From Bhagat Singh Thind to Kamala Harris: an american story

As I write this, Pennsylvania has just flipped. If the trend continues, we are very close to a declaration that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be the President elect and Vice-President elect of the US. Whatever about the change at the top of the ticket, Kamala Harris’ election as the first Black woman Vice President is truly historic. I still remember as a child watching Geraldine Ferraro being eviscerated during the 1984 election, mocked during her VP run for not being ‘tough enough’, for being a woman. Somewhere out in the cosmos, Geraldine Ferraro is raising a toast to Kamala Harris. And I have a lump in my throat.

But I’m also thinking this afternoon of Bhagat Singh Thind, an Indian Sikh man whose petition for citizenship through naturalization was rejected by the Supreme Court in 1923. Thind was born near Amritsar in the state of Punjab in India, and moved to the US in 1913 to undertake his studies, eventually earning a PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. Towards the end of  World War I, Thind enlisted in the US Army, where he became the first turbaned soldier in the Army. Before his honourable discharge in December 1918, Thind became a US citizen through naturalization. However, the Naturalization Act of 1906 specified that naturalized citizenship was only available to people who were deemed “free and white”, or of African descent. Four days after he received his citizenship in Washington State, the Bureau of Naturalization applied to have this removed. Thind, an Indian Sikh, was not deemed to be ‘white’.

Thind took his case to the Supreme Court, at a time when the Court’s perception of racial hierarchy was determined by the Plessy case (1896, established the “separate but equal” colour line in law related to Black and white Americans) and a range of anti-immigrant measures including the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), the California Alien Land Law in 1913 which prohibited citizens ineligible for naturalization from owning land, the Immigration Act of 1917 and the Asiatic Exclusion League that sought to curtail immigration from Asia, and especially from India. Thind’s lawyers sought to establish that their client was white enough to claim access to naturalization routes to citizenship. They failed.

When the Supreme Court heard the case, they concluded that people from India could not be naturalized as US citizens. In United States v Bhagat Singh Thind (261 U.S. 204 (1923), the English-born Justice George Sutherland authored the unanimous decision declaring that Indian Sikhs were not white, and so ineligible for naturalization under the terms of existing legislation.

Towards the end of his opinion, Sutherland wrote:

“the children of… European parentage quickly merge into the mass of our population and lose the distinctive hallmarks of their European origin,” but “the children born in this country of Hindu parents would retain indefinitely the clear evidence of their ancestry.” Thind presented in his turban, unwilling to compromise his own religion and identity to become invisible in Americana.

Part of the explanation for the Court decision lies in racism, but it was also the case that the courts were suspicious of Indians, like Thind, who articulated political sympathies with anti-imperial movements challenging British and western hegemony on the continent. Thind was not only deemed to be non-white; he was potentially a dangerous political radical.

Thind did eventually gain US citizenship in 1935, although his eligibility at that stage was based on his military service in World War 1. The Supreme Court decision in Thind was not overturned until after World War 2, when Harry Truman signed the Luce-Cellar Act in 1946, finally overturning much of the previous discriminatory legislation and allowing people from India to naturalize as citizens, and to own property, and to sponsor their family members abroad to come into the US. Quotas were tiny at first (only 100 allowed under the 1946 Act), eventually revised upwards in the 1950s and later.

Some 40 years after Thind’s case, Kamala Harris’ mother Shyamala Gopalan – herself born and raised in India – was awarded her PhD by the University of California at Berkeley, Thind’s alma mater. Kamala Harris has long identified both with her father’s Jamaican and her mother’s Indian heritages — in historical terms, quite complex, since there had been little solidarity between immigrant Indians and African Americans during Thind’s lifetime. Like Barack Obama, Harris’ self-identity is intersectional. Her election is important for a wide constituency: a triumph for Black women, many of whom are responsible for pushing the Biden-Harris ticket past Trump in the key states of Georgia and Pennsylvania; a triumph for women in the Democratic party, where she stands on the shoulders of Shirley Chisholm, Geraldine Ferraro and Hillary Clinton, among many others; and a repudiation of the racist exclusion of immigrant groups in the past, who despite their commitment to the nation were denied access to its citizenship. A new administration will need to grapple with the racist legacies of the Trump era, including the debacle of separated children at the Mexican border. Thind’s story reminds us how the courts and the government have conspired in the past to use concepts of “whiteness” to decide who gets to be American. Kamala Harris, with dual heritage steeped in histories of exclusion, should be in a unique position to challenge this.

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