Asserting Whiteness, South Asian and Arab Participation in the American Legal System in the Early 20th Century

Cherian, Ruby, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Kang, Deborah

Since 1790, “free white persons” and therefore, whiteness, was a legal category used to grant or deny citizenship to immigrants. Therefore, immigrants to the United States asserted they were white in order to become naturalized. However, who was to be classified within this category was less than clear. Whiteness was an ever-evolving category, expanded and contracted at the will of justices. Ultimately, it was used as a tool to naturalize “desirables” and denaturalize “undesirables.” South Asians were unsuccessful in asserting whiteness as the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind definitively held that South Asians were not white. In contrast, Arab Americans were successful and continue to be classified as white today on the US Census.
A goal of this essay is to engage in a comparative approach between the legal strategies and judicial reasoning in South Asian naturalization case law and Arab naturalization case law. Since both led to entirely different outcomes, it allows for uncovering what factors are really doing the work in concluding who fits the category of whiteness in the eyes of the law. Christianity, the ability to assimilate, and the use of a Semitic language appear to have helped early Arab immigrants secure their classification as white. Another goal of this essay is to engage with histories of migration, immigration laws, and violence against South Asians. When did Arab and South Asian immigrants begin coming to the United States? What jobs did they work? How were they treated by the communities they lived in? The discussion of the history of immigration law reveals how immigration law went from an outright ban, to a quota system, to a skills-based and family reunification model.

MA (Master of Arts)
naturalization, whiteness, South Asian
Issued Date: