America’s Legacy of Exclusion

Laura Marti – April 02, 2024

In the intricate tapestry of United States history, threads of exclusion and marginalization are deeply woven, casting shadows on the American ideals of equality and justice. From the early colonial period to contemporary times, exclusionary practices have permeated society, targeting various people groups based on race, ethnicity, gender, and other identities. Understanding this history is essential to confronting systemic injustices and forging a more equitable future – one of true belonging.

One of the first things I learned when I began my antiracism journey was this history of exclusion in America. In 2017, I attended a talk at a local Charlotte church, one that declares it is “open to all and closed to none” and has been committed to dismantling its own racism as a congregation. A District Court Judge, Louis A. Trosch Jr. and his team were speaking on the “History of Exclusion,” as well as his first-hand experience seeing systemic racism and discriminatory practices in the court system. To be honest, I didn’t really know at the time what they meant by ‘exclusion’ until they began unraveling the twisted history of policies meant to keep out, dispossess, and marginalize those who were unwanted as Americans.


The roots of exclusion in America can be traced back to its colonial origins, when Pope Alexander VI issued a papal bull or decree in 1493, “Inter Caetera,” in which he essentially divided the world between Spain and Portugal. It decreed that all lands west and south of a meridian line 100 leagues west of the Azores and Cape Verde islands rightfully belonged to Spain, and lands east of the line belonged to Portugal. The decree asserted the rights of Spain and Portugal to colonize, convert, and enslave in the Americas. It justified the enslavement of Africans and the subjugation of Native peoples.

Pope Alexander VI

The Bull stated that any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be “discovered,” claimed, and exploited by Christian rulers, and declared that:

“the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.”

​​This “Doctrine of Discovery” became the basis of all European claims in the Americas as well as the foundation for the United States’ western expansion. In the 1823 US Supreme Court case Johnson v. McIntosh, Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion in the unanimous decision held “that the principle of discovery gave European nations an absolute right to New World lands.”


As the United States expanded westward, exclusionary policies intensified. The Indian Removal Act of 1830, signed into law by President Andrew Jackson, authorized the forced relocation of Native American tribes from their ancestral lands to areas west of the Mississippi River. This brutal policy culminated in the Trail of Tears, a harrowing journey that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Indigenous people.

Simultaneously, African Americans endured centuries of enslavement and systemic discrimination. The institution of slavery was enshrined in the U.S. Constitution through the Three-Fifths Compromise, which counted enslaved individuals as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of apportioning congressional representation. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 further entrenched the system by requiring citizens to assist in the capture and return of escaped slaves, perpetuating the dehumanization and exploitation of African Americans.

Meanwhile, immigrants seeking refuge and opportunity in America faced their own barriers to inclusion. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first significant law restricting immigration based on nationality, prohibited the entry of Chinese laborers and barred Chinese immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens. This was after more than 2.5 million Chinese citizens were brought to America, hired in 1864 after a labor shortage threatened the completion of the railroad. Once the railroad was built, the Chinese were no longer wanted. This discriminatory legislation reflected the nativist sentiments of the time and set a precedent for subsequent restrictive immigration policies targeting marginalized communities.

Chinese railroad workers

Even after the abolition of slavery, segregation and disenfranchisement persisted through Jim Crow laws enacted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These laws enforced racial segregation in public facilities, schools, and transportation, relegating African Americans to second-class citizenship. The Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which upheld the constitutionality of “separate but equal” facilities, provided legal justification for racial segregation until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.


Throughout history, exclusionary practices have perpetuated systemic inequalities and denied marginalized groups their rights and dignity. There are many more than what I’ve briefly described here. Following is a list that you can explore of exclusionary practices/acts/laws which were discussed in the seminar I attended that day. As you might imagine, as each of these policies were described, and they illuminated how much people in various groups were not wanted, it became a heavy emotional weight to bear – and was even more painful to learn them all at once.

  • 1705 Freedom Dues
  • 1790 Naturalization Act
  • 1830 Indian Removal Act
  • 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo
  • 1865 Black Codes & Jim Crow laws
  • 1865 Forty Acres and a Mule
  • 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act
  • 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson “separate but equal”
  • 1922 Alien Land Act
  • 1924 Immigration Act
  • 1934 Federal Housing Administration Redlining policy
  • 1933 New Deal
  • 1935 Social Security Act
  • 1935 Wagner Act
  • 1944 GI Bill


By acknowledging this legacy of exclusion, we can confront the injustices of the past and work towards a more inclusive and equitable society. It wasn’t easy to hear, and it upended what I thought America was. But I’d rather know. I am a changed person for learning these painful truths because it helped illuminate the consequences of hatred, dehumanization, and the cruelty we can justify when we wrongly believe / fear that ‘others’ pose a threat. Through understanding our history, we can instead pave the way for a future where all people are valued and affirmed, and I’m hopeful that together we can build a world of true belonging for all people. The other side of EXCLUSION is INCLUSION – where the dignity of all humanity is elevated. That’s the world I want to live in.


The Doctrine of Discovery, 1493 Introduction Questions for Discussion 

Black Codes – Definition, Dates & Jim Crow Laws | HISTORY 

‘Forgotten by society’ – how Chinese migrants built the transcontinental railroad | Art | The Guardian

Laura Martí is Content Creator and Resource Curator for Brownicity. Trained as a microbiologist and currently a wife and mother of four, she has been on an antiracism journey since the death of Trayvon Martin. She shares from her own learning with the goal of educating others and lifting up the dignity of every person.