1922 Seventy-five Years Ago

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On November 13, in Ozawa v. United States , the Supreme Court ruled that Japanese immigrants were not eligible to become American citizens. The plaintiff, Takao Ozawa, was a native Japanese who had moved to Hawaii in the mid-1890s from California. In 1914 he had applied for citizenship and been turned down. In his lawsuit Ozawa pointed out that he was well educated and spoke excellent English; that his children (who, being American-born, were automatically citizens) attended American public schools; and that he had refrained from teaching them the Japanese language, culture, or religion. No matter, said the court. Since Ozawa was not white, he could not be naturalized.

The decision took pains to disavow “any suggestion of individual unworthiness or racial inferiority.” It relied instead on the long history of American immigration law, which since 1790 had limited naturalization to whites only (with those of African descent admitted starting in 1870). Although the 1906 law under which Ozawa had applied did not specifically mention this restriction, Congress had shown no intention to repeal it, so it was assumed to remain in force.

There remained the task of construing what was meant by white . “Manifestly the test afforded by the mere color of the skin of each individual is impracticable,” the court reasoned, “as that differs greatly among persons of the same race, even among Anglo-Saxons, ranging by imperceptible gradations from the fair blond to the swarthy brunette, the latter being darker than many of the lighter-hued persons of the brown or yellow races.” Therefore the distinction was racial, and the plaintiff’s Asian background disqualified him. Ozawa’s argument that white , as understood in the 1790s, excluded only blacks and American Indians was rejected, as was his assertion that the Ainu people of Japan, from whom he claimed descent, showed Caucasian characteristics.

The decision was hailed in the Western states, especially in California, long a center of agitation against the “yellow peril.” Earlier decades had seen much opposition to the Chinese, culminating in an 1882 federal law that barred them from entering the country. Japanese immigration was negligible then, but by the early 1900s it had increased to about seventeen thousand a year, and the nativists accordingly revived their old scare tactics. As had happened with the Chinese, the Japanese immigrants’ industriousness was prized when they worked as laborers but became a threat when they set up farms and businesses of their own. A 1907 “gentlemen’s agreement” between America and Japan had greatly reduced immigration, but some states went even further. California and Washington, for example, banned those ineligible for citizenship from owning land.

Most West Coast newspapers expressed satisfaction with the Ozawa decision, though the Sacramento Bee called for a constitutional amendment “which would confine citizenship by right of birth in this country to those whose parents were themselves eligible to citizenship.” The next year, following its reasoning in Ozawa , the Supreme Court declared a Hindu applicant ineligible for citizenship. In the next few years Arabians, Burmese, Filipinos, and Koreans were also excluded. The racial test was applied to a series of increasingly tough calls until, with Solomonic wisdom, the courts determined that Armenians and Syrians were white but Afghans were not. (Those of mixed birth generally could not be naturalized if one parent was on the ineligible list.) Not until 1952 did Congress remove all racial restrictions on citizenship, and not until 1965 were quotas based on national origin removed from the immigration laws.