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Laws and Race

Jim Crow Laws

Throughout the United States, following the Civil War, state governments implemented a number of laws geared toward the segregation of whites and non-whites. Jim Crow Laws, perhaps the most extensive collection of racist government policies, were scattered throughout the country. The intent of these laws was to prevent not only the social mingling of races in public places such as trains, restrooms, or even drinking fountains, but also to prevent the physical and sexual mixing of races. That is, many Jim Crow laws dealt with "miscegenation," or the mixing of races, and prohibited interracial marriage and intimate relationships between people of different races. It is important to note that these laws were focused on not only separating whites and blacks, but were also implemented against other races. Some of the examples below illustrate this.

Below are some general examples of Jim Crow Laws.

From Alabama:

"No person or corporation shall require any white female nurse to nurse in wards or rooms in hospitals, either public or private, in which negro men are placed."

"The conductor of each passenger train is authorized and required to assign each passenger to the car or the division of the car, when it is divided by a partition, designated for the race to which such passenger belongs."

"It shall be unlawful for a negro and white person to play together or in company with each other at any game of pool or billiards."


"Intermarriage: The marriage of a person of Caucasian blood with a Negro, Mongolian, Malay, or Hindu shall be null and void."


"All marriages between a white person and a negro, or between a white person and a person of negro descent to the fourth generation inclusive, are hereby forever prohibited."

"Cohabitation: Any negro man and white woman, or any white man and negro woman, who are not married to each other, who shall habitually live in and occupy in the nighttime the same room shall each be punished by imprisonment not exceeding twelve months, or by fine not exceeding five hundred dollars."


"The officer in charge shall not bury, or allow to be buried, any colored persons upon ground set apart or used for the burial of white persons."

"It shall be unlawful for any amateur white baseball team to play baseball on any vacant lot or baseball diamond within two blocks of a playground devoted to the Negro race, and it shall be unlawful for any amateur colored baseball team to play baseball in any vacant lot or baseball diamond within two blocks of any playground devoted to the white race."

"It shall be unlawful for colored people to frequent any park owned or maintained by the city for the benefit, use and enjoyment of white persons... and unlawful for any white person to frequent any park owned or maintained by the city for the use and benefit of colored persons." 

While it appears that the majority of Jim Crow laws were enacted in the South, or among border states, these laws, by no means, were limited to the South. There were laws similar to these in northern states such as Maryland, or in western states, such as Nevada and Wyoming. 

Beyond Jim Crow

There were many other laws passed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that addressed race. Native Americans were arguably the first group to be targeted by racist laws. The Chinese were also common targets for such laws. Many examples of these can be found below, and as well as on the "History: A Timeline" page. 

The Page Act of 1875

"In determining whether the immigration of any subject of China, Japan, or any Oriental country, to the United States, is free and voluntary, as provided by section two thousand one hundred and sixty-two of the Revised Code, title 'Immigration,' it shall be the duty of the consul-general or consul of the United States residing at the port from which it is proposed to convey such subjects, in any vessels enrolled or licensed in the United States, or any port within the same, before delivering to the masters of any such vessels the permit or certificate provided for in such section, to ascertain whether such immigrant has entered into a contract or agreement for a term of service within the United States, for lewd and immoral purposes; and if there be such contract or agreement, the said consul-general or consul shall not deliver the required permit or certificate" (emphasis added).

Here, the emphasized text serves to point out that while this document could be seen as race-neutral, this law is actually banning prostitutes and convicts from entering the country. However, the law is not banning ALL prostitutes and convicts, but rather targeting those from Asian countries. The government targeted Asian countries for special scrutiny over "undesirable" immigrants.

The Chinese Exclusion Act 

"Preamble: Whereas, in the opinion of the Government of the United States the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory thereof: Therefore, be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that from and after the expiration of ninety days next after the passage of this act, and until the expiration of ten years next after the passage of this act, the coming of Chinese laborers to the United States be, and the same is hereby, suspended; and during such suspension it shall not be lawful for any Chinese laborer to come, or, having so come after the expiration of said ninety days, to remain within the United States" (emphasis added).

In this excerpt from "The Chinese Exclusion Act," Chinese "laborers" pose a danger to the "good order" of the United States. This law, in particular, reflects an attitude that nonwhites, specifically the Chinese, are dangerous and at the very least, unequal to white residents of the United States.

The Dawes Act

The Dawes Act, though on the surface seemingly "beneficial" to Native Americans in that it "provides" Native Americans with land ownership, reflects notions of white superiority and western conceptions of private property. In short, individual Native Americans who could prove their "fitness" were realloted lands which initially belonged to the tribe; at any time, those meager allottments could be retracted for the "benefit" of the nation. See Sections 1 and 10 below:

"An Act to Provide for the Allotment of Lands in Severalty to Indians on the Various Reservations, and to Extend the Protection of the Laws of the United States and the Territories over the Indians, and for Other Purposes.

"Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That in all cases where any tribe or band of Indians has been, or shall hereafter be, located upon any reservation created for their use, either by treaty stipulation or by virtue of an act of Congress or executive order setting apart the same for their use, the President of the United States be, and he hereby is, authorized, whenever in his opinion any reservation or any part thereof of such Indians is advantageous for agricultural and grazing purposes, to cause said reservation, or any part thereof, to be surveyed, or resurveyed if necessary, and to allot the lands in said reservation in severalty to any Indian located thereon in quantities as follows:

  • To each head of a family, one-quarter of a section;
  • To each single person over eighteen years of age, one-eighth of a section;
  • To each orphan child under eighteen years of age, one-eighth of a section; and
  • To each other single person under eighteen years now living, or who may be born prior to the date of the order of the President directing an allotment of the lands embraced in any reservation, one-sixteenth of a section:

"Provided, That in case there is not sufficient land in any of said reservations to allot lands to each individual of the classes above named in quantities as above provided, the lands embraced in such reservation or reservations shall be allotted to each individual of each of said classes pro rata in accordance with the provisions of this act. And provided further, that where the treaty or act of Congress setting apart such reservation provides the allotment of lands in severalty in quantities in excess of those herein provided, the President, in making allotments upon such reservation, shall allot the lands to each individual Indian belonging thereon in quantity as specified in such treaty or act. And provided further, that when the lands allotted are only valuable for grazing purposes, an additional allotment of such grazing lands, in quantities as above provided, shall be made to each individual."

"SEC. 10. That nothing in this act contained shall be so construed to affect the right and power of Congress to grant the right of way through any lands granted to an Indian, or a tribe of Indians, for railroads or other highways, or telegraph lines, for the public use, or condemn such lands to public uses, upon making just compensation" (emphasis added).

In the emphasized portions of this document, it is evident that the allotment of lands to Native Americans is only permitted if the lands do not serve a "greater" public good. Here, the government clearly has authority to take back these allotments at their leisure, under the premise of bettering the nation and the promise of compensation.

The parallels between all of these laws--the evident racism, attitudes of white superiority, and entitlement to land--reflect the attitudes of the time period, are one of the ways in which race was constructed. Through government documents such as these, whites were able to suppress other ethnic groups under the law.