The Racial Impact on the Citizenship of the United States

It seems to be common knowledge that the United States is a country of immigrants. The “American Dream” carries thousands people’s hope and encourage them to work hard to build their own homes and establish a sense of belonging in the land of freedom and democracy. However, the country of immigrants never fully opened its door to all kinds of people. A question has existed since the nation was established: Who can legally become a citizen of the United States?

The answer has been changing over time. In the period from 1790s to 1920s, the United States used race as a fundamental tool to determine who can legally become a citizen by implementing the Naturalization Act of 1790, the Fourteenth Amendment and several Supreme Court cases. In addition to race, non-racial requirements, such as moral fitness and language proficiency, also played a critical role. Specifically during this period, unless born in U.S., Asian ethnic group could not be granted citizenship because of the racial difference with European Caucasians, in which race was essentially considered as a social construction rather than a biological categorization. In the history of the United States, the Naturalization Act of 1790 established naturalization as a right afforded to "Free White Persons."

Starting from this law, race became the centerpiece in discussions over the right to citizenship. In addition, after the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, people could gain American citizenship not only by naturalization but also by birth. The three legal cases to be analyzed below demonstrate different perspectives in understanding the naturalization law and the racial impact in gaining citizenship of the United States. The Case of Wong Kim Ark in 1898 illustrates that people who born in United States had the only privilege to gain citizenship without racial identification during the period that Chinese Exclusion Acts were enacted.

The Chinese Exclusion Acts, which was passed in 1882, only allowed teacher, scholars and a few other categories of professionals being immigrants in the United States. In this case, Wong Kim Ark was born were Chinese parents in San Francisco. He was a laborer and his parents were conceptually illegal immigrants. After his short visit in China, he could not enter the United States for the reason that he had Chinese appearance and was viewed as a Chinese labor that should be excluded from the country. However, after appealing his case to the U.S.

Supreme Court, Wong was granted citizenship by being born in the country under the Fourteenth Amendment. Although it is argued that Wong could not gain the citizenship because the intention of this amendment is only for Black Americans, the Supreme Court’s decision justifies that citizenship by birth is a non-racial right. On the other hand, without being born in the United States and few exceptions,

Asian ethnic groups could not gain citizenship by naturalization because of the racial requirement. The Naturalization Act of 1790 limited the immigration rights to “Free White Persons” and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 led to the passage of other laws to prohibit the immigration of other Asian groups and the Japanese, in particular. In the case of Ozawa, although Ozawa was born in Japan, he worked and lived in U.S. for more than 20 years. He attended high school and university in Berkley and use English all the time with his kids even at home. With many other evidences in his life, he proved to be fully assimilated to American culture. In addition, he claimed that his skin was white enough to be called the “White” so that he met the racial requirement for naturalization as well. However, his appeal for naturalization was eventually denied.

The Supreme Court decided that even though Ozawa’s skin was probably as white as European’s, he was not scientifically or biologically the “White,” which specifically stands for the Caucasian race. The court decision demonstrates that the inherent race is a decisive factor in naturalization. Although race is viewed as inherent, its categorization method is not absolutely scientific. Essentially, race is “a system of categorizing or organizing human beings due to their perceived social, cultural, and physical difference.” Three month after the Ozawa’s case was settled, an India man called Bhagat Singh Thind appealed to the Supreme Court for naturalization. To meet the racial requirement for naturalization, Thind showed scientific evidence that he was categorized as “Caucasian” over “Mongolian”according to the anthropological classification because he was a high caste Hindu of full Indian blood, which was called Aryan race.

However, Thind’s naturalization was still denied because the Supreme Court claimed that he did not literally have the “white” skin. His skin color and culture background hindered his right of gaining citizenship in the United States. On the contrary, in the United States v. Ozawa, skin color was viewed had no legal impact in determining the race. These cases show a clear scientific paradox existing in American’s legal system to explain the racial prerequisite issue during that period. Essentially, the Supreme Court’s ruling was not fully based on scientific evidences but rather was in favor of those rooted in common knowledge, considering that science was not consistent with popular beliefs about racial difference. This historical phenomenon demonstrates that in the laws established for naturalization in the United States, race was applied as a social construction – “a tool that society uses to make sense on the differences that we see in society.”

That is, race was not viewed as a natural notion, but rather considered as a social product measurable only in terms of what people believe. As a conclusion, during the period from 1790s to 1920s, for Asian ethnic groups, racial identification as a social construction played a decisive role in determining the legitimacy of gaining citizenship of the United States.

-------------------------------------------- [ 1 ]. Cindy Chen, “Who gets to be an "American”? (lecture, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI, February, 2012) [ 2 ]. Cindy Chen, “Who gets to be an "American”? [ 3 ]. Cindy Chen, “Who gets to be an "American”? [ 4 ]. Cindy Chen, “Obtaining the Right to Citizenship” (lecture, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI, February, 2012) [ 5 ]. Mitchell Young, “Establishing Citizenship Rights for Children of Immigrants” in Immigration: Issues on Trial (Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2008), 33. [ 6 ]. Cindy Chen, “Asian Immigration to the U.S.” (lecture, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI, February, 2012) [ 7 ]. Ian Honey Lopez, “The Struggles Against Exclusion: Quest for Naturalization Rights,” in White By Law (New York: New York University Press, 1996), pp.56-61 [ 8 ]. Cindy Chen, “Race” (lecture, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI, January, 2012) [ 9 ]. United States V Bhagat Singh Thind, 1922, pp. 205-206 [ 10 ]. United States V. Bhagat Singh Thind, pp. 212-215

[ 11 ]. Lopez, “The Struggles Against Exclusion,” p.56 [ 12 ]. Cindy Chen, “Race”