This May, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis celebrated Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month by signing a series of laws that bar Chinese citizens from owning land in Florida and makes it a felony for Chinese persons to violate the law.
Like much of the sinophobic rhetoric used by politicians on both sides of the aisle seeking to look “tough” on China, DeSantis asserts that these laws are meant to “counteract the malign influence of the Chinese Communist Party in the state of Florida.”
But it’s hard to take seriously this “malign influence” when according to statistics from the Florida realtors association cited by the ACLU, Chinese buyers were involved in only 0.1 percent of all real estate purchases in Florida in 2022.
The reality is that Florida’s law—and other laws like it in states including Texas, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Alabama—are throwbacks to the racist “Alien Land Laws” from the 19th and early 20th century that barred Asians from owning land.
Lesser-known than the redlining and racist zoning laws that kept Blacks and other minorities from buying homes in predominantly white neighborhoods, these laws sought to stop Chinese and Japanese people from purchasing and even leasing land primarily in the American West. For example, the 1859 Oregon constitution barred any “Chinaman” from buying property, and the 1879 California constitution was amended to specifically target Asians by only allowing aliens to buy land if they were of “the white race or African descent.”
Like today’s politicians, the leaders of that era stoked racist fears in order to eliminate perceived economic competition from Asians by outright banning them from immigration—the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act—and through Alien Land laws. The Chinese Exclusion Act was not repealed until 1943 against the backdrop of the United States allying with China in World War II. It was not until 1948 that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down an Alien Land law as unconstitutional in Oyama v. California. Even after that decision, however, many states did not repeal the laws until decades later. Florida finally got around to repealing its Alien Land law in 2021, only to have DeSantis replace it with a new one.
DeSantis’ Alien Land law is about as carefully thought out as was the disastrous declaration of his presidential candidacy on Twitter—whose technical glitches kept him silent for nearly 30 minutes.
For starters, the federal government already scrutinizes foreign transactions, including real estate purchases, that may jeopardize national security through the interagency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). The interagency coordination includes the Department of Defense as well as the intelligence community.
Given that the federal government—not Florida—is tasked with our national security, the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution likely preempts Florida’s ability to play in this arena. That’s one of the arguments made in the recently filed lawsuit by the ACLU on behalf of several Chinese citizens living in Florida challenging DeSantis’s law as unconstitutional.
The law also would appear to violate the Equal Protection Clause and Due Process clauses of the Constitution. And there is also the federal Fair Housing Act, which prohibits making housing unavailable on the basis of among other things: national origin.
Then there’s the economic and financial detriment DeSantis would be causing to his own state if the law is successfully implemented. Potential businesses in Florida that could end up in violation of the new law include a billion-dollar development project led by a Hong Kong-based company, as well as both Smithfield Foods—the world’s largest pork producer—and AMC Theaters—the world’s largest movie chain—which are both owned by Chinese investors. Getting on the wrong side of such business behemoths would likely end up going about as well as DeSantis’s attempt to enter into legal battles with Disney.
DeSantis and his fellow conservatives keep reaching back into earlier centuries for their political inspiration and strategies.
Just as Justice Samuel Alito relied upon the 17th century witch-hunting jurist Matthew Hale for his legal inspiration in overruling Roe v. Wade, DeSantis and others now seek to revive the 19th century racist prohibitions against Asians owning land to strengthen their political machismo as it relates to China.
But the history of scapegoating Asian competition in America is intrinsically intertwined with racist violence. In the 19th century such fears led to lynchings of Chinese workers like the 1885 massacres of Chinese miners at Rock Springs, Wyoming, and the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, who was beaten to death with a baseball bat in Detroit by white men who saw him as the embodiment of Japanese auto-industry competition—never mind that Chin happened to be Chinese not Japanese.
For Asians already suffering from the increased violence and harassment in the wake of being blamed for the COVID-19 pandemic by Donald Trump and other conservatives, the fear of violence spawned by political scapegoating of China is not speculative. In 2022, a study compiled by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism found that anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 339 percent nationwide.
May was Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, during which the contributions of Asians in America were celebrated. Now is a great time to ask ourselves what does the future hold, when so many of our political leaders long for a return to a racially violent past.
The post Florida’s Ban on Chinese Landownership Is a Racist Throwback appeared first on The Daily Beast.