[ESSAY] Takao Ozawa and Bhagat Singh Thind: Asian Americans’ role in revealing the implicit ambiguity of ‘whiteness’

Editor’s note: Once a year, an essay competition is held at Cal State University, Northridge, amongst Asian American Studies and Education majors, as part of an endowment set up by the columnist, Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz, for her deceased mother, Asuncion Castro Abarquez and her deceased sister, Rosalinda Abarquez Alcantara to provide a scholarship grant to deserving students. The essays are vetted by a committee headed by Dr. Tomo Hattori, and with active participation of Dr. Philip Hutchinson and Dr. Kimberly Teaman Carroll and oversight from Dept. Chair Dr. Christina Ayala-Alcantara. This year’s winner is Michelle Gillen. 

By Michelle Gillen

Throughout the United States’ history, racial divisions have been socially and politically enforced, but never explicitly defined, despite their continued use to sustain the unequal distribution of opportunities and treatment of Americans. The various racial classifications used in this country — white, Black, Asian, Native American, Pacific Islander, and beyond — influence how we categorize and perceive each other through cultural trends, the stereotypes we maintain, as well as the effect of our laws and policies despite these divisions being completely arbitrary and limiting for many people that do not fit neatly within the established options. Cultivating our understanding of racial divisions is important on an interpersonal level to prevent prejudices between groups that can lead to conflict and discrimination as well as at the political level to prevent systemic disadvantage against whichever groups may be targeted.

As a racially ambiguous Lao American, I felt invested in understanding the evolution of peoples’ rights–how one’s ethnicity can be viewed and altered due to sociopolitical circumstances–and the consequences of these fluid racial labels. One example of this fluidity appeared in a series of cases from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, in which immigrants from Asia and the Middle East attempted to be classified as “white” for the purpose of naturalization. These cases exemplify the implicit ambiguity of “whiteness” and the determination of those already classified as white to hold on to their political and socioeconomic power.

The concept of race is relatively new, coinciding with the emergence of colonization, with its meaning continuing to change in both social and political realms at the whim of those in power. In practice, race has been used as a basis to excuse the unequal treatment of non-white communities through laws and policies — whether outright as seen in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, or in more subtle ways, such as redlining in the 1930s — both of which enabled white communities with more socioeconomic power by accruing disproportionate wealth, disadvantaging others in the process.

Even though race is unequivocally unnatural in the sense that there is no genetic or physiological evidence perpetuating the divisions we live by, racial classifications influence the substantial impact of privilege in America. In order to preserve their exclusivity and therefore power within their relatively small community, the most privileged class is encouraged to invest in systems, propose legislation, and defend claims that perpetuate this racialized hierarchy.

As racial divisions have always been dynamic, those in early America who were considered non-white took advantage of the unsolidified definition of race to claim whiteness and therefore acquire associated rights such as naturalization and other legal protections only attributed to whiteness. Several decades after the Civil War, some immigrants from Asia and the Middle East who were classified as “aliens ineligible to citizenship” attempted to circumvent this legal designation, arguing before the courts that they should be classified as white. Over fifty cases reached the judicial branch — two of which were heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1920s.

Ian Haney Lopez breaks down these major prerequisite cases in his book White by Law, focusing on the justifications utilized by the U.S. Supreme Court justices to deny the expansion of the white racial category and thus deny the rights of white citizens to non-white people. There were dozens of arguments debated within American courts regarding race fitting within two broad concepts- scientific evidence and common knowledge — including phenotypes, the geographical range of “Caucasian,” assimilation, loyalty, and others. The use of scientific evidence and common knowledge inadvertently illustrated the socially constructed origin of race against the common view that it is a natural aspect of human biology.

When used as the standard for determining race, common knowledge relied on the unexamined beliefs of what separates particular races from another based on opinions and shifting trends rather than a coherent and longstanding belief. Scientific evidence, on the other hand, relied on the supposedly objective findings of experts of the time- which was laden with pseudoscientific beliefs such as phrenology and racial typology- none of which are reliable by today’s standards.

In brief, Ozawa v. United States (1922) and United States v. Thind (1923) are cases of two immigrant men who, like many others, strived to gain a path to citizenship only associated with white immigrants. Takao Ozawa, a Japanese immigrant, argued that his full social assimilation into white American society was enough for him to be considered white and thus eligible for naturalization. The Supreme Court justices used the justification that Ozawa did not descend from the Caucasian race (scientific evidence) — thus not considered a “free white person” eligible for citizenship. After this ruling against Ozawa, Bhagat Singh Thind, an Indian immigrant, utilized the scientific evidence justification applied in Ozawa’s case in his favor.

Using the anthropological knowledge of the time, the Caucasian racial classification included Indo-Aryans and thus Thind. Instead of confronting the loophole of the label of Caucasian, the Supreme Court justices doubled down — insisting that humans can innately distinguish each other by race (common knowledge) and that science was an illegitimate indicator — dismissing the argument of scientific evidence they previously employed against Ozawa. These two cases reveal just how superficial and inconsistent race is especially when the exclusivity — and thus power — of whiteness is potentially under threat.

These cases were incredibly influential in deciding who had the right to naturalize, and with their motivation of maintaining the status quo of racial hierarchy, these judges heavily denied non-white immigrants from accessing white privileges. By finalizing the meaning of white as vaguely as “common understanding”, the affluent white people in power could continue to perpetuate systems of advantage and disadvantage to remain in control. This manifests in how we are taught history and language through the perspective of white men, how our fundamental rights are in terms of white men, and how America was built and is maintained for affluent white men by affluent white men. Even today, being white is a necessary criterion to have the full privileges of being an American, alongside other demographics such as wealth and education.

Although it has been nearly 150 years since the first prerequisite case, our social and legal understanding of race still is evolving with many previous laws that persist despite no longer corresponding with today’s values. From limiting school resources for minority communities, voter suppression, and police brutality, these laws endure as those in control of our policies continue to prioritize maintaining the status quo.

This foundational belief upheld in our government of innate racial divisions and the prioritization of affluent white men’s control over socioeconomic power is what leads to not only the implementation of legislation to disadvantage racial minorities like voter suppression but also the loss of other minority rights such as denying rights to LGBTQ+ communities and the dismissal of bodily autonomy such as the right to medical privacy.

The reality that millions of people’s rights, many of whom are not properly represented in the government, can be voted away by the same selfish views of decades past just as easily as Takao Ozawa and Baghat Singh Thind lost any chance to achieve equitable opportunities, shows how dangerously biased our current system can be, no matter how clearly or unclearly terms are defined.

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The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of the Asian Journal, its management, editorial board and staff.

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Michelle Gillen is a third-generation Lao American double-majoring in Sociology and Asian American Studies who has placed on CSUN’s Dean’s List of Honor for six consecutive semesters, earned the AAS Promising Sophomore Award and the Laura Uba Academic Achievement Award while being a part of CSUN’s GE Honors Program. They hope to pursue a career in teaching to provide future generations with the tools to investigate the complexities of America’s relationship with its minority populations.

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