Anger and resentment against Indian immigrant labourers bubbled over during the 1907 Bellingham riots, when a mob of white workers in Washington state dragged mostly Punjabi Sikh workers onto the streets and beat them viciously, venting the steam of fear and anxiety they felt that their jobs were being taken. Racialised fear is not new in America. A legal framework for justifying and appeasing this fear is also not new.
The 1923 court case, United States vs. Bhagat Singh Thind, was brought by an Indian man, born of high caste in Amritsar, who petitioned the US courts to paint him white.
Bhagat Singh Thind immigrated to California in 1913. He worked in a lumber yard to support himself, while he attended UC Berkeley. When the nation went to war, he enlisted. When he was discharged after World War I, it was honourably so. He aspired to be an attorney and so applied to become a citizen.
At this point, it’s worth considering some of the rights Thind was denied because he was not a citizen. In many states, it was illegal to own or lease property if you were not naturalised. Non-citizens were eligible for fewer and less varied jobs. This is what had prompted Bhagat Singh Thind to petition the courts in the first place. And of course, non-citizens cannot vote. The tangible benefits of citizenship do not paint the full picture. A person wouldn’t be considered American, even if he had fought for the country, even if he had lived here all his life, even if his children went to the local school, even if he spent significant time investing in his community, even if his taxes contributed to public works. Denial of citizenship amounted to social ostracisation in early 20th century America.
Akhay Kumar Mozumdar was the first "Hindu" person to be granted citizenship in the United States. He was part of a trickle of early Indian migration that would one day become a steady stream. Like Mazumdar, Bhagat Singh successfully petitioned the government for citizenship on the basis that he was a Caucasian man, ethnographically speaking. The Bureau of Naturalisation contested the lower court ruling, contending that being ethnographically Caucasian does not mean that a person is white in the colloquial sense. The case went to the Supreme Court.
It is pretty easy to debunk the "all are welcome" tagline that has beckoned many an immigrant. The fact is that a prerequisite for acceptance into American society — codified into law and wedged into language, evidenced by the shackles of the enslaved and the decimation of the native populations — has been whiteness. Whiteness, a nebulous concept, has changed in definition as America has changed. It originally meant northern and western European, eventually widening to admit the Irish, Mediterranean, Eastern European, and Near Eastern populations that made their way to America and fought to make space for themselves in American society.
The Immigration Act of 1917, sometimes referred to as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, was yet another institutional reinforcement of racial exclusion. Included were a list of undesirable types (some gems: "idiots", "epileptics", "illiterates") and a list of nations from which people were forbidden to enter the US. The early 20th century was also the height of "yellow peril", which culminated in the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Fear-mongering can be found in many local papers, which claimed that Indians had poor work ethic and were "unassimilable". This emphasis on racial difference is found in Associate Justice George Sutherland’s majority opinion in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind.
Denial of citizenship amounted to social ostracisation in early 20th century America
"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," Sutherland wrote.
This "not worse, just different" basis for racial separation and disenfranchisement was the excuse for the Jim Crow laws that brutalised black populations. It was later struck down, because as everyone had always known, separate was not equal. When "different" is used to justify the denial of access to all aforementioned benefits of citizenship, "different" is surely worse. What is Justice Sutherland really saying? That Indians are just slightly too different to be equal.
The explicitly racial restrictions on naturalisation were done away with when President Harry Truman signed the Luce-Cellar Act of 1946. Still, under this act, only 100 Indians were allowed to immigrate to the US per year, until 1965, when the quotas were broadened.
Race is not static. It is an arbitrary and ever-shifting means of categorising. The sad truth is that the government and private entities arbitrate race and leverage it. We have not come so far from this truth. Though it is true that race cannot explicitly be the reason why an immigrant is not granted citizenship, it might be the reason why certain districts aren’t allowed access to early voting. It might be the reason why there are mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. It might be the reason why the person with the funny name doesn’t get the job.