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Racist Statutes Under Siege

Legislation: States seek to eliminate laws barring land ownership by minorities and discriminatory language from their documents.

September 29, 2002|PETER PRENGAMAN | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

PORTLAND, Ore. — A clause in Oregon's constitution declares that the only blacks allowed to live in the state are slaves. The provision was rendered obsolete in 1868, but it has remained on the books for nearly 150 years.

On Nov. 5, Oregonians will vote on a measure to remove that provision and other discriminatory language from the constitution.

Over the past four years, about half a dozen states have undertaken to expunge racist constitutional wording and statutes that have been virtually forgotten since they were drafted in another age.

"Eventually those laws will all be gotten rid of," said Jack Chin, a professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Law.

New Mexico voters will decide in November whether to remove an "alien land statute" from the state constitution. It bans Asian immigrants from owning property.

Last May, Kansas Gov. Bill Graves signed a bill that repealed a similar unenforced law.

The United States actively limited the immigration of Asians from 1862 to 1965. During that span, more than a dozen states prohibited Asian immigrants from owning property. Most states did away with the laws between 1940 and 1960. Other states forgot about the clauses, or simply ignored them.

The Wyoming Legislature last year repealed its 1943 alien land law.

Oregon offers a good example of how a racist statute can end up staying on the books.

A constitutional provision dating from 1857 states that "No free negro, or mulatto, not residing in this State at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall come, reside, or be within this State, or hold any real estate .... "

Another provision facing removal states the number of Oregon Supreme Court justices "shall not exceed five until the white population of the State shall amount to One Hundred Thousand."

Many early settlers were pro-slavery Democrats, Southerners who brought with them their social norms, and sometimes their slaves.

In 1868, the U.S. Congress ratified the 14th Amendment, which bars states from enforcing laws that deny citizens equal protection based on race. Oregon voters in 1925 repealed their state's constitutional provisions discriminating against blacks. But the language -- forgotten by many and ignored by others -- was never removed .

State Sen. Avel Gordly (D-Portland) prodded lawmakers in the 2001 legislative session to prepare Measure 14, which would finally remove the obsolete language.

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