Professor Chin Speaks on White Nationalism in Barrett Lecture
Do white nationalists have a point when they insist that the United States is a “white country”? Professor Gabriel “Jack” Chin examined that question in detail as he delivered the Edward L. Barrett, Jr. Endowed Lecture on March 1. Speaking to a large audience of King Hall faculty, students, alumni, and staff in the Kalmanovitz Appellate Courtroom, Chin outlined the history of white nationalism in U.S. law and how it has impacted immigration policy and civil rights.
Chin, who holds the Edward L. Barrett, Jr. Chair of Law and is also Martin Luther King, Jr., Professor of Law and Director of Clinical Legal Education at UC Davis School of Law, said that white nationalism currently “enjoys more respectability” than it has at any time in the recent past. Thanks in part to derogatory statements made by President Trump regarding non-white immigrants and his promises to ban Muslim immigration, the idea of the United States being a nation “for white people” has gained increased visibility, and calls for racial restrictions on immigration have become more frequent, Chin said.
“I suspect many people believe, as I do, that the white nationalist movement and extreme proposals for immigration restrictions are as un-American as they are unwise,” said Chin. He went on to discuss the historical background of white nationalism and offered his analysis of why it has resurfaced in the Trump era.
The connection between race and national identity goes back to the nation’s beginnings, Chin said. The Nationalization Act of 1790 allowed for the naturalization of only “free white persons,” and that definition was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in denying full equality to non-whites in decisions including the “Passenger Cases” of 1849, the infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford decision of 1857, and Ozawa v. United States in 1922, Chin noted.
The Reconstruction Amendments, while granting citizenship to non-white former slaves and their descendants, did not reject white nationalism, Chin said, but merely dealt with the specific problem of the legal status of African Americans. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which, together with other similar laws, prohibited Asians from becoming U.S. citizens until 1952. Racial restrictions on immigration persisted until 1965, when the same coalition of senators and representatives who supported the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act passed the Immigration and Nationality Act.
Calling it “the most effective civil rights legislation of the 20th century,” Chin said the Immigration and Nationality Act profoundly changed the demographics of U.S. immigration and put the country on track to become a “majority minority” nation. But the Act was never popular with the general public, and therefore shouldn’t be seen as a repudiation of white nationalism, Chin said.
“My study of this topic has led me to conclude that at the founding we were clearly a white country,” said Chin. “During Reconstruction we became a black and white country. In 1965, the elites decided that we were no longer to be a white country. But this moment, the Trump era, is the first time in which the American people as a whole and their lawmakers in Congress are simultaneously compelled to address the issue of whether race is an essential part of the American nation. And I hope that the decision comes out the right way.”