Multi-Ethnic Legal Discrimination in California

Through events such as America’s westward expansion, the Mexican-American War, and the Gold Rush, California's population in the mid-1800s reflected a unique racial and ethnic diversity. The experience of Blacks, Mexicans, Chinese, and Native Americans in California during this period was consistently dictated by discriminatory laws preventing them from possessing full citizenship and rights. All non-white residents of California—though this is an unclear classification when considering how Mexican citizens were considered white despite their often dark complexion—suffered legal discrimination. While many of the restrictions were commensurable across races, their distinct experiences also produced specific legislation against each group throughout the nineteenth century.

Mexicans and Native Americans suffered early prejudice and violence under white authority in California. After the Mexican-American War, Mexicans and the already depleted and exploited Native American population found themselves targets of prejudice. Unlike other people of color, Mexicans were awarded US citizenship and regarded as legally white; despite this classification, land held by Californios was not protected by California legislature and the US Land Act of 1851 resulted in further dispossession of Mexican land claims. Native Americans also lacked property rights under the American government and were consequently stripped of their ancestral land and other territories. As America pursued westward expansion, indigenous Californians were denied property rights, “thus the legal system economically marginalized” these groups, “forcing them into dependency and wage labor, making the development of California’s wealth exclusively” a phenotypically-white American opportunity. [1]

Unlike native Californios, Black and Asian immigrants had no existing property claims in California, but they, too, were far from welcomed by the white population. Repeated efforts to legally exclude Black and Chinese immigrants from California occurred throughout the late 1840s and into the 1850s. Both groups came to the state in pursuit of gold and the majority of these migrants first settled in mining communities, where they rubbed shoulders with not only each other but also whites, Mexican-Americans, and Latin Americans. [2] White miners felt threatened as slave, free Black, and foreign-born labor increased, and they began to push for legislation to reduce competition.  Black exclusion was first proposed during the 1849 California constitutional convention on several grounds: mining competition, emancipation of slaves within the state, and free Blacks immigrating in large numbers. Though some delegates believed the proposition should only bar indentured and former slave immigration, the original motion restricting all Black immigration was passed by the state constitutional convention. Soon after, however, concerns rose over whether Congress would reject the California application for statehood because of the constitutional exclusion article and thus the provision was repealed.  During the following years, whites attempted to pass similar legislation with no success; more “liberal-minded” whites and whites in non-mining districts doubted that significant Black populations would be able to immigrate to California and believed a Black exclusion law was invalid if other people of color, such as Latin Americans, were allowed to enter the state. [3]

As Chinese immigration increased, however, Asians also became a target of exclusion legislation. While Chinese immigrants were widely considered a problem by the white population, exclusion laws failed to pass due to concerns that “such a law would violate trade agreements between the United States and Chinese governments.” [1] One motion implicitly restricted Chinese immigration by taxing shipowners fifty dollars for every incoming foreign born passenger without the means to become a citizen, but the law was considered unconstitutional and was denied.  Black and Chinese exclusion continued to be a topic of debate for many years; legislation attempts against Blacks ended due to the Civil War and because of escalating white American concerns over Chinese immigration, which culiminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. [1]

While specialized laws targeted each group, some legislation discriminated against all minorities, such as segregated or denied education, voting ineligibility, and judicial inequality. An act passed on April 29, 1851, aimed to “regulate proceedings in civil cases in courts of this State” by preventing any “black or mulatto… or indian” person from giving “evidence in any action to which a white person is a party.” [1] Though the law failed to explicitly mention Mexican-Americans or Chinese, these groups also faced testimony exclusion. In 1854, the California Supreme Court ruled that Asians were of similar “degraded and demoralized” origin as Indians so the 1851 act could also be applied to those from “Patagonia, South Sea Islanders, Hawaiians, Chinese, and other people of color.” [1] Mexican Americans’ treaty status as “white” citizens also failed to protect them from the testimony exclusion. In 1857, a San Francisco court case established that Mexicans were ineligible to testify if they had any “Indian blood.” [1]

The California Colored Conventions of 1855, 1856, and 1857 focused on repealing the testimony ban through petitions to the state legislature. The conventions held in these years repeatedly enacted resolutions and petitions to sway the California legislature to change the law, arguing “that to a class of people, the right of testimony is as valuable as the right of self-defense; a right which no generous foe will deny, even to an enemy.” [5] These efforts exemplify how Blacks, more prevalently than other marginalized groups in the state, organized against discriminatory laws and forced themselves to be represented, however minimally, in California’s legislation. The ability to navigate the American political system aided Black activism, which, combined with the end of the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction, produced progressive results. In 1863, the Perkins Bill legalized Black testimony but did nothing to end court discrimination against Native Americans or Chinese. These groups didn’t gain testimony rights in California until nearly a decade later in 1872. [1] A pattern emerged of Blacks achieving legal rights before other groups of color: segregation of Blacks in schools was removed from California legislature in 1880 but segregation of “children of Mongoloid or Chinese descent” remained until 1929; Blacks gained citizenship in 1868 while Chinese exclusion extended until 1943 and universal Asian citizenship was not granted until 1952; and Blacks gained suffrage with the passing of the 15th Amendment in 1870, while Native Americans were unable to vote until they gained citizenship in 1924. [1] This pattern may be partially attributed to Black people’s “centuries of experience living in white America.. . . and [their] familiarity with the political system,” but also their concentrated, organized, and collective activism efforts in California. [4]


[1] Shirley Ann Wilson Moore, "We Feel the Want of Protection: The Politics of Law and Race in California, 1848-1878,” California History 81, no. 3 (March 2003): 96-125.

[2] Quintard Taylor, “Freedom in the Antebellum West, 1835-65,” In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528-1990, (New York: W. W. Norton, 1998), 81-102.

[3] Eugene H. Berwanger, "The ‘Black Law’ Question in Ante-Bellum California,” Journal of the West 6, no. 2 (April 1967): 205-220.

[4] Charles Wollenberg, "Ethnic Experiences in California History: An Impressionistic Survey,” California Historical Quarterly 50, no. 3 (July 1971): 221-233.

[5] First State Convention of the Colored Citizens of the State of California (1855 : Sacramento, CA), “Proceedings of the First State Convention of the Colored Citizens of the State of California. Held at Sacramento Nov. 20th 21st, and 22d, in the Colored Methodist Chuch [sic].,”, accessed April 28, 2016,

Written by Reilly Torres. Taught by Sharla Fett, History 213, Occidental College, Spring 2016.