From Victims to Victors; A Chinese Contribution to American Law: Yick Wo versus Hopkins

Article excerpt

After the American Civil War, fought from 1861 to 1865 largely over the enslavement of black persons, the United States added three amendments to the Constitution. (1) The Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in 1865, abolished slavery; the Fourteenth Amendment, in 1868, protected a person's rights and liberties from interference by state action; and the Fifteenth Amendment, in 1870, gave African Americans the right to vote. Of these three, the Fourteenth has generated the most litigation in the United States. It prescribes, in part, that no state can deny "to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." Though intended to protect freed blacks from state discrimination, the wording of this clause has enabled other peoples as well to invoke its provisions.

For many years after passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, however, the Supreme Court interpreted the "equal protection" clause very narrowly, so that both states and governmental entities within them maintained considerable power to infringe upon the people's rights and liberties. The Court's decision in Yick Wo v. Hopkins, (2) rendered in 1886, proved to be an important exception. In that case, the Court deemed two ordinances in San Francisco, California, to violate the "equal protection" clause. This precedent-setting case, initiated by the Chinese in San Francisco, changed the Court's interpretation of that clause, and has therefore been cited frequently Yick Wo has become mandatory reading for all students of American constitutional law.


Soon after Chinese began to immigrate to the United States in the nineteenth century, California initiated a number of measures intended to discourage them from entering the state. (3) In 1852, scarcely three years after the first Chinese arrived in California, the State Legislature passed a discriminatory tax measure aimed primarily at Chinese gold miners. There is no doubt that this law arose from prejudice against the Chinese, because legislative reports at the time described the Chinese as a "distinct and inferior race" and as "unworthy of credit." (4) White miners began to attack the Chinese, sometimes killing them and burning their camps. In 1854 the California Supreme Court denied Chinese the right to testify against whites. (5) This decision led to further violence against the Chinese because perpetrators knew that they would probably not be punished for their crimes. Eventually San Francisco joined in the anti-Chinese movement by passing a series of laws aimed at the approximately 240 laundries opera ted by Chinese proprietors in the 1870s and 1880s. (6) These laundries became increasingly visible symbols of Chinese economic ingenuity and success in the United States. They may have also seemed proof to the Caucasian population that the Chinese were not mere sojourners but, like most other immigrant groups, were interested in settling permanently in the country.

Chinese laundries became natural and highly vulnerable targets of attack--natural because they were competitive threats to white-owned laundries, and vulnerable because they could easily be attacked, scattered as they were in white neighborhoods. Local newspapers consistently called for laws to ban Chinese laundries, (7) and prominent businessmen echoed these demands for their ouster. (8) On three successive nights in July 1877, mobs swept through neighborhoods in San Francisco attacking Chinese laundries--smashing windows, pelting their interiors with rocks, and looting their contents--leaving rows of damaged buildings in their path. (9) Responding to this public hostility, the Board of Supervisors, which passed laws for San Francisco, sought to oust Chinese laundries from the city through a series of skillfully drafted laws.

The Board enacted fourteen such laws between 1873 and 1884. These "laundry ordinances," as they were called, were racially motivated. The supervisors were quite aware of the public outcry against these Chinese-owned businesses but also knew that, unless the laws were written in neutral language, they would run afoul of the Civil Rights Act of 1870, and perhaps also of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. …