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The U.S. Supreme Court room in the U.S. Capitol
The U.S. Supreme Court room in the U.S. Capitol. Photo Credit: Library of Congress


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Victory in Court

"Rejecting these racial arguments, the Court based its ruling on the Fourteenth Amendment."

By Frank H. Wu

For 19th century Chinese Americans who were denied the vote and therefore access to political redress of wrongs, the courts seemed like the only venue for justice. In case after case, they fought discrimination. Many cases were based on the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee that all persons, not only citizens, enjoy the equal protection of the law. In the late 1800's, the most important victory was won in the case of Wong Kim Ark. Frank H. Wu, a professor of law at Howard University, writes of that 1898 case in Born in the USA:

All of us who care about our civil rights should realize that we owe a measure of our shared equality to an individual named Wong Kim Ark. A century ago in California, Wong took on the federal government in an effort to win his right to remain in his homeland.

His legal case ended up in the Supreme Court. His victory shows how, despite recurring racial prejudice, our country can remain true to its ideals. It is worthwhile to reflect on our history, not to condemn the past by contemporary standards, but to understand how we came to where we are now. There are valuable lessons in these forgotten episodes. ...

Wong Kim Ark had sued to be re-admitted to his birthplace, after taking a trip to China. He argued that by virtue of his birth on its soil he was a citizen of the United States, even though his parents were racially barred from achieving that status.

In opposing Wong, the federal government argued in its court briefs, "There certainly should be some honor and dignity in American citizenship that would be sacred from the foul and corrupting taint of a debasing alienage."...

Rejecting these racial arguments, the Court based its ruling on the Fourteenth Amendment. That provision of the Constitution is familiar as the source of "equal protection of the laws."

The Court gave a literal interpretation to its opening lines, that "all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside."

By doing so, the Supreme Court united racial minority groups. For the Fourteenth Amendment had been passed to overturn the notorious 1857 Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott case, which declared that blacks were not citizens. Thus, because African Americans were citizens, Asian immigrants could be citizens as well—and vice versa.

"Born in the USA" by Frank H. Wu. © 2001, IMDiversity Inc.

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