As early as 1820, Chinese were immigrating to California, and by 1870 over 49,000 Chinese lived in the state. That number increased to over 75,000 by 1880, amounting to nearly 10 percent of California's population. Of this Chinese community, 40 percent, or about 30,000 people, lived in the San Francisco Bay area. Many Caucasian and Hispanic Californians did not like this influx of Asians, and as a result both the state as well as many localities began passing laws that specifically discriminated against them. The first anti-Chinese law passed was the Foreign Miner's License Tax of 1853, which placed a special burden on Chinese miners. The pace of these discriminatory laws increased in the 1870s, leading to the banning of Chinese from certain occupations and the adoption of anti-Chinese provisions in the new state constitution of 1877.

Because of the many restrictions on them, Chinese tended to concentrate in particular businesses; they constituted 97 percent of all persons working in cigar-making in the San Francisco area, 84 percent of the boot and shoemakers, 88 percent of the garment manufacturers and 89 percent of the laundry workers. Chinese did not go into the laundry business by choice, and once there had to deal with hostile non-Chinese customers. The general public read many lurid stories denouncing laundries as fronts for immoral activities such as opium smoking and prostitution, although in truth most laundries were small family enterprises.

A San Francisco ordinance prohibited operating a laundry located in a wooden building without the consent of the Board of Supervisors; laundries in brick or stone buildings needed no comparable approval. By itself the law seemed a reasonable exercise of the state's police power, since the wooden buildings were vulnerable to the many fires that plagued San Francisco and other nineteenth-century cities. At the time, over 95 percent of the 320 laundries in the city were located in wooden buildings, and of these, two-thirds had Chinese owners.

The Board of Supervisors granted permission to operate laundries in wooden buildings to all but one of the non-Chinese owners, but none to the 200 Chinese applicants. Yick Wo, a Chinese alien who had operated a laundry in the city for many years, was refused a permit. When he continued to run the business, he was arrested and convicted under the ordinance.

The Supreme Court reversed the conviction, not because the ordinance specifically discriminated against Chinese -- it did not -- but because it was administered in a discriminatory fashion. Yick Wo v. Hopkins is the first instance of the Court inferring the existence of discrimination from data about a law's application, a technique that would be used again in the 1960s to strike down statutes discriminating against African Americans

For further reading: G. Barth, Bitter Strength: A History of the Chinese in the United States, 1850-1870 (1964); A. Saxton, The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California (1971); and H.T. Shih-shan, The Chinese Experience in America (1986).


Justice Matthews delivered the opinion of the court.

In the case of the petitioner, brought here by writ of error to the Supreme Court of California, our jurisdiction is limited to the question, whether the plaintiff in error has been denied a right in violation of the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States....

We are consequently constrained, at the outset, to differ from the Supreme Court of California upon the real meaning of the ordinances in question. That court considered these ordinances as vesting in the board of supervisors a not unusual discretion in granting or withholding their assent to the use of wooden building as laundries, to be exercised in reference to the circumstances of each case, with a view to the protection of the public against the dangers of fire. We are not able to concur in that interpretation of the power conferred upon the supervisors. There is nothing in the ordinances which points to such a regulation of the business of keeping and conducting laundries. They seem intended to confer, and actually do confer, not a discretion to be exercised upon a consideration of the circumstances of each case, but a naked and arbitrary power to give or withhold consent, not only as to places, but as to persons. So that, if an applicant for such consent, being in every way a competent and qualified person, and having complied with every reasonable condition demanded by any public interest, should, failing to obtain the requisite consent of the supervisors to the prosecution of his business, apply for redress by the judicial process of mandamus, to require the supervisors to consider and act upon his case, it would be a sufficient answer for them to say that the law had conferred upon them authority to withhold their assent, without reason and without responsibility. The power given to them is not confided to their discretion in the legal sense of that term, but is granted to their mere will. It is purely arbitrary, and acknowledges neither guidance nor restraint....

The ordinance drawn in question in the present case...does not prescribe a rule and conditions for the regulation of the use of property for laundry purposes, to which all similarly situated may conform. It allows without restriction the use for such purposes of buildings of brick or stone; but, as to wooden buildings, constituting nearly all those in previous use, it divides the owners or occupiers into two classes, not having respect to their personal char-acter and qualifications for the business, nor the situation and nature and adaptation of the buildings themselves, but merely by an arbitrary line, on one side of which are those who are permitted to pursue their industry by the mere will and consent of the supervisors, and on the other those from whom that consent is withheld, at their mere will and pleasure. And both classes are alike only in this, that they are tenants at will, under the supervisors, of their means of living. The ordinance, therefore, also differs from the not unusual case, where discretion is lodged by law in public officers or bodies to grant or withhold licens-es to keep taverns, or places for the sale of spirituous liquors, and the like, when one of the conditions is that the applicant shall be a fit person for the exercise of the privilege, because in such cases the fact of fitness is submitted to the judgement of the officer, and calls for the exercise of a discretion of a judicial nature.

The rights of the petitioners, as affected by the proceedings of which they complain, are not less, because they are aliens and subjects of the Emperor of China....

The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution is not confined to the protection of citizens. It says: "Nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." These provisions are universal in their application, to all persons within the territorial jurisdiction, without regard to any differences of race, of color, or of nationality; and the equal protection of the laws is a pledge of the protection of equal laws. It is accordingly enacted by §1977 of the Revised Statutes, that "all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall have the same right in every State and Territory to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, give evidence, and to the full and equal benefit of all law and proceedings for the security of persons and property as is enjoyed by white citizens and shall be subject to like punishment, pains, penalties, taxes, licenses, and exactions of every kind, and to no other." The questions we have to consider and decide in these cases, therefore, are to be treated as involving the rights of every citizen of the United States equally with those of the strangers and aliens who now invoke the jurisdiction of the court.

It is contended on the part of the petitioners, that the ordinances for violations of which they are severely sentenced to imprisonment, are void on their face, as being within the prohibitions of the Fourteenth Amendment; and in the alternative, if not so, that they are void by reason of their administration, operating unequally, so as to punish in the present petitioners what is permit-ted to others as lawful, without any distinction of circumstances -- an unjust and illegal discrimination, it is claimed, which, though not made expressly by the ordinances is made possible by them....

to the actual, and pass upon the validity of the ordinances complained of, as tried merely by the opportunities which their terms afford, of unequal and unjust discrimination in their administration. For the cases present the ordinances in actual operation, and the facts shown establish an administration directed so exclusively against a particular class of persons as to warrant and require the conclusion, that, whatever may have been the intent of the ordinances as adopted, they are applied by the public authorities charged with their administration, and thus representing the State itself, with a mind so unequal and oppressive as to amount to the practical denial by the State of that equal protection of the laws which is secured to the petitioners, as to all other persons, by the broad and benign provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Though the law itself be fair on its face and impartial in appearance, yet, if it is applied and adminis-tered by public authority with an evil eye and an unequal hand, so as practicallyto make unjust and illegal discriminations between persons in similar circumstances, material to their rights, the denial of equal justice is still within the prohibition of the Constitution....

The present cases, as shown by the facts disclosed in the record, are within this class. It appears that both petitioners have complied with every requisite, deemed by the law or by the public officers charged with its administration, necessary for the protection of neighboring property from fire, or as a precaution against injury to the public health. No reason whatever, except the will of the supervisors, is assigned why they should not be permitted to carry on, in the accustomed manner, their harmless and useful occupation, on which they depend for a livelihood. And while this consent of the supervisors is withheld from them and from two hundred others who have also petitioned, all of whom happen to be Chinese subjects, eighty others, not Chinese subjects, are permitted to carry on the same business under similar conditions. The fact of this discrimination is admitted. No reason for it is shown, and the conclusion cannot be resisted, that no reason for it exists except hostility to the race and nationality to which the petitioners belong, and which in the eye of the law is not justified. The discrimination is, therefore, illegal, and the public administration which enforces it is a denial of the equal protection of the laws and a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. The imprisonment of the petitioners is, therefore, illegal, and they must be discharged.

Source: 118 U.S. 356 (1886).

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