The American History Problem

By Jacqueline Battalora

Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice
Saint Xavier University, Chicago
Former Chicago Police Officer


The First Congress of the United States met in 1790-91 to craft the founding laws of the nation including naturalization, the process by which one not born in a nation may become a citizen. The Naturalization Act of 1790 required that a person must be white to become a citizen of the United States of America.


This law shaped lives in radically different ways for more than 150 years dependent upon whether one was seen as white or not. It conferred unearned advantage to white people and unearned disadvantage to nonwhites. These are unearned because what mattered by virtue of the law was one’s status as white or not irrelevant of effort, talent or skill. If white, then the naturalization process was open to you. If not, access to citizenship via naturalization was denied outright even if that person fought a war for this country, even if that person loved the country and espoused its ideals. Newcomers to the nation received privilege conferred by virtue of legal advantages because they were white. Call it white privilege. These people did not ask for the privilege and may not have wanted it. Regardless, it was conferred simply because they were white.


The First Congress of the nation made clear that what matters most for access to the rights and privileges of US citizenship is not the quality of the person but the race of the person and that race is white. US naturalization law forged a direct link between American and the so called, white race. So if one is not white their contingent American status must be noted: African American, Asian American, Hispanic American, Native American, etc… My national identity is not contingent. I am American. Most everyone who reads that knows what it means. I am white.


By requiring for more than 150 years that a person be white to naturalize, the United Stated advanced through law that white people are preferred and that non white people neither belong here nor are they real Americans. The law influenced the conferral or denial of citizenship beyond those pursuing naturalization. The white prerequisite of the Naturalization Law of 1790 was drawn upon by the United States Supreme Court in 1857 as proof that the founders had never recognized persons of African descent, whether free or enslaved, as citizens when the Court denied citizenship to Mr. Dred Scott. The influence of the naturalization law reached beyond the issue of citizenship.


The Naturalization Law of 1790 did far more than grant access to U.S. citizenship for those who were deemed white. It supported laws and statuses conferred by virtue of law that kept white people in a position of domination or superiority relative to nonwhites. The law advanced the accumulation of resources and wealth by whites, in part, by denying it to nonwhites who were also excluded from citizenship.  


The whiteness prerequisite was foundational to state laws that stripped away land ownership from those who were ineligible for naturalization. Legal aliens in the U.S. who were seen as not white lost their land and were prohibited from land ownership when states began to pass Alien Land Laws beginning with California in 1913. Many Chinese and Japanese in America lost their land and hopes of owning it. The result is that more land was made available at cheaper prices to those for whom land ownership was accessible.


Naturalization law made life so much more difficult and unfair for those viewed as not white. It ensured that the large numbers of Chinese immigrant men who worked to build the transcontinental railroad among other jobs would be rendered cheap and dependent labor. Exclusion from citizenship meant they were unable to exercise a political voice in the nation whose capitalists (the 1 percent) welcomed them and whose white laborers detested them. Blamed them for poor working conditions and low wages and all that was difficult for white workers, Chinese immigrants faced law after law that cut into their low wages and rendered them vulnerable to any white person since it was illegal for a Chinese to testify against a white person in many western states. The Chinese immigrants were among the first in a long line of immigrants to the US whose inability to satisfy the prerequisite of being white ensured they would be low wageworkers and subservient to whites.


The requirement of being white in order to naturalize a US citizen was valid law from it’s creation in 1790 until 1952. The US and Nazi Germany were the only nations with racial restrictions on immigration and naturalization at the time. The atrocities of WWII caused introspection after the war and numerous laws that were not far removed from those of Nazi Germany began to be removed including the prerequisite that one be white to naturalize a US citizen.


What is so troubling today is not the admission that white superiority is built into the fabric of the United States of America as a matter of law but that most of those educated in the nation are completely unaware of the history. The current version of US history is so lacking in adequate lenses that it can be called something far short of the truth like when I was in high school I was asked what I was doing on Friday night. I told my mom that I was going to Kim’s to just hang out with some friends. What I left out was that about 100 other kids were coming and a couple of kegs as well. Was the version I told a lie? Is the picture painted so incomplete that it falls far short of the truth?


We are not saving the face of the US by denying the truth of its deep history of white superiority. We are ensuring that its future will be fractured and frustrating to those living it out because we are denying the tools needed to bind it and the historical foundation for it all to make sense.


American students can handle learning US history including its history of advancing white superiority. Not only can they handle US history that captures the 100 other friends and 2 kegs, they desperately need it. The challenges facing this nation require an understanding of the history that gave rise to today.