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Law Practice

Apr. 24, 2019

The 2 sides of Los Angeles lawyer Stephen M. White

From ancient times, people have erected statues celebrating significant figures of their eras. As times change, such monuments may be quietly relegated to history.

Stern michael web

Stanley Mosk Courthouse

Michael L. Stern

Judge, Los Angeles County Superior Court

Independent calendar

Judge Stern worked at the CRLA Santa Maria office from 1972 to 1975. He is chair of the Los Angeles County Superior Court Historical Committee.

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Stephen M. White's statue in San Pedro. (Shutterstock)

From ancient times, people have erected statues celebrating significant figures of their eras. As times change, such monuments may be quietly relegated to history.

Thus, it was hardly noticed that a statue of the once-respected Christopher Columbus was recently lowered from its pedestal beside the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles and carted away. Now seen by many to be a symbol of the brutality inflicted on indigenous peoples, the man who "discovered" America is no longer as highly esteemed and his statue is gone.

From 1901 to 1988, a towering bronze statue of the late attorney Stephen M. White stood before Los Angeles courthouses before it was moved to its present location in San Pedro. It was erected by White's contemporaries to remind future generations of his service as the Los Angeles district attorney, state senator, lieutenant governor, United States senator and charter member of the Los Angeles County Bar Association. The statue portrays White as an orator grandly gesturing with outstretched arms to a crowd or jury before him.

But this statue has come to represent a dark period of invidious racial discrimination against Chinese immigrants coming to this country and White's association with it. The moment has arrived to remove it from public display.

Stephen M. White was in his prime when he died in 1901 soon after his 48th birthday. A true lawyer to the end, his parting words were "The evidence is all in; the case is submitted." Marking the late senator's passing, flags in Los Angeles were lowered to half-mast and the courts were closed in mourning. He was eulogized as "the brightest name in California's galaxy of those born upon her soil." His friends took up a collection to place a statue of him in front of the main Red Sandstone Courthouse.

On Oct. 31, 1958, a reinstallation of the statue before the new County (now Mosk) Courthouse was a main feature of the dedication ceremonies. It was barely missed when, in 1988, it was moved to San Pedro in recognition of White's efforts in the 1890s to make the port of Los Angeles a reality.

White's lifetime accomplishments are largely forgotten. But the legacy of his advocacy for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which ensured legal racial discrimination against Chinese persons, remains. His legal work to uphold that racist act disqualifies him from continued recognition by a statue standing in his honor, let alone the continued use of his name on a Los Angeles public school. An outmoded relic of a bygone era, it is time to retire the statue of Stephen M. White.

Stephen M. White, circa 1901.

No unlike many attorneys in their early years, Stephen M. White was stung by a political bug that impelled him to run for public office. Soon after admission to the bar, he ran unsuccessfully for Los Angeles district attorney in 1875 and 1877. He lost again while running on the ticket of the Workingmen's Party of California in 1879. Finally, he was elected as district attorney for a two-year term in 1882.

DA White was proclaimed to be a "terror to evil doers," whose vigorous prosecution of a case "spelled conviction for the guilty." Such praise helped promote his candidacy to be elected as a state senator in 1886. In 1887, White was elected president pro tem of the California Senate and, at the same time, he continued a lucrative law practice in Los Angeles. In a time when U.S. senators were still elected by the Legislature, he was chosen to serve a six-year U.S. Senate term beginning in 1893.

White's chief accomplishment in the U.S. Senate was a bill clearing the way to build a deep-water harbor at San Pedro, which had been a natural site for a port since the Spanish had arrived more than a century before. Fending off a fierce effort by railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington to build a port in Santa Monica, White's legislative victory earned him great acclaim.

This crowning senatorial achievement virtually erased any recollection of White's past participation in the upstart Workingmen's Party, under whose banner he had run for district attorney in 1879. This now-forgotten political party performed a brief, but critical, role in California's history.

Founded by San Francisco anti-Chinese firebrand Denis Kearney in 1878, the Workingmen's Party's program was dominated by a racist message against Chinese workers who had stayed after building the western railroads and who mostly held lower-paying menial jobs that were contended to compete with Caucasians. Kearney provoked the rabble with hateful anti-Chinese tirades and incited his followers to violence against Chinese. He invariably finished his harangues with the vitriolic refrain "And the Chinese must go!"

The Workingmen's Party's populism carried the 1878 state-wide elections and called for a Constitutional Convention that reconfigured state government and instituted California's still-operating Second Constitution. Besides reorganizing California's executive and judicial branches, the new constitution took aim at the supposed Chinese "menace" by giving state officials discretion to decide who could live in California, deprived Chinese of the right to vote, and severely limited their employment opportunities.

The party's anti-Chinese racism swept across the country and its fervor succeeded in the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 by the U.S. Congress. This xenophobic statute, extended by similar restrictive laws over the years, banned all Chinese immigrants from entering the United States and set strict restrictions on Chinese who left the country and attempted to reenter. It was the first national legislation preventing a specific race from immigrating to the United States.

The act demonized ethnic Chinese, who were scapegoated and despised by many in the majority population. Renewed and extended, it was on the books until 1943. From its passage in 1882, it became an ill-spirited precedent for federal immigration policy that lasts to the day.

The reentry provisions of Chinese Exclusion Act were immediately tested in court by a lawful Chinese resident with a certified return pass who was denied readmission to the United States when he attempted to come ashore in San Francisco after a trip to China. When his case was rejected by the trial court, he appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

California retained its Lt. Governor Stephen M. White to co-author an appellate brief and present its position in the Supreme Court. White's arguments took a page straight out of the Workingmen's Party nativist playbook. He contended that Chinese people were so racially and culturally inferior and different from the majority that they could never assimilate into the American mainstream.

White's high court brief insisted that the "action of Congress [in passing the act was] merely in the line of the administration of preventative justice." He submitted that "the reasons influencing the legislative mind may have been various. They may have embraced the preservation of any heathen admixture with a Christian civilization, the warding off of corrupt and deteriorating practices, the preservation of the public health and morals, the riddance of the country of a pauper element and the advancement of the general well-being." Denis Kearney's rant "And the Chinese must go!" might have silently reverberated in the Supreme Court chamber during oral argument.

In the Chinese Exclusion Case, Chae Chan Ping v. United States, 130 U.S. 581 (1889), the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion by Justice Stephen Field, a former California chief justice, agreed with White's arguments and affirmed the order barring the plaintiff's reentry. The decision found that the discretionary power to exclude foreigners is an incident of sovereignty belonging to Congress and to the executive branch under the Constitution. It firmly established the plenary power of the federal government to determine who and under what circumstances that non-citizens could be admitted to the United States.

Tracking White's contentions, Justice Field expounded that the "presence of Chinese laborers had a baneful effect upon the material interest of the [California], upon public morals; that their immigration was in numbers approaching the character of an Oriental invasion, and was a menace to our civilization." Id. at 595. He stated his perception of a threat by "the presence of foreigners of a different race in this country, who will not assimilate with us, to be dangerous to its peace and security." Id. at 606.

Echoing Denis Kearney's hateful demagoguery, Justice Field railed against Chinese workers who "retained the habits and customs of their own country," and settled in this country "without any interest in our country or its institutions," thus endangering the order of the United States without any loyalty to it. Id. at 596.

On a cool day in Lo Angeles in February 1901, a dozen years after the Supreme Court's decision, Stephen M. White was laid to rest. Mourners were told that "He leaves behind a light which will shine for ages to come. His is a clear, unsullied and great record. Centuries will pass over the mound of grass where his ashes will rest and still this city and this State will be his debtors for the great services he performed for the public good."

Chae Chan Ping and countless others who were excluded or suffered intense discrimination as a result of the Chinese Exclusion Case were not present to laud White's accomplishments. The case to which White had brought his lawyerly skills meant broken families and lives, bitter disappointment, suspicion and unequal treatment for them.

It would be decades before the Chinese Exclusion Act would be finally repealed and many more years for true amends to be voiced about the harsh discriminatory effects of this law. But this act continues to cast a long shadow over the administration and fairness of federal immigration policy.

The statue of Stephen M. White no longer graces the lawns of Los Angeles courthouses. But it still stands in this community and his name remains on a Los Angeles school. It is time to remove this statue from public display, take White's name off the school that bears his name and to reflect on how many peoples' lives were damaged by the law to which he applied his legal abilities.


Ben Armistead

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