Two sepia-tone photographs of Bhagat Singh Thind. One the left, a battalion of soldiers stand together. On the right, Thind poses with a rifle in hand.

Who is “White”? How the Supreme Court Helped Constructed Our Definition of Race

One challenge in implementing systemic change is that racism is often seen as an individual flaw of bad actors rather than the factory setting of Western countries — one that has endured despite the passage of time and social progress. Its persistence from colonialism and slavery to segregation and ICE detention (and, honestly, modern versions of the former) is due in part to the legal system. Institutions like the U.S. Supreme Court have been instrumental in shaping our inequitable political, social, and economic systems by granting a constitutional seal of approval to discrimination and inequality, as was the case in the United States vs. Bhagat Singh Thind. Here, the creation of whiteness was defined and codified in legislation and used to enforce racial hierarchy and justify exclusion. 

Bhagat Singh Thind immigrated to the United States from Punjab, India, in 1913 to pursue higher education before enlisting in the U.S. Army during World War I (Equal Justice Initiative). Shortly after, he applied for and was briefly granted U.S. citizenship until the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service appealed to have his citizenship removed. His legal case reached the Supreme Court. The issue hinged on determining Thind’s race.


• Read the South Asian American Digital Archive’s five-part series on the landmark decision from the lead-up to the impact still felt today. 

• Support organizations committed to equity and inclusion for South Asian communities, including SAALT, Muslims for Just Futures, Desis Rising Up & Moving, and South Asian Network.

• Learn about the history of South Asian and Black solidarity not taught in schools.

Up to this point, the United States had enacted a series of laws that imposed criteria to determine the eligibility of prospective immigrants. The 1790 Naturalization Act defined an eligible citizen as a “free white person” of “good moral character” residing in the U.S. for two years. This was expanded to include people of African descent or nativity in 1870. By 1917, after decades of growing racism and xenophobia against Asians, U.S. law barred Asian people from countries from the Middle East to Southeast Asia, except Japan and the Philippines, from immigration and naturalization (SAADA). From an average of a million immigrants a year, by 1918, U.S. immigration was down to 110,618 (NPS).

In his 1923 Supreme Court argument, however, Thind asserted that his eligibility was sound because he was a “high caste Hindu, of full Indian blood,” making him an Aryan descendent belonging to the “Caucasian race” (Library of Congress). And since “Caucasian” and “white” were synonymous, he was, therefore, also “white.” (Note: Thind was Sikh, but Hindu was used as a racial term at the time.)

The Court disagreed:

“The words of familiar speech, which were used by the original framers of the law, were intended to include only the type of man whom they knew as white. The immigration of that day was almost exclusively from the British Isles and Northwestern Europe, whence they and their forbears had come. When they extended the privilege of American citizenship to ‘any alien; being a free white person,’ it was these immigrants—bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh—and their kind whom they must have had affirmatively in mind […] It is a matter of familiar observation and knowledge that the physical group characteristics of the Hindus render them readily distinguishable from the various groups of persons in this country commonly recognized as white. The children of English, French, German, Italian, Scandinavian, and other European parentage, quickly merge into the mass of our population and lose the distinctive hallmarks of their European origin. On the other hand, it cannot be doubted that the children born in this country of Hindu parents would retain indefinitely the clear evidence of their ancestry.”

– Opinion of the Supreme Court, written by Justice Sutherland via Library of Congress.

Plainly: Thind might be an “Aryan” by blood and even definition, but he wasn’t white enough for citizenship. 

On February 19, 1923, the Supreme Court revoked Thind’s citizenship. The decision also led to the denaturalizing of Indian Americans who had previously obtained citizenship, stripping them of their rights. The Immigration Act of 1924 soon followed, establishing the quota system and effectively banning all immigration from Asia (Office of the Historian). The restrictions were reversed almost three decades later under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. But it would take another 13 years and the help of the civil rights movement to change discriminatory U.S. immigration and naturalization policies (History).

In United States vs. Bhagat Singh Thind, the Court seemed to arbitrarily decide not to use the standard anthropological definitions of “Caucasian” but rather the “common man’s” understanding of the term. The Thind’s decision went against the precedent the Court set months prior when they denied a Japanese-American man citizenship because he was considered “Mongolian,” not Caucasian, and a “color test” or basing it on skin tone was “impracticable” (Library of Congress). By shifting definitions of who is considered white in this country and the privileges afforded with this title, the federal government channeled the anti-Asian sentiments of white Americans during the time, curbed immigration, and effectively pushed the “American dream” goalpost further away from people of color in this country. For Indians and other South Asian communities, this meant, in the long term, altering their trajectory and stopping upward mobility. More immediately, those now stripped of their citizenship lost businesses, homes, and land (SAADA).

The case also shows how a nation built and ruled under white supremacy will bend the rules to its favor to preserve power. And how one’s proximity to whiteness will never be true inclusion or acceptance. 


• Bhagat Singh Thind’s legal battle determined the rights of Indians to obtain U.S. citizenship. 

• The U.S. legal system played a vital role in constructing the country’s understanding of race and whiteness. 

• A country ruled under white supremacy will change the rules and terms to maintain power and oppress others.

2228 1266 Dominique Stewart

Dominique Stewart

Dominique is a writer and editor whose interests lie within the intersections of social justice and culture. She has written and edited for several outlets, including Brooklyn Magazine, The Tempest, and the Broward-Palm Beach New Times. Dominique was the managing editor for a women’s health magazine called Sidepiece Magazine.

All stories by : Dominique Stewart
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