Michael Gerson recently made reference in his newspaper column to a California Supreme Court decision almost 150 years old. People v. Hall (1854) shockingly reflects the racist climate of the times.
Hall, a white defendant, was convicted of murder on the testimony of a Chinese witness. On appeal, Halls lawyer argued that a nonwhite could not testify against whites. The defense cited a California law that blacks, mulattos, and Indians could not testify in any case against a white person. The law did not specifically mention the Chinese.
People v. Hall decided that since all nonwhites were similarly inferior, no one of nonwhite blood – including the Chinese – could testify against a white accused.
The decision is reprinted below. The bolded words are particularly disturbing.
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THE PEOPLE, RESPONDENT, v. GEORGE W. HALL, APPELLANT.
Supreme Court of the State of California, 1854.
Mr. Ch. J. Murray delivered the opinion of the Court. Mr. J. Heydenfeldt concurred.
The appellant, a free
white citizen of this State, was convicted of murder upon the testimony of
The point involved in this case is the admissibility of such evidence.
The 394th section of the Act Concerning Civil Cases provides that no Indian or Negro shall be allowed to testify as a witness in any action or proceeding in which a white person is a party.
The 14th section of the Act of April 16th, 1850, regulating Criminal Proceedings, provides that “No black or mulatto person, or Indian, shall be allowed to give evidence in favor of, or against a white man.”
The true point at which we are anxious to arrive is, the legal signification of the words, “black, mulatto, Indian, and white person, ” and whether the Legislature adopted them as generic terms, or intended to limit their
application to specific types of the human species. . . .
The Act of Congress, in defining that description of aliens may become naturalized citizens, provides that every “free white citizen,” etc. . .
If the term “white,” as used in the Constitution, was not understood in its generic sense as including the Caucasian race, and necessarily excluding all others, where was the necessary of providing for the admission of Indians to the privilege of voting, by special legislation?
We are of the opinion that the words “white,” “Negro,” “mulatto,” “Indian,” and “black person,” wherever they occur in our Constitution and laws, must be taken in their generic sense, and that, even admitting the Indian of this continent is not of the Mongolian type, that the words “black person,” in the 14th section, must be taken as contradistinguished from white, and necessary excludes all races other than the Caucasian.
We have carefully considered all the consequences resulting from a different rule of construction, and are satisfied that even in a doubtful case, we would be impelled to this decision on ground of public policy.
The same rule which would admit them to testify, would admit them to all the equal rights of citizenship, and we might soon see them at the polls, in the jury box, upon the bench, and in our legislative halls.
This is not a speculation which exists in the excited and overheated imagination of the patriot and statesman, but it is an actual and present danger.
The anomalous spectacle of a distinct people, living in our community, recognizing no laws of this State, except through necessity, bringing with them their prejudices and national feuds, in which they indulge in open violation of law; whose medacity is proverbial; a race of people whom nature has marked as inferior, and who are incapable of progress or intellectual development beyond a certain point, as their history has shown; differing in language, opinions, color, and physical conformation; between whom and ourselves nature has placed an impassable difference, is now presented, and for them is claims, not only the right to swear away the life of a citizen, but the further privilege of participating with us in administering the affairs of our Government.
These facts were before the Legislature that framed this Act, and have been known as matters of public history to every subsequent Legislature.
There can be no doubt as to the intention of Legislature, and that if it had ever been anticipated that this class of people were not embraced in the prohibition, then such specific words would have been employed as would have put the matter beyond any possible controversy.
For these reasons, we are of opinion that the testimony was inadmissible.
The judgment is reversed and the cause remanded.