The Yick Wo ruling was the first case in which the Supreme Court held that a racially neutral law applied in a discriminatory manner violates the equal protection requirement of the Fourteenth Amendment. Of limited influence during the nineteenth century, the decision became an important precedent during the twentieth century Civil Rights movement.
In 1885, San Francisco began enforcing a municipal ordinance that required operators of
Yick Wo had operated his laundry for more than twenty years, and local inspectors had deemed it safe the previous year. After his application was denied, he continued to operate his business, resulting in a ten-dollar fine and a jail sentence of ten days. His petition to the California Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus was refused.
When the case reached the Supreme Court, the justices unanimously agreed that the city’s enforcement of the ordinance violated both the equal protection clause and the
McClain, Charles J. In Search of Equality: The Chinese Struggle Against Discrimination in Nineteenth-Century America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. Salyer, Lucy. Laws as Harsh as Tigers: Chinese Immigrants and the Shaping of Modern Immigration Law. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
History of immigration, 1783-1891
Supreme Court, U.S.