Forever foreigners

Writing in the National Law Journal, legal scholar Jerry Kang discusses the relevance of two 1920’s court cases to current viewpoints of race in the recent discussion about Barack Obama. Both cases were attempts by Asian residents (who were prohibited by law from naturalization) to gain citizenship. In the first case, Ozawa v. U.S., the petitioner argued that he was a “true American” as he had no ties with Japanese organizations, did not speak the language at home so that his children spoke only English, and married a woman who was educated in the U.S.:

This did not suffice. The Supreme Court rejected the idea that whiteness should be tested by the “mere color of the skin” since “even among Anglo-Saxons . . . [there are] swarthy brunette[s who are] . . . darker than many of the lighter hued persons of the brown or yellow races.” Ozawa’s total assimilation also did not matter. Instead, relying on “numerous scientific authorities,” the court held that “white” should be understood as “Caucasian” — and Ozawa was certainly no Caucasian. In other words, he could not belong.

America has changed radically since the 1920s on matters of race. Yet, oddly enough, in the past few weeks, Obama was being wedged into the same difficult position in which Ozawa found himself. Talking heads were demanding that Obama disown not only his pastor’s words but also his very ability to comprehend where such anger might come from — as if such righteous indignation were sheer madness. He was being forced to react as if he were white, no different from the rest of “us,” as if his race were just a happenstance of complexion. The price of acceptance was that he publicly disown his culture, his people and his past.

In the second case, U.S. v. Thind, a man of East Indian origin petitioned for citizenship based on anthropological findings that classed “Indians” as “Caucasians.” The court rejected this argument because it appeared clear to the jurists that Thind was not white.

In other words, acting white is not good enough. Being white is not good enough. And the message this gives me as a person of color is that it is not enough to try to “fit in” or to argue that we’re “the same as” white people. Because those attempts strike me as an admission that we are lesser than.

2 thoughts on “Forever foreigners

  1. Pingback: links for 2008-04-05 at Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture

  2. I do not understand the point of this article other than to say that white is white and nonwhite is nonwhite. Where’s the big mystery in that? Who argues that we are the same as whites? I certainly don’t. Is the only response to white supremacy the assertion that we are better or worse. White supremacists are nuts and there can be no dialog, no reasoning, no arguments to nuts, mentally ill, deluded people. In my opinion.

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