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*On this date in 1922, the United States Supreme Court ruled on Takao Ozawa v. the United States that Asian-Americans are not white.
Case #260 U.S. 178 (1922), affirmed that the United States Supreme Court found Takao Ozawa, a Japanese American ineligible for naturalization. In 1915, Takao Ozawa filed for United States citizenship under the Naturalization Act of 1906 which allowed only “free white persons” and "persons of African nativity or persons of African descent" to naturalize. Ozawa, a Japanese American who was born in Japan but had lived in the United States for 20 years did not challenge the constitutionality of the racial restrictions. Instead, he claimed that Japanese people were properly classified as “free white persons.”
Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice George Sutherland approved a line of lower court cases that held that “the words ‘white person’ was meant to indicate only a person of what is known as the Caucasian race.” Because in ordinary usage the Japanese were not considered Caucasian, these courts had held, the Japanese were not “free white persons” within the meaning of the law.
Justice Sutherland wrote that the lower courts’ conclusion that the Japanese were not “free white persons” for purposes of naturalization had “become so well established by judicial and executive concurrence and legislative acquiescence that we should not at this late day feel at liberty to disturb it, in the absence of reasons far more cogent than any that have been suggested.” The Court specifically declined to review the ethnological authorities relied on by the lower courts to support their conclusion or those advanced by the parties.
On the same day, the Supreme Court reiterated its ruling in Takuji Yamashita v. Hinkle. Within three months, Justice Sutherland authored a similarly unfavorable ruling in a Supreme Court case concerning the petition for naturalization of a Sikh immigrant from the Punjab region in India (then British India) who identified himself as “a high caste Hindu of full Indian blood” in his petition, United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind. The upshot of this ruling was that as the Japanese, “high-caste Hindus, of full Indian blood” were not “free white persons” and were racially ineligible for naturalized citizenship.
To support this conclusion, Justice Sutherland reiterated Ozawa’s holding that the words “white person” in the naturalization act were “synonymous with the word ‘Caucasian’ only as that word is popularly understood.” Both decisions had a deleterious effect on Asian Americans as a class, strengthening and re-affirming the racial policies of U.S. immigration and naturalization laws. With successful judicial backing, policymakers passed more anti-Asian laws across the nation under heavy lobbying by the burgeoning Asiatic Exclusion League. This trend continued until the civil rights movements of the 1960s.
Cornell University School of Law