I recently wrote the essay below for my local Massachusetts paper, The Sandisfield Times, at the encouragement of the editor, Bill Price. The essay examines many of the laws that lie outside the strictly Black/White paradigm to bring focus to the lesser known grey area of law which governed those who are legally “not-White”.
Out on the Limb of History...When Most Asians Disappeared
The report about the Sandisfield Arts Center’s 2019 program last month was a lively column about how
Sandisfield’s Art Center strives to educate us about “Our Town,” our constitution, and our history. Featured were “Stimulating and timely talks from our scholars Bill Cohn and Val Coleman (Val paid for
copies of the U.S. Constitution at his inspiring and passionate lecture, ‘The Constitution Alive’) and Dr.
Robert Maryks presented ‘Fascism and Racial Laws in Italy’ (preceded by a free showing of ‘The Garden
of the Finzi-Continis’).”
It’s good that we learn the history of fascism and race laws around the world and re-examine what the
constitution says, but shouldn’t we also learn about one of the most legally racist periods in US history –
the post-Civil War/Reconstruction era between the 1880s and 1940s?
During this period, when the U.S. was opening vast swaths of territory to “settle,” hundreds of local, state,
and federal laws were written and passed which would legally define who could and who could not
become an American and thus receive constitutional protections as well as participate fully in our
country’s democracy. Back then it was a white minority fearing being overwhelmed by a non-white
During that time a fearful electorate passed the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, banning further immigration
from China. This act would inspire the creation of a new federal agency, the Immigration and
Naturalization Service (INS), which became a new arm of government created to enforce the new
A quick look at U.S. race laws that followed show that “not white” was chosen as the quick and easy way
to separate the chaff from the desired “all-American” wheat. Those who did not fit in with this paradigm
were left to fight it out through the courts which, more often than not, ignored the constitution’s call for
liberty and justice for all and instead confirmed and expanded this country’s racially-based caste system,
cementing it firmly into the laws of the land.
Most discussions on race today remain limited to a white/black paradigm but it’s the hundreds of laws
targeting other “non-white” peoples passed after the Civil War which still linger. Their effects continue to
enliven our political discourse today.
While many of us in this country come from Europe, many of us did not. Many were already here and had
a different row to hoe towards “freedom, liberty, opportunity, and justice.” In fact, it was post-1880s that a
whole new category of human beings was slowly shaped, molded, and defined by the rule of law – those
deemed to be “Aliens ineligible to naturalize.” (This would not include my husband, who is white, British,
Christian, and an immigrant, but would have – had I not been born here – excluded me.)
These laws were all based on the 1790s Naturalization Act – which stated that “Any Alien”... being a ‘free
white person’... having had residency for two years ... was of good character ... could naturalize.”
The phrase “Any Alien,” of course, excluded native born Native Americans, the first to be excluded.
And a look at the long history of “Exclusion” laws shows how important that one adjective, “white,” written
into that early law by the founding fathers helped to tint the color of our laws and our citizenry ever whiter
for nearly 150 years.
What we’re seeing today is less “Garden of the Finzi-Continis” and more a continuation of the Page Act of
1875, the Dawes Act of 1887, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. And In re Saito, 1894, was the first
law passed in the U.S. to specifically exclude persons of Japanese ethnicity from becoming an American
citizen, the court having ruled that because Mr. Saito was “not white” he was ineligible to naturalize. By
1922, it would become a federal law (Ozawa v. US) with the Supreme Court’s ruling that a Japanese
person was “not white,” therefore could not be a naturalized citizen.
As a resident of the Berkshires, it was a bittersweet realization for me to discover that the Saito ruling was
made in a district court right here in my adopted state of Massachusetts. The legal rationales were
congressional intent, common knowledge, scientific evidence, and legal precedent.
Maybe that’s why even after having gotten a graduate degree in Journalism from NYU, worked for 10
years as a journalist at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., and being a born and bred American, it’s
often not my observations on America that people are interested in. Rather I’m asked, “What is it like in
After leaving Washington and the daily grind, I’ve been slowly and painstakingly piecing together the
fragments of the Asian American experience, which was either completely missing or often regarded as a
mostly irrelevant sidebar in American history. But this group’s trajectory in fact fills in a missing chapter
that can help make sense of our nation’s origins myth which zigs from the founding fathers who wrote
elegiacally of “justice for all” but in a zag officially enshrined the slave trade and ultimately a social
hierarchy based on race.
We talk about Nativism, but it’s never been about the “native born.” A good look at our naturalization laws
show that the all-important factor was “being white” or, as the rulings for exclusion stated, being “not-
In their bid to create a white, Christian German empire, we now know that Nazi leaders admired the
American Empire and had copied America’s race laws. They regarded the U.S.’s ability to eradicate its
indigenous people and create social hierarchy based on race as what they would like to create in Europe.
We here in America like to talk about violations of freedom against whites and blacks, but we often fail to
register anything other than silent acknowledgement for the passage of legislation after legislation written
and passed against those in that legally grey category called “alien” or “non-white.”
Perhaps knowing this could be just as instructive as getting acquainted with German and Italian race laws
during WWII or watching “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.”
My Yellow Bowl Project hopes to spur discussion around these questions: Who is an American? What does citizenship mean? How long do you have to be in the US to be considered a bonafide member of this group?