How the U.S. Supreme Court defined the “white” race in 1923

How the U.S. Supreme Court defined the “white” race in 1923

This is a brief historical look back in time on how the U.S. Supreme Court defined the “white” race in the 1900s.

What does race and “white” have to do with the 2020 Census? A most accurate count of the population is important in 2020. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled to keep a citizenship question off 2020 census forms for now. Writing for a 5-4 majority, Chief Justice John Roberts concluded that there was sufficient reason for concern about why the Commerce Department wanted to add the question. Roberts had the support of the four liberal justices. President Trump threatened to delay next year’s national head count. The administration had sought to add the question to the decennial census form.

The Brookings Institution reported on March 14, 2018 the new census population projections confirm the importance of racial minorities or non-whites as the primary demographic engine of the nation’s future growth, countering an aging, slow-growing and soon to be declining white population. The new statistics project that the nation will become “minority white” in 2045. During that year, whites will comprise 49.7%.

Soon the United States will conduct the 2020 Census. Why does the U.S. Census matter?
Hospitals, fire departments, schools, even roads and highways. The census can shape many different aspects of the communities in the United States. Each year, the results help determine how more than $675 billion in federal funding is distributed to states and communities. It is also mandated by the Constitution: The U.S. has counted its population every 10 years since 1790. Counting everyone in the United States and 5 U.S. territories is a massive undertaking. It constitutes the nation’s largest peacetime mobilization of its workforce. To help, the Census Bureau is hiring hundreds of thousands of people in communities across the country to assist with the 2020 count.

The U.S. Constitution requires that electoral districts be periodically adjusted or redrawn to account for population shifts. Each decade, the census reveals where populations have risen or fallen. State legislatures or independent bipartisan commissions handle the process of actually redrawing district lines. The U.S. Census Bureau provides population counts to the states so that they can redistrict based on the population shifts.

The census also collects data that are valuable for businesses, which rely on census results to help make decisions such as where to open new stores, where to expand operations, and which products and services to sell.

North Carolina Democrats have protested the Republican-led North Carolina legislature’s aggressively altering the state’s voting rules and haven redrawn electoral maps, based on race and voting patterns, to secure an overwhelming partisan advantage. On June 27, 2019 , the United States Supreme Court said it would not do anything about it. The 5-4 ruling means that North Carolina’s current 13 Congressional districts, drawn by the Republicans, will stand.

The U.S. Senate approved a harsh racial immigration bill on December 14, 1916.

On February 5, 1917, the Immigration Act of 1917 was passed by the 64th United States Congress with an overwhelming majority, overriding President Woodrow Wilson’s December 14, 1916, veto.

In 1917, the U.S. Congress enacted the first widely restrictive immigration law. The uncertainty generated over national security during World War I made it possible for Congress to pass this legislation, and it included several important provisions that paved the way for the 1924 Act.

The 1917 Act implemented a literacy test that required immigrants over 16 years old to demonstrate basic reading comprehension in any language.

The 1917 Act also increased the tax paid by new immigrants upon arrival and allowed immigration officials to exercise more discretion in making decisions over whom to exclude.

Finally, the 1917 Act excluded from entry anyone born in a geographically defined “Asiatic Barred Zone” except for Japanese and Filipinos.

In 1907, the Japanese Government had voluntarily limited Japanese immigration to the United States in the Gentlemen’s Agreement. The Philippines was a U.S. colony, so its citizens were U.S. nationals and could travel freely to the United States. China was not included in the Barred Zone, but the Chinese were already denied immigration visas under the Chinese Exclusion Act.

When the congressional debate over immigration began in 1924 with The Immigration Act of 1924/The Johnson-Reed Act, the quota system was so well-established that no one questioned whether to maintain it, but rather discussed how to adjust it. Though there were advocates for raising quotas and allowing more people to enter, the champions of restriction triumphed. They created a plan that lowered the existing quota from three to two percent of the foreign-born population. They also pushed back the year on which quota calculations were based from 1910 to 1890.

The quota provided immigration visas to two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States as of the 1890 national census. It completely excluded immigrants from Asia.

Another change to the quota altered the basis of the quota calculations. The quota had been based on the number of people born outside of the United States, or the number of immigrants in the United States. The new law traced the origins of the whole of the U.S. population, including natural-born citizens.

The new quota calculations included large numbers of people of British descent whose families had long resided in the United States. As a result, the percentage of visas available to individuals from the British Isles and Western Europe increased, but newer immigration from other areas like Southern Europe and Eastern Europe was limited.

The 1924 Immigration Act also included a provision excluding from entry any alien who by virtue of race or nationality was ineligible for citizenship. Existing nationality laws dating from 1790 and 1870 excluded people of Asian lineage from naturalizing. As a result, the 1924 Act meant that even Asians not previously prevented from immigrating – the Japanese in particular – would no longer be admitted to the United States. Many in Japan were very offended by the new law, which was a violation of the Gentlemen’s Agreement.

Despite the increased tensions, it appeared that the U.S. Congress had decided that preserving the white racial composition of the country was more important than promoting good ties with Japan.

The most basic purpose of the 1924 Immigration Act was to preserve the ideal of U.S. white homogeneity. Congress revised the Act in 1952.

Source: Office of The Historian – U.S. Department of State


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Immigration: The U.S. once viewed Europeans who were non-British as undesirables in the 1880s and early 1900s

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1924 Immigration Act
Enacted May 26, 1924
The 1924 Immigration Act set quotas that limited annual immigration from particular countries. The legislation identified who could enter as a “non-quota” immigrant.

Until July 1st, 1927, allowable annual quotas for each nationality would be two percent of the total population of that nationality as recorded in the 1890 Census. The minimum quota was 100.

After July 1st, 1927, allowable annual quotas for each nationality would be based on the national origins – ‘by birth or ancestry’ – of the total US population as recorded in 1920. The overall quota of 150,000 immigrants would be divided between countries in proportion to the ancestry of the 1920 population, with a minimum quota of 100.


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Statistical Abstract of the United States 1929

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Historical statistics post during World War II
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Historical Flashback: A look at the use of the term African American in the press

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