“Free White Persons”: Constructing US Citizenship

Over ninety years ago this month, the Supreme Court upheld a law banning Japanese people from becoming US citizens in Ozawa v. US. The case is especially relevant now, as debates about building walls and securing borders dominate the presidential campaign.

After over twenty years of living in the U.S., Takao Ozawa wanted to become a citizen.  He was a family man, well-educated, a churchgoer. There was just one strike against him:  he was Japanese.

In October of 1922, when the Supreme Court heard his case, Ozawa v. U.S., our immigration and naturalization laws limited eligibility for citizenship to “free white persons . . . aliens of African nativity, and . . . persons of African descent.” African Americans had only been added fifty-two years earlier in the wake of Reconstruction, when Congress amended the Constitution to make clear that persons born in the U.S. were citizens.

Mr. Ozawa argued, in part, that he was white for purposes of the law, citing legal and ethnographic authorities to support that notion.  And, then there was his appearance.  As a light-skinned man, Mr. Ozawa suggested his skin color demonstrated that that he was white. But Justice Sutherland, writing for the Court, rejected that notion, saying a test based solely on skin color was “impracticable.”  Continue reading ““Free White Persons”: Constructing US Citizenship”