In 1853, a court in San Francisco convicted a man of murder. Not a particularly remarkable case, except for two things. The victim, Ling Sing, was a Chinese miner, and the perpetrator was George Hall, a white man. To bring a white man to trial for the murder of a Chinese man was unusual, and even more unusually, he was convicted on the basis of testimony from Chinese witnesses. A year later, Hall successfully won an appeal on the grounds that the witness testimony should have been inadmissible because Chinese men should not be allowed to testify against a white man.
Several US states had laws specifically barring people of colour from participating fully in the legal system, particularly members of the Black community and ‘Indians,’ and California was no exception. Under the criminal procedure of the time, testimony from ‘black or mulatto person[s], or Indians’ was not permitted in matters concerning white people, essentially creating a two tiered court system. Whether for or against, minorities could not testify in cases where the parties involved were white, although they could testify for and against each other in some cases; apparently they were only considered incompetent witnesses when white people entered the picture. What the justices of the California Supreme Court had to determine was whether the California law applied in this case, since it didn’t explicitly mention Chinese people.
They decided that it did, invoking a long and convoluted justification with a healthy sprinkling of dubious anthropology and fascinating insights into how people viewed race, particularly when it came to figuring out how to exclude people from full participation in society. The decision noted that:
… the apparent design [of the existing criminal procedure] was to protect the White person from the influence of all testimony other than that of persons of the same caste. The use of these terms must, by every sound rule of construction, exclude every one who is not of white blood.
And the judge discussed the specific ramifications of potentially allowing Chinese people to testify, raising a spectre of horror for whites in California:
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[1. His terrifying prediction proved all too prescient; we have two Asian-Americans, Associate Justices Ming W. Chin and Goodwin Liu, currently seated on the California Supreme Court.], and in our legislative halls…This is not a speculation which exists in the excited and over-heated imagination of the patriot and statesman, but it is an actual and present danger.
People v. Hall was a reflection of the casual racism that existed in California and across the United States, where open discrimination was, as we can see, warmly embraced by legal authorities. The land of liberty and justice for all was only free and just for some in an era when slavery was still legal and not everyone had equal access to the justice system. And the net effect of this particular decision didn’t just entrench racism in California’s legal system by making it explicitly clear that testimony from Chinese people was not welcome in cases where whites were involved.
It also effectively created open season on the Chinese community. Whites who attacked members of the Chinese community could do so quite safely if they made sure that only Chinese witnesses were present. Beatings, lynchings, and murderings of Chinese people occurred in California in the 1800s, along with economic and other abuses; Chinese miners, for example, couldn’t actually own claims, and thus relied on partnerships that sometimes went sour. If they did, they couldn’t take the matter to court, because not only would it be their word against a white man’s, their word wouldn’t even be allowed.
In an impassioned appeal to Congress, a Chinese merchant named Pun Chi spelled out the consequences of People v. Hall. His statement was translated into English and distributed in San Francisco in 1870. Containing a series of detailed points discussing abuses of Chinese people, it begged for intervention on the federal level. The final paragraph, detailing the enticements used to draw Chinese immigrants and the resulting feelings of betrayal, is particularly striking:
…we could hardly have calculated that we would now be the objects of your excessive hatred—that your courts would refuse us the right of testimony; your legislature load us with increasing taxes and devise means how to wholly expel us; your collectors, even before the law is made, begin to demand larger sums, and to compel the month’s payment for shorter periods than that time; that foreign villains, witnessing your degrading treatment of us, would assume the right to harass, plunder and rob us, possibly kill us; that injuries of every hind would be inflicted on us, and unceasing wrongs be perpetrated…
In the same year, the subject came up again with People of the State of California v. Brady, another case where the testimony of Chinese witnesses was called into question.
Has the Legislature the power to declare classes of persons such as Indians and Mongolians incompetent to testify? That it may rightfully do so independently of the Fourteenth Amendment cannot be questioned.
While Chinese citizens were building railroads, working as cooks and cleaners, and struggling to survive in the promised land, they were repeatedly and definitively reminded that they were second class citizens. Racial exclusion laws were used across the United States to leave whites in a position of power within the legal system, and this is something that has endured to the present day. It may be de facto rather than de jure, but the racial disparities in terms of what kinds of cases go to court and how they are handled are striking, and persistent. Ignoring the origins of that misses a bigger picture; it wasn’t that long ago that many people were explicitly barred from offering testimony in court.