Skip to main content

CONTENT WARNING: Materials in the Library of Virginia’s collections contain historical terms, phrases, and images that are offensive to modern readers. These include demeaning and dehumanizing references to race, ethnicity, and nationality; enslaved or free status; physical and mental ability; religion; sex; and sexual orientation and gender identity.

This blog post was written on the lands of Virginia’s Indigenous people, Cheroenhaka (Nottoway), Chickahominy, East Chickahominy, Mattaponi, Monacan, Nansemond, Nottoway, Pamunkey, Patawomeck, Upper Mattaponi, and Rappahannock tribes. The Library of Virginia rests on ancestral lands of the Indigenous peoples of the Powhatan Confederation, a paramount chiefdom of about thirty Algonquian-speaking groups. To learn more information about the Powhatan visit: National Park Service’s Chronology of Powhatan Indian Activity, Virginia Indian Digital Archive, and Encyclopedia Virginia. To learn what land you reside on, visit Native Land Digital.

“The color question is destined to get the United States in much trouble,” wrote John Mitchell, Jr., editor of the Black owned and Black run newspaper, the Richmond Planet, under a column titled “The Japanese Question” in July 1920.[1] He continued, “The Japanese are now being ostracised and discriminated against in California and the National Administration appears to be helpless.”[2] * Only a year after this was written, the Richmond Planet noted that “an interesting story is told in the following telegraphic dispatch:

Richmond Planet, July 17, 1920

Washington, Aug. 13. — The United States Supreme Court will be asked to declare the Japanese a white race, and thus entitled to American citizenship it was learned here today. The request will be made, it was said, in the case known as Takao Ozawa versus the United States, in which the petitioner is seeking to establish his right to become a naturalized American.”[3]

While the 1790 Naturalization Act extended naturalized citizenship to “free white persons,” what rights did Asian immigrants like Takao Ozawa have to become naturalized? As historian Gary Okihiro writes:

As nonwhites, Asians and Pacific Islanders too were excluded from citizenship by the 1790 act. Three years before Dred Scott, California’s supreme court had ruled in favor of a white man, George Hall, who petitioned to overturn a conviction of murder. An immigrant to California, Hall had killed a Chinese miner while trying to extort gold from the man, and his conviction was based on testimony from Chinese witnesses. Hall’s petition flowed from a long tradition, beginning in colonial Virginia, holding that Indians and Africans were “incapable in law.” Hall’s attorney pointed out that California law disallowed American Indians and African Americans from testifying for or against whites and argued that Chinese witnesses should be debarred on the same grounds. In his decision in The People v. George W. Hall (1894), Chief Judge Hugh Murray agreed: “A free white citizen of this State” had had his rights abridged by having been subjected to a trial contaminated by evidence provided by aliens “not of white blood.” The “European white man,” Murray reasoned, must be shielded from the testimony of “the degraded and demoralized caste.” Moreover, if given equality and the rights of citizenship, the Chinese would constitute “an actual and present danger” to the nation’s stability. The phrase free white persons thus defined citizenship as a matter of race. (It was also a matter of gender, insofar as freedom was a virtue possessed by men.)[4]

Takao Ozawa

Image courtesy of aaregistry.org

The case referenced above in the Richmond Planet is Ozawa vs. United States. The case came from Japanese immigrant Takao Ozawa, who challenged the United States’ ban on naturalized citizenship for Japanese immigrants. Ozawa was born in Japan in 1875 and emigrated to the United States as a student in 1894. He attended the University of California for three years before moving to Hawaii to raise a family, was fluent in English, was a practicing Christian, and worked for an American company.[5] On 14 October 1914, Ozawa filed an application for citizenship but was denied; he challenged the ruling in the U.S. District Court for the Territory of Hawaii two years later and was again denied.

Ozawa argued that race was a matter of color and culture, and “claimed his skin was whiter than that of ‘the average Italian, Spaniard or Portuguese,’ and that he was thoroughly assimilated and a fervently patriotic American.”[6]

Indeed, the court “found that Ozawa was ‘in every way eminently qualified under the statute to become an American citizen’ except for his race. He was not white as the country’s naturalization laws required.”[7] Ozawa appealed the decision and the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court on 31 May 1917. As mentioned in the Richmond Planet article, former U.S. Attorney General George Wickersham, “one of the ablest attorneys in this country [who] ranks with the best in the world,” represented Ozawa, but as the Planet adds, “he [Wickersham] has undertaken a task that only the large size of his clients pocket-book will justify. He has also lost sight of the fact that he is playing with ‘loaded dice,’ that is arguing his case before a prejudiced jury in this matter.”[8] Prescient indeed, since the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Ozawa’s arguments in 1922 to become a naturalized citizen and “relied on scientific opinion that denied skin color as a criterion of racial classification and held that white was synonymous with Caucasian.”[9] The court stated that Japanese immigrants were not white, since they were not considered a Caucasian race.

The Ozawa decision was a court case that added to a number of murky contradictions around decisions of naturalization and race of Asian immigrants and Asian Americans by the U.S. Supreme Court. With Ozawa as a precedent, a Punjabi man, Bhagat Singh Thind, took a case to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1923, when officials began to denaturalize South Asian immigrants and naturalized citizens on the grounds that they were not white.[10] Thind was a naturalized citizen who first entered the United States in 1913 and served in the U.S. armed forces during World War I. Okihiro writes:

Bhagat Singh Thind

From Divine Wisdom by Bhagat Singh Thind, 1925.

The legal context from which the U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind case arose was the tangled precedents of Armenians classified as Asians and later in 1909, as whites, and Syrians considered whites in 1909, 1910, and 1915 but nonwhites in 1913 and 1914. The 1909 ruling In re Najour, by a federal court in Georgia, involved the Syrian Costa George Najour. According to the judge’s ruling,the term free white person, the criterion for naturalization eligibility of the 1790 Naturalization Act, referred to race, not skin color. Race, he ruled, was a scientific concept: since Syrians belonged to the Caucasian race, they were white.[11]

Bhagat Singh Thind's Citizenship Paperwork

Thind pointed out that science had classified South Asians as Caucasians. He claimed that he was a descendent of the Aryans of India and belonged to the Caucasian race, and was thus “white” within the strictures of the U.S. laws. He likely had the Ozawa case in mind, where the court relied on the scientific opinion that denied skin color as a criterion of racial classification.

The News Leader (Staunton, Virginia), February 20, 1923

A lower district court agreed with Thind in 1920, citing the Najour case and granted him naturalization, but on Thind’s appeal, the Supreme Court denied his arguments, despite the “logic” argued in the Ozawa case that rejected skin tone as a measure of race. Thind, along with other South Asians who had been naturalized citizens, were all unceremoniously denaturalized, and without citizenship status, South Asians were subject to California’s Alien Land Laws (see footnote). It was not until 1946, when the Luce-Celler Act amended the Immigration Act of 1917 and allowed “natives of India” to apply for admission to the United States, that many Indian immigrants were given the rights of citizens.[12]

The cases of Ozawa in 1922 and Thind in 1923 point to the complexities and contradictions within white supremacy and challenged and destabilized ideas of race and citizenship. Scholar John Tehranian wrote that after the cases of Ozawa and Thind, “whiteness was determined through performance. The potential for immigrants to assimilate within mainstream Anglo-American culture was put on trial.

Successful litigants demonstrated evidence of whiteness in their character, religious practices and beliefs, class orientation, language, ability to intermarry, and a host of other traits that had nothing to do with intrinsic racial grouping. Thus, a dramaturgy of whiteness emerged…performance became the dominant criterion for racial determination and the courts directly influenced the construction of racial identity.”[13]

I often hearken to a quote from historian Leslie Bow, that “treatment of nonblack, nonwhite people confirmed the flexibility and resourcefulness of white supremacy’s apparatus.”[14] In 1924, after the Ozawa and Thind cases had been decided, the state registrar of vital statistics, Walter Ashby Plecker, employed Virginia’s Act to Preserve Racial Integrity to effectively separate Virginia citizens into two simplified racial categories: white and “colored.” I have to wonder how closely Plecker followed these Supreme Court Cases and how he may have defined Asian immigrants and Asian Americans along this strict binary.

Footnotes

*Prior to 1920, there were a number of Anti-Asian and Anti-Japanese laws put in place. A few notable examples include the Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907-1908, which was intended to exclude Japanese immigrants from the United States (this however did allow Japanese laborers already in the US to bring their wives, children, and parents), Executive Order 589 in 1908, which prohibited continued immigration of Japanese immigrants who held passports from Hawai’i, Mexico, or Canada, and the California land laws in 1913 and 1920, which prohibited Asian immigrants from owning land, barred them from leasing lands for more than three years in a row, and banned them from holding land in guardianship for citizen children. See also Philip Q. Yang, Asian Immigration to the United States (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2011), 74-76.

Some further background information: the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 granted citizenship to people born within the United States and subject to its jurisdiction, irrespective of race (this excluded untaxed Indigenous peoples living on reservations). The Naturalization Act of 1870 extended “naturalization laws” to “aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent” while also revoking the citizenship of naturalized Chinese Americans. The U.S. Supreme Court Case United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898) recognized U.S. birthright citizenship of an American-born child of Chinese parents who had a permanent domicile and residence in the United States; this case affirmed that all persons born in the United States were, regardless of race, native-born citizens and entitled to all the rights of citizenship; however, “federal laws prohibited the naturalization of Asian immigrants, but they were not enforced rigidly around the country until after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was passed and explicitly spelled out the prohibition against naturalized U.S. citizenship for Chinese.” Indigenous Americans were granted citizenship in piece-meal until the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, which granted blanket citizenship to Indigenous peoples whether they belonged to a federally recognized tribe or not (however this Act was not retroactive and did not cover citizens born before the effective date of the 1924 act and many states like Virginia enacted laws to limit and disenfranchise Indigenous voters). More information on United States v Wong Kim Ark can be found in Erika Lee’s The Making of Asian America (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2015), 84.

To learn more about Thind’s life view  the Bhagat Singh Thind Materials at the South Asian American Digital Archive.

Works Cited

[1] Richmond Planet (Richmond, VA), July 17, 1920, accessed May 10, 2021.

[2] Richmond Planet (Richmond, VA), July 17, 1920, accessed May 10, 2021.

[3] Richmond Planet (Richmond, VA), August 20, 1921, accessed May 11, 2021.

[4] Gary Y. Okihiro, American History Unbound: Asians and Pacific Islanders (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015), 73.

[5] Erika Lee, The Making of Asian America (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2015), 120.

[6] Okihiro, 286.

[7] Lee, 121.

[8] Richmond Planet (Richmond, VA), August 20, 1921, accessed May 11, 2021.

[9] Okihiro, 286.

[10] Lee, 172.

[11] Okihiro, 285.

[12] Lee, 173.

[13] Tehranian, John. “Performing Whiteness: Naturalization Litigation and the Construction of Racial Identity in America.” The Yale Law Journal 109, no. 4 (2000): 820-821. Accessed May 12, 2021. doi:10.2307/797505.

[14] Leslie Bow, Partly Colored: Asian Americans and the Racial Anomaly in the Segregated South (New York, New York: New York University Press, 2010), 4.

Header Image Citation

Bhagat Singh Thind at Camp Lewis, Washington in 1918.

Emma Ito

Emma Ito

Education & Programs Specialist

Leave a Reply