The End of California’s Anti-Asian Alien Land Law: A Case Study in Reparations and Transitional Justice
20 Asian American Law Journal 17 (2022)
32 Pages Posted: 19 Jan 2023
Date Written: January 1, 2023
For nearly a century, California law embodied a rabid anti-Asian policy, which included school segregation, discriminatory law enforcement, a prohibition on marriage with Whites, denial of voting rights, and imposition of many other hardships. The Alien Land Law was a California innovation, copied in over a dozen other states. The Alien Land Law, targeting Japanese but applying to Chinese, Koreans, South Asians, and others, denied the right to own land to noncitizens who were racially ineligible to naturalize, that is, who were not White or Black. After World War II, California’s policy abruptly reversed. Years before Brown v. Board of Education, California courts became leaders in ending Jim Crow. In 1951, the California legislature voluntarily voted to pay reparations to people whose land had been escheated under the Alien Land Law. This article describes the enactment and effect of the reparations laws. It also describes the surprisingly benevolent treatment by courts of lawsuits undoing the secret trusts and other arrangements for land ownership intended to evade the Alien Land Law. But ultimately, the Alien Land Law precedent may be melancholy. California has not paid reparations to other groups who also have conclusive claims of mistreatment. Reparations in part were driven by geopolitical concerns arising from the Cold War and the hot war in Korea. In addition, anti-Asian immigration policy had succeeded in halting Japanese and other Asian immigration to the United States. Accordingly, one explanation for this remarkable act was that there was room for generosity to a handful of landowners with no concern that the overall racial arrangement might be compromised.
Keywords: reparations, real property, Asian Americans, Civil Rights, discrimination
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