduced by 33% during the Spanish and Mexican regimes. Most of the decline was from imported diseases and disruption of traditional ways of life. Violence was common, and some historians have concluded that mission life was basically slavery for the Indigenous people.
California has been built on a foundation of hatred against Native Americans. California’s first governor, Peter Burnett, stated, “… a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct…”. California’s war of extermination against its Indigenous people (1846-1873) killed an estimated 9,492 to 16,094 California Natives (history.com). Hundreds to thousands were additionally starved or worked to death. Acts of enslavement, kidnapping, rape, child separation and displacement were widespread. These acts were encouraged, tolerated, and carried out by state authorities and militias.
Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, California citizens and legislators also fought to ensure that free Black people would be prohibited from immigrating to or living in California. California governor Peter Burnett shared his vision on Blacks by stating, “It could be no favor, and no kindness, to permit free Blacks to settle in the State; while it would be a most serious injury to us, had they been born here, and had acquired rights in consequence, I should not recommend any measures to expel them…the object is to keep them out.” California created a climate in which Blacks, though technically free, were anything but welcome.
In the early days of the Gold Rush, over half of the miners were Indigenous people. Many worked for the white miners just as they had worked for the missionaries and rancheros and some worked for themselves. White miners did not want foreign or nonwhite competition, so they enacted many local mining codes forbidding mining by Mexicans, Asians, or foreigners. These codes, whether formal or implied, were enforced using fear and violence. In addition to the local mining codes that excluded Mexicans, the 1850 Foreign Miners’ License Tax required noncitizen miners to pay the hefty fee of twenty dollars per month. The Foreign Miners’ License Tax was enforced mainly against the Chinese. The tax was repealed in 1851, only to be reenacted in a more moderate form a short time later. In 1862, this miners’ tax was declared unconstitutional by the California Supreme Court.
White miners enthusiastically enforced the new tax using rough and harsh measures, including lynching and vigilantism. Enforcement of the new tax by white miners, struck terror in the hearts of many Mexican American miners. Fearing for their lives, many returned to Mexico. By 1852, following the departure of many Mexican American miners, the Chinese were the largest foreign group in California doing mining work.
In 1854, the California Supreme Court, in People v. Hall, ruled that the Chinese were legally included in the category “Indian” and thus fell under the scope of an 1850 law prohibiting blacks and Indians from testifying either for or against white men.
On May 3, 1913, California enacted the Alien Land Law, barring Asian immigrants from owning land. California tightened the law further in 1920 and 1923, barring the leasing of land and land ownership by American-born children of Asian immigrant parents or by corporations controlled by Asian immigrants. Racial housing covenants inserted into property deeds were used in California from the early 1900s until 1963 to prevent people of African, Japanese, Chinese or of any Mongolian descent from owning homes in white neighborhoods.
In 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which was used to incarcerate people under suspicion of being enemies of the United States. On the west coast, the vast majority of the incarcerated people were of Japanese descent. Many of them were naturalized citizens, second and third generation Americans. This incarnation cost the Japanese-Americans between $149 million and $370 million (in 1945 dollars) in income and property that was not compensated under that act. In 1988, the US government officially apologized and offered $20,000 to internment camp survivors.
Race played a major role in early California’s conflict between Whites and peoples of Mexican descent, Indigenous people, Blacks and Asians. Over time, job and pay discrimination, and maintaining all white neighborhoods began to play a major role as well.
We are now in a time period where many Whites see anti-racism laws and actions as a new totalitarian threat to their liberties. Once again, being openly racist is becoming acceptable behavior in the United States.
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