1.7 Racial Identity and American
Citizenship in the Court
English, U.S. HistoryNumber of
This lesson covers four important lawsuits brought by Asian Americans with important
consequences for American citizenship, equal protection, and racial
identity: Yick Wo, Wong Kim Ark, Takao Ozawa,
Bhagat Singh Thind.
Understand the impact the cases had on American citizenship and racial identity in the law.
Understand the role of Asian Americans in challenging xenophobic and racist laws in the 19th and early 20th century.
Learn race is a social construct.
Racial Identity and American Citizenship in the Court Essay:
From the late 1800s, Asian American immigrants began facing increasing
levels of hostility, discrimination
, and even exclusion from the United
States. To protect their communities, Asian Americans found ways to
resist and fight back. Legal challenges were particularly important for
Asian Americans fighting for their rights because many of the obstacles
they faced were created by the law and rooted in discrimination
immigrants were excluded from citizenship and barred from political
participation. The landmark court cases — Yick Wo v. Hopkins
United States v. Wong Kim Ark
Takao Ozawa v. United States
(1922), and its parallel case United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind
(1923) — had and continue to have important consequences on questions of
, and equality.
The Supreme Court
’s decisions in these cases had serious ramifications
for not only Asian immigrants, but all Americans, citizen or otherwise.
In 1886, a Chinese-born laundry owner named Lee Yick sued the San
Francisco board of supervisors for refusing to grant laundry licenses to
any Chinese person.1
Over 200 Chinese people had applied for
laundry licenses, and every Chinese application was denied. The Supreme
found that all people in the United States were entitled to
of the law under the Fourteenth Amendment,
regardless of citizenship. As a result, San Francisco’s denial of
laundry licenses along racial lines was ruled unconstitutional.
Asian Americans used this court victory to pave the way for future court
challenges, using the U.S. Constitution as their guide.
Wong Kim Ark
is the flagship case on birthright citizenship
proving that U.S. citizenship should be granted not on the basis of
bloodline, but on the basis of territory. In 1895, in the wake of the
Chinese Exclusion Act, the U.S. government refused to allow Wong Kim Ark
back into America after he visited China.2
Wong, however, had
been born in the United States. He sued for his rights, claiming that he
was a U.S. citizen because of his birth, and brought the case all the
way to the Supreme Court. The Court found that the Fourteenth Amendment
guaranteed citizenship to those born in the United States, regardless of
or their parents’ national origin. Because of the
Wong Kim Ark
decision, children born in the U.S. to Asian
immigrants — indeed all immigrants — could become citizens even though their
parents could not. This monumental case paved the way for a more diverse
America and American citizenry.
Finally, the question of citizenship was visited again in the cases
Takao Ozawa v. United States
United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind
(1923). Together, these cases
illustrate how the social constructs of race
and whiteness were
manipulated to deny naturalization
rights to Asian immigrants.
When the U.S. government attempted to limit citizenship only to whites,
Asian Americans quickly moved to prove that they themselves were “white”
in one way or another. Takao Ozawa was a Japanese American who had lived
in the United States for twenty years. He attempted to argue that
“whiteness” was a matter of skin color; because his skin was just as
pale as white Americans, he should be treated as white and granted
citizenship. The Supreme Court unanimously denied him, saying explicitly
that whiteness only extended to “the Caucasian race
However, they changed their own reasoning only three months later so
that they could deny an Indian man citizenship. Bhagat Singh Thind was an Indian man
from the northern region of Punjab who had moved to the U.S. as a young
man and joined the U.S. Army in WWI. He argued that he should be
eligible for naturalization
and citizenship because he was of the
, as the Ozawa
decision specified. However, the
Court found that even though he was Caucasian
, he was not white:
Whiteness must “be interpreted in accordance with the understanding of
the common man, synonymous with the word ‘Caucasian
’ only as that word
is popularly understood.”4
The Supreme Court demonstrated that
they were more concerned about safeguarding white citizenship than maintaining
their own line of reasoning. The Thind
decision had serious consequences
for Indian Americans, especially for those who were previously considered citizens and
were now stripped of their property and denaturalized. One tragic example discussed
in the film was Vaishno das Bagai, whose citizenship and store were taken away
after the Thind
decision, leading him to commit suicide.
1Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356 (1886).
2United States v. Wong Kim Ark, 169 U.S. 649 (1898).
3Takao Ozawa v. United States, 260 U.S. 178 (1922).
4United States v. Thind, 261 U.S. 204 (1923).
Birthright Citizenship: the right to citizenship for all
individuals born in a country’s territory regardless of parentage.
Race: the idea that the human species is divided into distinct
groups on the basis of inherited physical and behavioral
differences.2 Race is socially constructed and influenced
by cultural norms; different racial classifications carry social and
cultural characteristics that are assigned by society.3
Caucasian: of or relating to a race of humankind native to
Europe, North Africa, and southwest Asia and classified according to
physical features.4 Caucasian is often conflated with
Naturalization: the admittance of a foreigner to the
citizenship of a country.
- Legal Right: a right or entitlement under the law
Discrimination: the prejudicial treatment of different
categories of people or things, including on the grounds of race, age, or sex.
Equal protection: a guarantee under the 14th Amendment that a
state must treat an individual or class of individuals in the same way
it treats other individuals or classes in similar circumstances.5
The Supreme Court: the highest judicial court in a country; the
U.S. Supreme Court consists of nine justices and is the court of final
Why did Asian Americans challenge racist laws and policies through the
What effects does limiting citizenship to certain races have? What was
the impact of the Wong Kim Ark and Yick Wo cases on
What do the Thind and Ozawa cases tell you about how
race is defined? Why do you think the Supreme Court changed its
reasoning about who is white? [See Activity 1 for a more detailed
exploration of the social construct of race through the two cases.]
What role do the courts play in American government? What are other
ways to resist racist laws when even the top court of the land affirms
What is discrimination? How can laws be discriminatory? What are
examples of similar discriminatory laws against immigrants today?
How can biases or prejudices affect who is in power and what those in
power do? How does this affect society? Is it more or less (or
equally) important for people to strive to be unprejudiced when they
are in positions of power?
What is your earliest memory of experiencing or learning about race?
Has your understanding of race evolved since that moment, and how? How
do you know what race is?
Activity 1: Thind and Ozawa:
Inconsistencies at the Court?
To students to prepare for discussions:
- Show this lesson’s video clip.
Instruct the students to read this lesson’s essay. For this
activity ask students pay attention to the two cases: Takao Ozawa
v. United States (1922) and United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind
“Ozawa and Thind: Inconsistencies at the Court” handout. Instruct students to read the handout.
Instruct students to pay special attention to sections in bold.
Discuss the following questions:
- How is “white” defined in Ozawa? In Thind?
What do the Justices seem to say about the term “Caucasian” in
Ozawa? What about in Thind?
Why was it important for Ozawa and Thind to both argue that they
were white as opposed to another race? For context, Black people
had the right to naturalize under the 14th Amendment.
What bases or authorities did the Justices rely on in making their
determination of who is “white” in each of the cases?
How does science play a role in the Justices’ reasoning in
Ozawa and Thind? Did their position change from
Ozawa to Thind?
Do the two decisions seem logical or consistent with the
Constitution? Why or why not?
Viewed together, what do the two cases say about citizenship and
its relationship to race in the U.S. in the early 20th century?
Activity 2: Defining Race with the U.S. Census
Pass out the
“Defining Race with the U.S. Census” handout. Instruct students to read the handout.
Split students into small groups of no more than five people each.
Ask students to take up the role of a team of 1870 Census takers in
their small groups. As census takers, students must categorize
everyone so they are correctly counted for the census. The three
profiles are three Americans who must be counted for the Census, and
students must decide in their small groups the racial category to
which each profile belongs, and why.
Afterwards, ask each group to explain how they categorized the three
people and why. Lead a discussion reflecting on the activity using the
How were the racial categories different from how we categorize
For example, the 2020 Census offers the following categories:
White; Black or African American; American Indian or Alaska
Native; Chinese; Filipino; Asian Indian; Vietnamese; Korean;
Japanese; other Asian; Native Hawaiian; Samoan; Chamorro;
other Pacific Islander; some other race.
What does the evolution of racial categories throughout history
tell us about how society’s ideas about race might have changed
over the years? Are our current racial categories “better” or more
“correct” than before?
Note: These questions are meant to guide students to reflect
critically on how race is socially constructed. While the
current census categories are certainly broader than 1870,
that does not necessarily make them better. These categories
merely reflect the more differentiated view on race that we
have today. The key takeaway is that racial categories are
malleable and shift according to the societal context in which
they exist. As such, they should be given less power because
they do not truly correspond to immutable biological
How do you see race in your own communities? Do certain groups of
people receive different treatment than others?
If racial categories shift depending on how society views race,
then can race be a reliable way of classifying or judging people?
Why or why not?
Books with more information on the cases (by the historians in the
Lee, Erika. The Making of Asian America: A History. New
York, Simon & Schuster, 2015. See chapters 3 (Wong Kim Ark), 5
(Ozawa), 7 (Thind)
Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern
Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2004. See introduction and
chapter 1 for detailed discussion on the immigration regime in the
early 20th century and the quota system