Perhaps the biggest irony for America in World War II is that this country fought against the self-proclaimed master race with a segregated army drawn from a society that oppressively discriminated. In Anthony Marra’s novel Mercury Pictures Presents we meet a patriotic Black man who has enlisted. He protests when he can’t get served a hamburger in a Utah café. To get the American citizen to leave, the counterman pulls a shotgun, which he inadvertently discharges, killing a German POW who was being served. The Black is convicted of manslaughter because of his “provocation,” and a lengthy sentence is imposed. I don’t know if Marra based this on a real incident, but events equally as bizarre were a common occurrence in this land of equality.
Ironically, our racial definitions were harsher than Germany’s. Most places in America that legally segregated used the “one drop” rule. If any ancestor of a person was Black, then that person was Black. One drop of Jewishness was not sufficient for the Nazis. A Jew was someone who had three or four Jewish grandparents, not simply one drop of Jewish blood. A person with one or two Jewish grandparents was classified as Mischling, think mulatto. Of course, the Mischlinge, while not fully Jewish, were still oppressed in fascist Germany, and that led, at least as depicted in Philip Kerr’s prizewinning If the Dead Rise Not, part of his Bernhard Gunther series, to a black-market activity. In the novel, Gunther finds a forger to alter the birth records and other documents of his one Jewish grandparent who places the altered papers in official files. Thus, Gunther retroactively “Aryanizes” his nana.
We may know that legal segregation in American states required a definition of Black. However, few remember today that federal law also required a definition of “white.” Our first naturalization law passed in the 1790s stated that only free, white people could be naturalized, and this legal restriction was carried forward into the twentieth century. Of course, the Fourteenth Amendment passed after the Civil War said that anyone born in the United States was a citizen. Many freed from slavery could not prove their place of birth, and in1870 a law was passed allowing Blacks to be naturalized. Otherwise, only whites could be naturalized, but “white” was not defined, which led to a series of bizarre federal cases. They culminated in United States v. Bhagat Singit Thind, decided by the Supreme Court in 1923. Thind was an Indian Sikh who had come to the United States in 1913 for graduate studies. He enlisted in the U.S. Army and served as a sergeant in the First World War, and in 1919 petitioned for citizenship. He said he was white, in fact Aryan, because his caste of Indians and Europeans shared a common descent from Proto-Indian Europeans. The Court rejected his naturalization petition and reiterated what it had said earlier, that “white” as used in the statute did not have a scientific meaning but was “synonymous with the word ‘Caucasian’ only as that word is popularly understood.” Southeast Asian Indians did not fall into this category. Other court decisions held that while Syrians and Armenians were white and could become U.S. citizens, those who were not white included the Chinese; half-white/half Native Americans; Hawaiians; Burmese; Japanese; Native Americans; half white/half Asians; Filipinos; three quarters Filipino/one quarter whites; Afghanis; and Arabians.
Although non-whites, except for Blacks, could not be naturalized, for our first century, they could immigrate to this country. Immigration was unrestricted until the racially- and class-based Chinese Exclusion Act was enacted in 1882, which prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the country. Of course, many Chinese laborers had entered before that to work during the California gold rush and later to construct railroads. Those who had been in America before 1882 were in the country legally and could remain but had their own confino. If they left the country to see family in China or for any other reason, they could not return. The exceptions, however, were the small number of Chinese Americans who had been born in this country. In 1898, the Supreme Court interpreting the birthright citizenship provision of the Fourteenth Amendment held that Wong Kim Ark was an American citizen because he was born in the United States, and thus, he could not be denied re-entry into the country under the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Few Chinese had been born in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century. While male Chinese laborers had come to the United States before the Exclusion Act, few Chinese women had, and a Chinese person claiming birthright citizenship was treated with grave suspicion by the immigration services. The presumption was against citizenship, and since record-keeping of births had often been spotty, proving an American birth was often difficult. That was the premise of a pretty good play I saw recently at Manhattan’s Atlantic Theater, The Far Country by Lloyd Suh and directed by Eric Ting. The play opens with a funny, frightening, disturbing interrogation of a Chinese man claiming birthright citizenship by federal authorities with the added twist that it is 1909 in San Francisco and the 1906 earthquake had destroyed almost all government and personal documents.
Perhaps because of lessons learned from fighting Hitler or, again, possibly because of how well our communist enemies exploited our racial laws for propaganda, our racial restrictions on naturalization changed after World War II.
(concluded December 2)