white by law

I recently picked up Ian Haney Lopez’s book White by Law. He illuminates issues of race in the United States and how they connect to the laws of the land. Lopez does this through thinking of the law as coercion and by examining two cases: Ozawa v. the United States and United States v. Thind.

Law as coercion refers to how individuals interpret the law, primarily directing their focus to the rules and reinforcements of it. Such rules are forms of legislative enactments, judicial decisions, statutory and case law. Lopez believes that “even in these prosaic forms, law has contributed to the rise and persistence of races by directly participating in every level of its creation”.

Various legal rules have been used to create public obedience of white supremacy and have even altered perceptions of physical appearance for many years in the United States. As immigrants have sought freedom in this country, they have also sought whiteness. They do so through processes like naturalization, in which “non-white” individuals are able to obtain the same or similar citizenship rights as whites. 

However, the visual code (of race) changes, and different racial groups evolve to be whiter over time. Lopez argues that “race is purely a social construction, and the science of race is purely the science of social myth”. It is because of this that issues of race arise for those who seek to become citizens.

ozawa v. the united states

In this case, Takao Ozawa, who applied for naturalization in 1914, argued that he deserved to be a citizen. He based his case off of multiple reasonings, however the most notable being his skin color. Asserting that he was white and acknowledging that he was of Japanese descent, he took the term “white person” very literally, essentially pointing out the color of his cheeks.

While the court ultimately ruled against him, this case is a great example of just how powerful and complex laws of coercion can be. The court used the following reasoning to justify their ruling: “Skin color cannot serve as a justification for the racial lines we are familiar with, for it varies without direct relation to racial identity”.

This conclusion insured that there would be no “racial overlap”, protecting the dominance of the whites- which is something that American lawmakers have done for many years. Lopez claims that “demographic change has historically led only to shifts in where, not whether, racial lines are drawn”. 

united states v. thind

In this case, it is evident that Lopez’s claim has validity. A mere three months after concluding that Japanese persons were not Caucasian and therefore not White, the Supreme Court negated their belief in the equality of white and Caucasian.

This decision was made out of the desire to preserve white privilege, after Bhagat Singh Thind, an immigrant from India, postulated that he was caucasian and therefore should be allowed to become a citizen. Thind’s case also established that scientific evidence was not a proper means of support in arguing race-related issues within the American legal system. Rather, the statue read, “written in the words of common speech, for common understanding, by unscientific men”. The vagueness of this ruling is where the reality of racial inequality and white privilege is the most apparent. 

The lack of specificity is where the people in power find the ability to shape and interpret the law in whatever way they please- benefiting those at the top of the hierarchy. This is how the law is used as a form of coercion. 

Lopez uses the cases of Ozawa v. the United States and Thind v. the United States to argue that race is a social technology; a device used for abstract social management. Law and society are interconnected- and it is the ideology behind race that drives society’s desire to label race, ethnicity, gender etcetera. Systems are often created to classify people by race, and bodies are the raw materials that are ready to be classified. Whilst, the visual code (of race) changes, Lopez says people “speak race” differently- race and ethnicity are whatever you believe them to be, and that is evident in the law. 

In “White By Law” by Haney Lopez used said examples to illuminate the way in which law has discriminated against people of color all throughout history. It is a must-read in today’s political climate. This book expanded the way I viewed the law and more importantly, how I think we can bring about change.

To buy White By Law click here.

Learn more about Haney Lopez here.

Click here for a more professional book review of White By Law.