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Excerpted from: Ian Haney Lopez , White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race. New York: New York University Press, 1996.
Although now largely forgotten, the prerequisite cases were at the center of racial debates in the United States for the fifty years following the Civil War, when immigration and nativism were both running high. Naturalization laws figured prominently in the furor over the appropriate status of the newcomers and were heatedly discussed not only by the most respected public figures of the day, but also in the swirl of popular politics. . . .
The principal locus of the debate, however, was in the courts. From the first prerequisite case in 1878 until racial restrictions were removed in 1952, fifty-two racial prerequisite cases were reported, including two heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. Framing fundamental questions about who could join the citizenry in terms of who was White. . . .
Though the courts offered many different rationales to justify the various racial divisions they advanced, two predominated: common knowledge and scientific evidence. [. . .] Under a common knowledge approach, courts justified the assignment of petitioners to one race or another by reference to common beliefs about race. The common knowledge rationale contrasts with reasoning based on supposedly objective, technical, and specialized knowledge. Such "scientific evidence" rationales justified racial divisions by reference to the naturalistic studies of humankind [. . .]
These rationales, one appealing to common knowledge and the other to scientific evidence, were the two core approaches used by courts to explain their determinations of whether individuals belonged to the "white" race. . . . . the courts deciding racial prerequisite cases initially relied on both rationales to justify their decisions. However, beginning in 1909 a schism appeared among the courts over whether common knowledge or scientific evidence was the appropriate standard. Thereafter, the lower courts divided almost evenly on the proper test for Whiteness: six courts relied on common knowledge, while seven others based their racial determinations on scientific evidence. No court used both rationales. Over the course of two cases, heard in 1922 and 1923, the Supreme Court broke the impasse in favor of common knowledge. Though the courts did not see their decisions in this light, the early congruence of and subsequent contradiction between common knowledge and scientific evidence set the terms of a debate about whether race is a social construction or a natural occurrence. In these terms, the Supreme Court's elevation of common knowledge as the legal meter of race convincingly demonstrates that racial categorization finds its origins in social practices. . . . .
by 1909 changes in immigrant demographics and in anthropological thinking combined to create contradiction between science and common knowledge. These contradictions surfaced most directly in cases concerning immigrants from western and southern Asia, such as Syrians and Asian Indians, dark-skinned peoples who were nevertheless uniformly classified as Caucasians by the leading anthropologists of the times. Science's inability to confirm through empirical evidence the popular racial beliefs that held Syrians and Asian Indians to be non-Whites should have led the courts to question whether race was a natural phenomenon. So deeply held was this belief, however, that instead of re-examining the nature of race, the courts began to disparage science. Over the course of two decisions, the Supreme Court resolved the conflict between common knowledge and scientific evidence in favor of the former, but not without some initial confusion.
In Ozawa v. United States, the Court relied on both rationales to exclude a Japanese petitioner, holding that he was not of the type "popularly known as the Caucasian race," thereby invoking both common knowledge ("popularly known") and science ("the Caucasian race"). Here, as in the earliest prerequisite cases, science and popular knowledge worked hand in hand to exclude the applicant from citizenship. Within a few months of its decision in Ozawa, however, the Court heard a case brought by an Asian Indian, Bhagat Singh Thind, who relied on the Court's earlier linkage of "Caucasian" with "white" to argue for his own naturalization.
In United States v. Thind, science and common knowledge diverged, complicating a case that should have been easy under Ozawa's straightforward rule of racial specification. Reversing course, the Court repudiated its earlier equation and rejected any role for science in racial assignments. The Court decried the "scientific manipulation" it believed had ignored racial differences by including as Caucasian "far more [people] than the unscientific mind suspects," even some persons the Court described as ranging "in color ... from brown to black." "We venture to think," the Court said, "that the average well informed white American would learn with some degree of astonishment that the race to which he belongs is made up of such heterogenous elements." The Court held instead that "the words 'free white persons' are words of common speech, to be interpreted in accordance with the understanding of the common man." In the Court's opinion, science had failed as an arbiter of human difference, and common knowledge was made into the touchstone of racial division. In elevating common knowledge, the Court no doubt remained convinced that racial divisions followed from real, natural, physical differences. The Court upheld common knowledge in the belief that people are accomplished amateur naturalists, capable of accurately discerning differences in the physical world. This explains the Court's frustration with science, which to the Court's mind was curiously and suspiciously unable to identify and quantify those racial differences so readily apparent in the petitioners who came before them.
This frustration is understandable, given early anthropology's promise to establish a definitive catalogue of racial differences, and from these differences to give scientific justification to a racial hierarchy that placed Whites at the top. This, however, was a promise science could not keep. Despite their strained efforts, students of race could not plot the boundaries of Whiteness because such boundaries are socially fashioned and cannot be measured, or found, in nature. The Court resented the failure of science to fulfil an impossible vow; it might better have resented that science ever undertook such an enterprise. The early congruence between scientific evidence and common knowledge did not reflect the accuracy of popular understandings of race, but rather the social embeddedness of scientific inquiry. Neither common knowledge nor the science of the day measured human variation. Both merely reported social beliefs about races. The earlier reliance on scientific evidence to justify racial assignments implied that races exist as physical fact, humanly knowable but not dependent on human knowledge or human relations. The Court's ultimate reliance on common knowledge says otherwise: it demonstrates that racial taxonomies devolve upon social demarcations. That common knowledge emerged as the only workable racial test shows that race is something which must be measured in terms of what people believe, that it is a socially mediated idea. The social construction of the White race is manifest in the Court's repudiation of science and its installation of common knowledge as the appropriate racial meter of Whiteness.