Day 3: Immigrants

Italians and Chinese

Political Rights:

U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923): A court case in which the judges defined "white" in order to exclude an Indian man from citizenship.

 Defining White (Full text of court decision)

Section 2169, Revised Statutes, provides that the provisions of the Naturalization Act “shall apply to aliens, being free white persons, and to aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent.”

If the applicant is a white person within the meaning of this section he is entitled to naturalization; otherwise not. In Ozawa v. United States, 260 U.S. 178, we had occasion to consider the application of these words to the case of a cultivated Japanese and were constrained to hold that he was not within their meaning. As there pointed out, the provision is not that any particular class of persons shall be excluded, but it is, in effect, that only white persons shall be included within the privilege of the statute. “The intention was to confer the privilege of citizenship upon that class of persons whom the fathers knew as white, and to deny it to all who could not be so classified. It is not enough to say that the framers did not have in mind the brown or yellow races of Asia. It is necessary to go father and be able to say that had these particular races been suggested the language of the act would have been so varied as to include them within its privileges,” . . . Following a long line of decisions of the lower federal courts, we held that the words imported a racial and not an individual test and were meant to indicate only persons of what is popularly known as the Caucasian race. But, as there pointed out, the conclusion that the phrase “white persons” and the word “Caucasian” are synonymous does not end the matter. It enabled us to dispose of the problem as it was there presented, since the applicant for citizenship clearly fell outside the zone of debatable ground on the negative side; but the decision still left the question to be dealt with, in doubtful and different cases, by the “process of judicial inclusion and exclusion.” Mere ability on the part of an applicant for naturalization to establish a line of descent from a Caucasian ancestor will not ipso facto and necessarily conclude the inquiry. “Caucasian” is a conventional word of much flexibility, as a study of the literature dealing with racial questions will disclose, and while it and the words “white persons” are treated as synonymous for the purposes of that case, they are not of identical meaning. . . .

In the endeavor to ascertain the meaning of the statute we must not fail to keep in mind that it does not employ the word “Caucasian” but the words “white persons,” and these are words of common speech and not of scientific origin. The word “Caucasian” not only was not employed in the law but was probably wholly unfamiliar to the original framers of the statute in 1790. When we employ it we do so as an aid to the ascertainment of the legislative intent and not as an invariable substitute for the statutory words. Indeed, as used in the science of ethnology, the connotation of the word is by no means clear and the use of it in its scientific sense as an equivalent for the words of the statute, other considerations aside, would simply mean the substitution of one perplexity for another. But in this country, during the last half century especially, the word by common usage has acquired a popular meaning, not clearly defined to be sure, but sufficiently so to enable us to say that its popular as distinguished from its scientific application is of appreciably narrower scope. It is in the popular sense of the word, therefore, that we employ it as an aid to the construction of the statute, for it would be obviously illogical to convert words of common speech used in a statute into words of scientific terminology when neither the latter nor the science for whose purposes they were coined was within the contemplation of the framers of the statute or of the people for whom it was framed. The words of the statute are to be interpreted in accordance with the understanding of the common man from whose vocabulary they were taken. . . .

They imply, as we have said, a racial test; but the term “race” is one which, for the practical purposes of the statute, must be applied to a group of living persons now possessing in common the requisite characteristics, not to groups of persons who are supposed to be or really are descended from some remote, common ancestor, but who, whether they both resemble him to a greater or less extend, have, at any rate, ceased altogether to resemble one another. It may be true that the blond Scandinavian and the brown Hindu have a common ancestor in the dim reaches of antiquity, but the average man knows perfectly well that there are unmistakable and profound differences between them today; and it is not impossible, if that common ancestor could be materialized in the flesh, we should discover that he was himself sufficiently differentiated from both of his descendants to preclude his racial classification with either. The question for determination is not, therefore, whether by the speculative processes of ethnological reasoning we may present a probability to the scientific mind that they have the same origin, but whether we can satisfy the common understanding that they are now the same or sufficiently the same to justify the interpreters of a statute—written in the words of common speech, for common understanding, by unscientific men—in classifying them together in the statutory category as white persons. In 1790 the Adamite theory of creation—which gave a common ancestor to all mankind—was generally accepted, and it is not at all probable that it was intended by the legislators of that day to submit the question of the application of the words “white persons” to the mere test of an indefinitely remote common ancestry, without regard to the extent of the subsequent divergence of the various branches from such common ancestry or from one another.

1920s immigration

The first 5 minutes of a documentary about two Italian immigrants tried and convicted for murder in 1920
Sacco and Vanzetti Documentary

Economic Rights:

 From “A clear and present Danger” 1898 full text an American Federation of Labor document outlining the reasons that Chinese should not be allowed in America.

With the habits, manners, customs, and whole economy of life violating every accepted rule of hygiene; with open cesspools, exhalations from water-closets, sinks, urinals, and sewers tainting the atmosphere with noxious vapors and stifling odors; with people herded and packed in damp cellars, living literally the life of vermin, badly fed and clothed, addicted to the daily use of opium to the extent that many hours of each day or night are passed in the delirious stupefaction of its influence, it is not to be denied that, as a whole, the general health of this locality compares more than favorably with other sections of the city which are surrounded by far more favorable conditions. . . .

The frequent custom with these people is to have the brick and mortar bench where cooking is carried on, the sink, always more or less filthy, and an open, filthy, bad-smelling water-closet, all adjoining each other in the same room, or under the same cover. Frequently a space at the end of this cooking range—if we may call it so—is used as a urinal, the only outlet from which is the absorption of and seepage through some earth placed there for that purpose, while the intermingling odors of cooking, sink, water-closet, and urinal added to fumes of opium and tobacco smoke, and indescribable, unknowable, all pervading atmosphere of the Chinese quarter, make up a perfume which can neither be imagined nor described. This is no exaggeration, nor is it a fancy sketch. It is one of the common features of life in Chinatown.

Photograph collection: Collection of photographs of Immigrants in 19th century NYC

Social Rights:
President Wilson welcomes immigrants and explains to them how to become American
Wilson's speech: Americanism and the foreign Born

Immigration restriction: Scroll down and click on "keep on guarding the gates"