Proposition 15 (1946)


Proposition 15 was a proposed constitutional amendment that appeared on the California ballot in November 1946. The measure would have incorporated the state's Alien Land Law and several amendments to that law into the state constitution. Proposition 15 originated during World War II as part of a campaign by California politicians to prevent the return of Japanese Americans to their homes from the concentration camps in which most were incarcerated during the war. California's voters rejected the ballot measure. Proposition 15 is significant because it was the first anti-Asian ballot measure not approved by the state's voters. The measure's defeat signaled a change in California politics and encouraged Japanese Americans and other supporters of racial equality to work against other discriminatory policies and practices.

Anti-Japanese Agitation in California

Proposition 15 represented a continuation of California's anti-Asian movement, which began during the Gold Rush. California's legislature passed a Foreign Miners Tax in 1850 in an effort to drive Chinese men from the gold fields. In the 1870s, agitation by California politicians encouraged the U.S. Congress to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In the early twentieth century, California's anti-Asian leaders turned their attention to Japanese immigrants and their families. Some focused on the success of Japanese farmers. By 1910, more than 1,800 Japanese Americans owned or operated farms covering nearly 100,000 acres. The California legislature passed its first Alien Land Law in 1913. The law prevented "aliens ineligible to citizenship" from purchasing agricultural land or entering into long-term leases for such land. The legislation clearly targeted Japanese immigrants. Japanese immigrants quickly learned that they could circumvent the law by forming corporations to purchase land and by purchasing land in the names of their children born in the United States, who were guaranteed citizenship by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In response to Japanese Americans' ability to retain their farms, anti-Japanese activists put a measure before the voters in 1920 to "close loopholes" in the original Alien Land Law. Voters approved the measure by a decisive margin—668,438 voted in favor of the initiative, while only 222,086 voted against it.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, anti-Japanese organizations such as the Native Sons of the Golden West and the American Legion continued to draw attention to what they saw as the undesirability of Japanese Americans. This campaign intensified to a fever pitch after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. This pressure in part convinced federal officials to remove and incarcerate all Japanese Americans living along the Pacific Coast.

Once most Japanese Americans were imprisoned in War Relocation Authority camps, anti-Japanese organizations and politicians waged a campaign to prevent Japanese Americans from returning to their former homes. From 1942 through 1944, anti-Japanese leaders made public statements designed to create such a hostile climate that Japanese Americans would abandon their desire to return. Two different committees of the California legislature held hearings to investigate the "Japanese problem." Legislators accused the WRA of "coddling" its prisoners, and they attacked the proponents of "fair play" for Japanese Americans. District attorneys filed numerous escheat suits in 1944 and 1945. These lawsuits were designed to confiscate land acquired or held in violation of the Alien Land Law. In April 1945 state legislators appropriated $200,000 to support an expansion in the investigation and prosecution of alleged land law violations.

Proposition 15 as Turning Point

Proposition 15 represented the culmination of this effort. In legal terms, the ballot measure was not extremely significant. It did not change any existing laws. Instead, it simply would have made the Alien Land Law and amendments passed by the legislature part of the state constitution. However, it would have sent a powerful message to Japanese Americans and to advocates of racial equality that the majority of California voters continued to support racially discriminatory laws, particularly those that targeted Japanese Americans.

The language of the proposition made it appear as if the proposition might be uncontroversial, and proponents of the measure insisted that it was just a routine matter that voters should approve. However, Japanese Americans and their allies waged an aggressive campaign against Proposition 15. In strongly-worded letters to the editor, Japanese American veterans pointed out that they had served honorably in the U.S. Army while their family members were imprisoned, and in return they were facing prosecution in California for violating the Alien Land Law.

Mike Masaoka of the Japanese American Citizens League headed the campaign against the proposition, although he received a good deal of support from other people, such as A. L. Wirin of the American Civil Liberties Union. Masaoka publicly debated the proponents of the measure on the radio, challenging their characterization of the measure as innocuous.

In November 1946, California voters decisively rejected Proposition 15: 797,067 ballots were cast in favor of the measure, while 1,143,780 votes were cast against it. Voters seem to have accepted Masaoka's arguments and agreed that it was not fair for the state to initiate proceedings to take land away from the families of veterans who had served their country honorably during World War II. At the same time, the defeat of Proposition 15 might be interpreted as a reflection of the fact that many California voters no longer saw Japanese Americans as a threat to white supremacy in the state. Instead, the dramatic growth of the state's African American population may have led many white Californians to believe that African Americans constituted a much larger threat to the perpetuation of a white supremacist order in the state than did Japanese Americans.

The fabric of state-sanctioned discrimination against Japanese Americans continued to unravel after the defeat of Proposition 15. In Oyama v. California in 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that portions of the Alien Land Law violated the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Four years later, the California Supreme Court decided in Fujii v. California that the entire land law violated the Fourteenth Amendment. The legal basis for discrimination against "aliens ineligible to citizenship" was eliminated later in 1952, when Congress passed the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act.

Authored by Kevin Allen Leonard, Middle Tennessee State University

For More Information

Brilliant, Mark. The Color of America Has Changed: How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights Reform in California, 1941-1978. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Ferguson, Edwin E. "The California Alien Land Law and the Fourteenth Amendment." California Law Review 35.1 (March 1947): 61-90.

Leonard, Kevin Allen. "'Is That What We Fought For'? Japanese Americans and Racism in California, the Impact of World War II." Western Historical Quarterly 21.4 (Nov. 1990): 463-82.

Text of California Proposition 15 (1946): http://repository.uchastings.edu/ca_ballot_props/467.