Yick Wo v. Hopkins 1886

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Yick Wo v. Hopkins 1886

Petitioner: Yick Wo

Respondent: Peter Hopkins, San Francisco Sheriff

Petitioner's Claim: That San Francisco was enforcing an ordinance (city law) in a discriminatory manner against Chinese persons.

Chief Lawyers for Petitioner: Hall McAllister, D.L. Smoot, L.H. Van Schaick

Chief Lawyers for Respondent: Alfred Clarke, H.G. Sieberst

Justices for the Court: Samuel Blatchford, Joseph P. Bradley, Stephen Johnson Field, Horace Gray, John Marshall Harlan I, Stanley Matthews, Samuel Freeman Miller, Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite, and William B. Woods

Justices Dissenting: None

Date of Decision: May 10, 1886

Decision: The earlier conviction of Yick Wo for violating the ordinance was unconstitutional.

Significance: The Court ruled that even if a law is written in a non-discriminatory way, enforcing the law in a discriminatory manner is still unconstitutional. The Court also ruled that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment applies to non-U.S. citizens as well as citizens in the country. Importantly, the case represented an early step by the Court to protect individual's civil rights.

For Chinese men and boys who had never been more than a few miles from home, starting out on a 7,000 mile journey across the Pacific could be terrifying. Yet with hope and courage, beginning in 1849 they crowded in the holds of ships, then suffered eight long weeks of ocean voyage to arrive in America, the land they called Gum Sahn or Gold Mountain. The first immigrants came to work in the mines during the California gold rush of 1849. Thousands more arrived in the 1860s to help build the Central Pacific Railroad, part of the first transcontinental railroad system in the United States.

Between 1850 and 1880 the Chinese immigrant population in the United States grew from 7,000 to more than 100,000. Approximately 75,000 settled in California, which amounted to ten percent of that state's population. Half of those 75,000 lived in San Francisco. During the 1870s the hardworking Chinese became essential to the important industries of cigar making, shoemaking, woolen mills, and laundering.

Anti-Chinese Feelings

Chinese immigrants in America often faced prejudice (hateful attitudes against a group) and lived in segregated (separated by race) neighborhoods, called "Chinatowns." Not only were their customs and language very different from those of Americans, but they were willing to work for low wages. Whites feared losing their jobs to the Chinese. California experienced an economic depression (decrease in business activity with fewer jobs ) in the 1870s suffering widespread unemployment and bank failures. Many unemployed workers blamed their troubles on Chinese laborers. Anti-Chinese riots took place in San Francisco in 1877. Through the 1870s the city of San Francisco passed several ordinances (city laws) to discourage Chinese settlement.

The Laundry Ordinance

By 1880 Chinese owned most laundries in San Francisco, commonly operated in wooden buildings. On May 26, 1880, during the height of white Californians' concern over the Chinese, San Francisco passed an ordinance requiring all laundries to be in brick or stone buildings. To stay in business, owners of laundries in wooden buildings had to obtain a laundry operating license issued by the city's Board of Supervisors. Failure to obtain a license while continuing to operate a laundry in a wooden building could lead to a misdemeanor (less serious crime) conviction, a thousand dollar fine, and jail term of up to six months. The city had a compelling interest (important need) to pass the ordinance, to minimize fire danger. As written, the ordinance made no distinction (did not mention any difference) between laundries run by Chinese immigrants and those run by whites. Therefore, the ordinance seemed to not concern itself with the race of the laundries' operators.

However, since almost all Chinese laundries were located in wooden buildings the ordinance seemed to take aim at Chinese businesses. Additionally, the Board of Supervisors routinely approved all white applications to run laundries in wooden buildings. Yet, in 1885 the Board denied all but one of 200 Chinese applications even though their laundries had previously passed city inspections. The only Chinese owner given a license had probably not been identified as Chinese by the Board.

Yick Wo

Yick Wo, a Chinese resident of San Francisco, had lived in California since 1861 and operated a laundry for twenty-two years. In 1884 his laundry which was located in a wooden structure passed an inspection by local fire and health authorities. However, in 1885 the Board of Supervisors denied his application for a license to continue running his laundry. Wo discovered that all the owners of wooden Chinese laundries with one exception were also denied licenses.

Highly suspicious of discriminatory (giving privileges to one group but not another) practices, Wo decided to legally challenge the ordinance. He continued to operate his laundry and was arrested, convicted in police court, and ordered to pay a fine of $10. Refusing to pay the fine, he was ordered to jail for ten days. When the California Supreme Court refused to hear his case, Wo appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court which did agree to hear the case. Wo named San Francisco Sheriff Peter Hopkins, who locally enforced the ordinance, in the suit.

Homework Done, Argument Ready

Wo's lawyers argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that the ordinance was being unfairly enforced in an obviously discriminatory manner. Having done his homework, Wo supported his charge by producing statistics showing that eighty laundries located in wooden structures were legally operating under the Board of Supervisor's licensing requirements. Of those, seventy-nine were owned by non-Chinese and only one by a Chinese. Reminding the Court nearly two hundred Chinese laundries located in similar structures had been denied licenses by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Wo proceeded to charge the Board with seeking to wipe out the city's Chinese laundry business. Wo continued that he and the other Chinese business owners were being denied equal protection under the law, a right guaranteed to them by the Fourteenth Amendment. The amendment reads, "No State shall . . . deny to any person within its jurisdiction [geographic area over which a government has authority] the equal protection of the laws." That is, no person or persons shall be denied the same protection of the laws that is enjoyed by other persons or groups.

The city of San Francisco argued that the Fourteenth Amendment could not interfere with police powers granted by the U.S. Constitution to cities and states to enforce local laws concerning use of property.

Pledge of Equal Protection

Supreme Court Justice Stanley Matthews observed the laundry ordinance seemed to be written without intending to discriminate against anyone, legally described as "neutral on its face," and for a compelling reason, fire safety. However the ordinance was enforced in such a way to show flagrant (extreme) discrimination to one class, the Chinese. Matthews, writing for the unanimous (all members in agreement) court, penned:

"Though the law itself be fair on its face [as written] and impartial [fair] in appearance, yet, if it is applied and administered by public authority [enforced by supervisors and police] with an evil eye and an unequal hand, so as to make unjust and illegal discriminations between persons. . . "

Pointing out the clearly unjust manner with which enforcement was carried out, Matthews continued:

"While this consent [licenses granted] of the supervisors is withheld from them [the Chinese] and from two hundred others who also petitioned [applied], 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 exists except hostility to the race and nationality to which the petitioners belong, and which in the eye of the law is not justified."

Matthews agreed with Wo that equal protection under the law granted by the Fourteenth Amendment was denied to Wo and the other Chinese businessmen.

"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."

Justice Matthews also addressed the fact that Wo was an alien, a citizen of a foreign country living in the United States. He wrote the equal protection of the Fourteenth Amendment applies "to all persons within the territorial jurisdiction [geographical area of a government's authority], 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."


U pon arriving in America, Chinese banded together to live in distinct communities. The first Chinatown grew up in San Francisco in the early 1850s. With not enough timber available to supply the building needs, entire structures were often shipped from China and put back together in San Francisco. The people dressed in native costumes and kept stores as they would in China. Most Chinatown businesses were small with their street front open, vegetables and groceries overflowing on the sidewalks. Cigar stands, shoe cobblers, pharmacies with herbal medicines, fortune tellers, and gambling and opium dens shared spaces up and down a system of streets, alleys, and passages. A stranger easily could become hopelessly lost in the maze.

As anti-Chinese feelings increased, some sought new homes eastward. By 1920 thousands of Chinese lived in communities in Boston, New York, and Chicago. Only in Chinatowns did Chinese live a freer, more humane life among family and friends, creating the illusion that Chinatown was really China.

With that, the Supreme Court found in favor of Yick Wo, ordered him discharged, and struck down the ordinance.

Yick Wo v. Hopkins pioneered three key ideas. First, the Fourteenth Amendment protected all persons living in the United States, not just citizens. Second, if a law has a discriminatory purpose or is enforced unfairly, even though it is neutral on its face, the courts will apply the equal protection pledge of the Fourteenth Amendment and strike down the law. Third, the case began a process of more carefully looking at laws affecting groups of people which through American history had been persistently discriminated against. However, building on the ideas proved to be a slow process. Eventually, the Yick Wo case became a central part of the civil rights law but not until the mid-twentieth century.

Suggestions for further reading

Chen, Jack. The Chinese of America. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980.

Chin, Frank. Donald Duk. Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 1991.

Hoobler, Dorothy, and Thomas Hoobler. The Chinese American Family Album. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Jones, Claire. The Chinese in America. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications Company, 1972.

McCunn, Ruthanne L. Chinese American Portraits: Personal Histories, 1828–1988. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1988.

See, Lisa. On Gold Mountain. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.

Wilson, John. Chinese Americans. Vero Beach, FL: Rourke Corporation, Inc., 1991.

Wu, Dana Ying-Hui, and Jeffrey Dao-Sheng Tung. Coming to America: The Chinese American Experience. Brookfield, CT: The Millbrook Press, 1993.