This summer, I spent 12 weeks interning with the National Archives Museum. Most of that time went toward helping to prepare an upcoming exhibit, tentatively titled Written in White, which chronicles the history of race and federal policy-making. Since the project is in its infancy, one of my central tasks was to assess what documents from the Archives’ holdings could be used to tell its story. The agency’s physical vaults were closed due to the pandemic, but I still had access to tens of millions of digitized records, which together touched on almost every way in which federal policies created and exacerbated racial disparities.
Over the next few days, I want to share some of the most compelling pieces I encountered in my research. Each speaks in some intriguing way to the nation’s broad racial saga, often presenting perspectives and dimensions I had not fully appreciated before the internship. As the pieces were already digitized, I can hardly claim to have “discovered” any of them, but they were new and enlightening for me and the Archives staff I shared them with, and I hope they might be for others too.
“Application of Alleged American Citizen of the Chinese Race for Preinvestigation of Status,” Wong Kim Ark, 1931
From 1881 to 1943, Chinese immigrants were almost entirely excluded from the United States, and per the Naturalization Act of 1790, could never become American citizens even if they did enter the country. It was an overtly racist project, part of an edifice of discriminatory immigration policies that sought to protect the U.S. from supposedly inferior groups.
By working with the Archives’ records on Chinese exclusion, I came to appreciate how impactful these theoretically external policies were on the lives of Chinese-descended Americans inside the U.S. In the abstract, exclusionary laws framed Chinese Americans as permanent foreigners and their citizenship as aberrational. In practice, this framing fueled anti-Chinese discrimination and forced Chinese Americans to constantly defend the legitimacy of their place in the U.S.
For instance, Chinese Americans planning to travel abroad had to fill out Form 430, like that pictured above. Because all people identified with the Chinese “race” were presumed to be barred from the country, Chinese Americans who wanted to avoid immigration detention had to petition for their citizenship to be pre-established before they went overseas. It was a laborious and demeaning process, and as the form’s title makes clear, it was premised on the idea that an applicant was only an “alleged American.”
This particular form stood out to me because of its applicant: Wong Kim Ark. 36 years before filling out this document, Wong was the center of a critical battle over the legal legitimacy of Chinese Americans. Wong was a native-born U.S. citizen, but upon his return from visiting China in 1895, immigration officials marked him for deportation, arguing that people born to Chinese parents were racially ineligible for birthright citizenship under the Fourteenth Amendment. Three years later, the Supreme Court ruled decisively in Wong’s favor, deciding that no racial limits could be imposed on birthright citizenship. It was one of the most important cases of the 19th century, and imposed a crucial limit on racial engineering in U.S. law.
And yet, almost four decades later in 1931, Wong remained an “alleged American citizen.” To safely return to the U.S. from China, he had to file Form 430 and submit affidavits like any other member of his community. The existence of a landmark Supreme Court decision that specifically confirmed Wong’s status as an American seems to have had no immediate bearing. Wong had even completed the same form before earlier trips to China, but once again had to start from scratch in proving himself to be an American citizen.
The incredible irony reflected by this document speaks to the ultimate hollowness of Asian American citizenship well into the 20th century. Courts could secure the barest of citizenship rights for native-born children, but they swam upstream against public opinion and federal policies which treated Asian Americans as unwanted racial others. As much as this mindset seems like a relic of the past, this year’s COVID-inspired hysteria and attacks on Asian Americans reflect its lingering and painful relevance.