On May 23, 2019 AABANY co-sponsored a reenactment of the Supreme Court cases Takao Ozawa v. United States (1922) and United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923) in the Ceremonial Courtroom at 225 Cadman Plaza, Brooklyn. The two historical cases describe the exclusionary immigration policies that prevented Asian immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens. The reenactment scripts were written by longtime AABANY members Kathy Hirata Chin and her husband, the Hon. Denny Chin. The event was jointly sponsored by the South Asian Bar Association of New York (SABANY) and was held in honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, during the month of May. The event was covered by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on the history of these reenactments, “The Chins began writing and performing these reenactments 12 years ago, and every year they create a new performance based on a different case. Judge Chin explained that they look for cases of importance historically and that still resonate today.”
On Thursday, May 23, 2019, AABANY and SABANY co-sponsored a trial reenactment of two Supreme Court cases, Takao Ozawa v. United States (1922), and United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923) at the Ceremonial Courtroom in 225 Cadman Plaza, Brooklyn. These cases revolved around the fight of two Asian Americans to become naturalized U.S. citizens.
Takao Ozawa, was born in Japan but moved to the United States at a young age in 1914. He attended the University of California, became a businessman, converted to Christianity, got married and had children in the United States. He sought to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, but his application was denied. His fight for citizenship went all the way to the Supreme Court, where he argued that people of Japanese descent should be classified as “free white persons” under the Naturalization Act of 1906. However, Justice Sutherland, writing for a unanimous Court, held that a person of Japanese descent could not be classified as “white.” In reaching that decision, the court relied on scientific evidence and found that the term “white persons” in the Naturalization Act of 1906 only includes persons of the “Caucasian race.”
Bhagat Singh was born in India and received his bachelor’s degree there before moving to the United States, seeking higher education in 1913. He completed his Ph.D. at the University of California and went on to give lectures in metaphysics. He also joined the U.S. Army during World War I and became the first turbaned Sikh man to serve alongside American soldiers. After the war ended, he was honorably discharged and applied for citizenship. His petition for citizenship was granted initially in Oregon, but government attorneys initiated proceedings to have it canceled on the grounds that he was not “white.” His case went to the Supreme Court, where he presented scientific evidence asserting that South Asians, such as himself, were actually of Aryan descent and therefore of the Caucasian race and thus he should be granted citizenship.
However, the Supreme Court held that even though it “may be true that the blond Scandinavian and the brown Hindu have a common ancestor in the dim reaches of antiquity … the average man knows perfectly well that there are unmistakable and profound differences between them today.” The court backtracked on the rationale it used in Ozawa, where it relied on scientific evidence to find that Takao Ozawa could not be classified as Caucasian, and therefore was ineligible for citizenship.
As a result of the Supreme Court’s rulings in Ozawa and Thind, many Asians were stripped of their citizenship retroactively, leading a man named Vaishno Das Bagai to take his own life. He left a note that read: “But now they come and say to me I am no longer an American citizen. What have I made of myself and my children? We cannot exercise our rights, we cannot leave this country. Humility and insults… blockades this way, and bridges burned behind.”
These two Supreme Court decisions are a stain on our great nation’s history. They set the precedent that being an American was not enough, that to be a real American you had to be “white” based on society’s perception of what qualifies as “white” during a given period of time in history.
The reenactment serves as a reminder of the struggles that Asian Americans had to endure in the past, and it highlights why we must continue to strive to create change for the future generations of Asian Americans.
We thank Judge Denny Chin and Kathy Hirata Chin for leading the reenactment program and thank our judicial all-star cast which included: EDNY Chief Judge Hon. Dora Irizarry, Hon. Kiyo Matsumoto, Hon. Pamela Chen, Hon. Peggy Kuo, Hon. Sanket Bulsara, and Hon. Faviola Soto.
Thanks to SABANY for performing this re-enactment. AABANY was proud to be a co-sponsor, presenting 1.5 CLE credits in the Diversity & Inclusion category.
Thanks to our friends at Cadwalader, we have video highlights from the Ozawa/Thind re-enactment performed by AABANY members at Cadwalader on February 28, 2012. Click on the title to see the video. Below is the description of the event provided by Cadwalader:
As two Asian-Americans sought to become U.S. citizens, the U.S. Supreme Court considered issues of race, color, and citizenship. The petitioner in the first case was represented by George Wickersham, and both cases were heard by the Supreme Court when William Howard Taft (the brother of former Cadwalader partner Henry W. Taft) was Chief Justice. This program was presented at the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association 2011 Convention by members of the Asian American Bar Association of New York, including several Cadwalader attorneys, with the Honorable Denny Chin of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit serving as moderator. Please join us to see this same team reprise their fascinating performance, sharing the stories of the petitioners through narration, reenactment of court proceedings, and historic photographs.
The Hon. Denny Chin’s latest re-enactment of famous cases in Asian American history involved the twin Supreme Court cases of Ozawa and Thind, dealing with issues of race, color and citizenship. If you missed the performance at the NAPABA National Convention last November in Atlanta, you can catch it in New York City on February 28 at the offices of Cadwalader. For more information, click on the link in the title. RSVP by Feb. 17.