What makes one White ?


Bhagat Singh Thind at Camp Lewis during WWI (pictured top center)

In 1923, Bhagat Singh Thind, an Indian immigrant who had enlisted to fight in WWI and was a UC Berkley graduate, gave his case to the Supreme Court to become a naturalized American citizen. The Naturalization Law of 1906 stated that eligibility was  reserved for immigrants who were “free white persons, and … aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent.” So Thind appealed that his background as a high-caste North Indian with ancestors of Aryan blood meant he was in fact, white.

The judge responded (emphasis added):

…it is a matter of familiar observation and knowledge that the physical group characteristics of the Hindus render them readily distinguishable from the various groups of persons in this country commonly recognized as white. The children of English, French, German, Italian, Scandinavian, and other European parentage, quickly merge into the mass of our population and lose the distinctive hallmarks of their European origin. On the other hand, it cannot be doubted that the children born in this country of Hindu parents would retain indefinitely the clear evidence of their ancestry. It is very far from our thought to suggest the slightest question of racial superiority or inferiority. What we suggest is merely racial difference, and it is of such character and extent that the great body of our people instinctively recognize it and reject the thought of assimilation.

In short, “it doesn’t matter where you came from, it matters what you look like.” Thind’s citizenship was canceled, alongside fifty other Indians who had previously been naturalized. Despite his wish to integrate, American laws had deemed him an immigrant from an“Asiatic barred zone” who would have no hope to citizenship because his Aryan blood did not in fact mean he was white.

In 1921, just two years before Thind took his case to the Supreme Court to prove his whiteness, Tulsa, Oklahoma had the highest concentration of black prosperity in any American town. In the segregated city, the black-populated Greenwood — “Black Wall Street” as it’s known now — had done well in the oil business, and had lucrative hotel businesses, movie theaters, banks as well as an investment in contemporary housing and public education. Ninety-four years ago to this day, an allegation of a black man’s sexual assault on a white woman lead to one of the most violent acts of terrorism on American soil. Linda Cristenson details the events that occurred:

… deputized whites killed more than 300 African Americans. They looted and burned to the ground 40 square blocks of 1,265 African American homes, including hospitals, schools, and churches, and destroyed 150 businesses. White deputies and members of the National Guard arrested and detained 6,000 black Tulsans who were released only upon being vouched for by a white employer or other white citizen. Nine thousand African Americans were left homeless and lived in tents well into the winter of 1921.

Even while in compliance with segregation, the first industrial success for black people was not tolerated — it was obliterated and massacred until the survivors were left with the wreckage of their past community.

At the heart of Thind’s Supreme Court case, the underlying question appears to be: what makes one white? It was a question Takao Ozawa asked in his Supreme Court case for citizenship in 1922 when he cited that his personal values  made him, unlike Bendict Arnold, “ [in] name… not an American, but at heart I am a true American” (Ozawa would lose his case because his fair Japanese skin could not be classified as Caucasian).

Is whiteness a matter of skin color? A matter of racial lineage? A matter of patriotism for a Western country? Or is it the ideology of racial superiority?

When appealing to the Supreme Court, Thind’s lawyers assured that Thind himself did not approve of mixed-race marriages, stating he “regards the aboriginal Indian Mongoloid in the same manner as the American regards the Negro, speaking from a matrimonial standpoint.” This is important. Just two years after the Bombing of Black Wall Street, at a time when Jim Crow had no end in sight, Thind used this defense. True to his word, when Thind eventually received citizenship in 1936, he married a white woman, Linda Thind.

By stating the definition “free white persons” of the Naturalization Law applied to them as candidates for citizenship, both Ozawa and Thind were not challenging the racial definitions of the law. They were bending to it. They didn’t contend with the idea of an undesirable race, they were trying to prove they were not the undesirable race. They were trying to prove that despite not being European, they were still not black.

A sentiment of racial superiority remains prevalent with Asian-Americans today. Liz Lin writes in her article Why Asian Americans Might Not Talk about Ferguson of the “model minority myth”:

Once [Asian immigrants are] here, they encounter the model minority myth, the erroneous belief that Asians have been more successful in America than other races because of inherent positive qualities… It also aligns us with white people, the people with power, the people we want to accept us … [a]nd sometimes we keep our distance from those at the bottom, consciously or otherwise, out of fear that others will lump us together.

Lin describes the line that divides some Asian-American communities from partaking in causes like Black Lives Matter  — an immigrant mentality to succeed in a new country further fueled by a drive to elevate above the races “lower … on the social food chain.” But is the mentality to avoid being viewed at the bottom of the food chain enough to save oneself discrimination and neglect?

Chinese-American Sherry Chen was a hydrologist for the National Weather Services who was accused of sending an email of stolen information about American dams to China — despite being cleared by the Department of Justice (in actuality, the email was sent to Chen’s friend in China containing only public information about her work), she was let go by the NWS for her “[c]onduct of untrustworthiness.” Sureshbahi Patel, a grandfather from Gujurat, India, was going for a stroll in Madison, Alabama, and when he was approached by the police responding to a complaint that a “skinny black guy” was on the streets, he tried to explaining that he was visiting his son and grandchildren — because he didn’t speak English, the police threw Patel down and paralyzed him as they handcuffed him. Despite the Wall Street Journal writing in 2012 Asian-Americans “share with American Jews both the distinction and the occasional burden of immigrant success”, the Census reporting period from 2007-2011 showed the number of Asian Americans living in poverty rose by 37 percent (the U.S. national increase was of 27 percent), with Cambodians (29.3 percent) and Hmong (37.8 percent) faring among the poorest in the nation. In Karan Mahajan’s essay The Two Asian Americas, which references Erika Lee’s “The Making of Asian America” to detail the gap in social statuses within Asian-American communities, he writes “In the eyes of some, Asians in America are, Lee writes, “perpetual foreigners at worst, or probationary Americans at best.”

I’ll remember Thind’s persistence in fighting the Supreme Court and asserting his right to citizenship as a benchmark in America’s racial history, but his appealing to the racist logic of the law did not equal opening up the borders between the US and India (the first step was made possible by other Asian activists like J.J. Singh and Diosdado Yap who lobbied Congress to pass the Luce-Celler Act of 1946.) America has progressed its definitions of citizenship, but there is still no image of “white” in which a man with a turban fits, nor is there one for a patriotic Christian Japanese American or a successful business person of African descent. The sooner we reject the myths of model minorities and of the model race, the sooner we can be able to accept each other as real human beings and fight for our rights together.


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