The Ozawa ruling interpreted the word “white” in U.S. naturalization law as referring exclusively to persons of European ancestry (or Caucasians), thereby holding that federal legislation disqualified all persons of Asian ancestry from becoming naturalized citizens.
U.S. naturalization laws enacted between 1790 and 1870 limited the privilege of American citizenship to “free white persons.” In 1870, the privilege was extended to persons of African descent but not to immigrants from Asia. Although the
Takao Ozawa, a resident of Hawaii, was a person of Japanese ancestry born in Japan. In 1914, after continuously living in the United States for over twenty years, he applied for U.S. citizenship. Both he and his children had attended American schools. The family used English at home, and they attended an American Christian church. Based on these facts, combined with his relatively light skin color, Ozawa claimed that he could be classified as a “white person.” He argued that the purpose of the relevant laws had been to exclude African and Native Americans. The district court, however, rejected the claim and denied his application.
Agreeing to review the case, the Supreme Court upheld the decision of the lower court. Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice
Discussing the term “white person” in the 1790 law, Sutherland rejected the argument that its purpose was to exclude only Africans and American Indians. A color-test definition of “white,” moreover, seemed inadequate, because all racial groups had complex gradations of darkness. Anglo-Saxons were frequently of darker complexions than persons belonging to the “brown and yellow races of Asia.” Deciding that the term “white person” was synonymous with the words “a person of the Caucasian race,” Sutherland wrote that the applicant was “clearly of a race which is not Caucasian.” Because of the dominant ideas in 1790, combined with the
Chuman, Frank. The Bamboo People: The Law and Japanese Americans. Del Mar, Calif.: Publisher’s Inc., 1976. Hyung-chan, Kim, ed. Asian Americans and the Supreme Court: A Documentary History. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992.
Naturalization Act of 1790
Supreme Court, U.S.
United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind