Yick Wo v. Hopkins Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

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 Chinese laundrieslaundries in wooden buildings to obtain a license from the city’s board of supervisors. The ordinance did not apply to laundries in brick or stone buildings. Because fires were a true danger to the city, the ordinance appeared to be a reasonable application of the police power granted to states and cities. At the time, about two hundred of the city’s laundries in wooden buildings were owned by persons of Chinese ancestry, and approximately eighty were owned by non-Chinese. Among the applicants, only one Chinese owner was awarded a license, although seventy-nine non-Chinese owners were approved.[a]Fourteenth Amendment;equal protection clause[c]Yick Wo v. HopkinsSan Francisco;Chinese immigrantsChinese immigrants;San Francisco[a]Fourteenth Amendment;equal protection clause[c]Yick Wo v. HopkinsSanFrancisco;Chinese immigrantsChinese immigrants;San Francisco[cat]EAST ASIAN IMMIGRANTS;Yick Wo v. Hopkins[cat]COURT CASES;Yick Wo v. Hopkins

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 Due process protectionsdue process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Writing for the Court, Justice Matthews, Thomas StanleyThomas Stanley Matthews observed that operating a laundry was “a harmless and useful occupation” that provided the livelihood for Yick Wo’s family, and based on the facts of the case, he concluded that city officials had been motivated by hostility to the Chinese race and nationality. Even though the ordinance appeared to be reasonable and impartial in appearance, it had been administered “with a mind so unequal and oppressive as to amount to a practical denial” of the “equal justice” secured to persons by the Fourteenth Amendment.[a]Fourteenth Amendment;equal protection clause[c]Yick Wo v. HopkinsSan Francisco;Chinese immigrantsChinese immigrants;SanFrancisco

Further Reading
  • 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.

Chinese immigrants

Chinese laundries

History of immigration, 1783-1891

San Francisco

Supreme Court, U.S.

Categories: History Content