When Gold was discovered in California in 1848, people from all over the world began immigrating to America in hopes of striking it rich. Among those people were the Chinese. Trying to escape the war, famine, and poverty of their home country, many men from China came to America for better opportunities to earn money to send back to their families. By 1853, about 24,000 Chinese men had immigrated to California. These men soon found out that they weren’t welcomed by Americans. In 1852, the California legislature passed a high foreign miners’ tax, aimed at the Chinese. Not only were they forced to pay the tax if they wanted to continue mining, but they were also subjects of violent attacks. In spite of this terrible treatment, many Chinese men continued to mine. Others, however, tried to find alternative ways to make money, including opening their own laundries.
Chinese laundries became a major occupation for the Chinese immigrants who came to the United States. The job became associated to the ethnic group, and the Chinese launderer became a stereotype in media and popular culture. Working in laundries was ideal for Chinese immigrants because anti-Chinese sentiments grew quickly and restricted urban labor markets forced the Chinese to find other work. Additionally, the laundry business didn’t require experience or venture capital, and Euro-American men thought of it as an undesirable occupation. Typically, working at a laundry meant long hours of exhausting manual labor over kettles of boiling water and hand irons heated on stoves. However, as more groups competed over jobs in the United States and Chinese businesses became more successful, prejudice against Chinese immigrants grew even stronger.
By 1880, the city of San Francisco had 320 laundries throughout the city. Out of those 320 laundries, two thirds of them were owned by Chinese people. Almost every laundry in the city, 310 of them, operated in a wooden building. On May 26, 1880, the city of San Francisco passed an ordinance that stated:
This ordinance meant that the 310 laundries that operated in wooden buildings would have needed to obtain a permit in order to keep in business. However, none of the Chinese laundries were granted permits, while only one non-Chinese owner was denied a permit.
The Chinese laundry owners had to make the choice of either closing the business or operate illegally. Lee Yick, a noncitizen Chinese immigrant who owned a San Francisco laundry named Yick Wo decided to operate illegally. He came to the United States from China in 1861 and worked at the laundry for over twenty years. In 1884, before he applied for a renewal of his business license, both the Board of Fire Wardens and the Health Department inspected the laundry, certifying it to be safe and up to standards. One month after applying for the renewal of his business license, in July 1885, he was denied due to the ordinance going into effect, but he didn’t close his business. On August 22, 1885, he was arrested by Peter Hopkins and jailed for refusing to pay the $10 fine. Hopkins, the sheriff of San Francisco at the time, booked him as Yick Wo, believing it was his name because that was the name of the laundry. Two days later, Lee Yick sued Hopkins on the grounds that the enforcement of the laundry ordinance violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.
The case made its way through the courts and ultimately to the United States Supreme Court The Supreme Court ruled on the case in 1886. Justice Stanley Matthews wrote a unanimous decision for the Supreme Court, addressing the claims of Yick Wo. The Court found the laundry ordinance unconstitutional, despite the Supreme Court of California’s determination that the ordinance was valid. Justice Matthews stressed that the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees rights to citizens and noncitizens alike, so the fact of whether or not the Fourteenth Amendment applied to Yick Wo was not in question. The court was to consider if the laundry ordinance violated the Constitution, and they found that it did. The court concluded that the application of a law in a way that varied among racial groups was unconstitutional, even if the law itself was not written in a discriminatory way. Justice Matthews asserted, “Though the law itself be fair on its face and impartial in appearance, yet, if it is applied and administered by public authority with an evil eye and an unequal hand … the denial of equal justice is still within the prohibition of the Constitution.” To support this conclusion, he notes the fact that not a single Chinese laundry owner was granted a permit, while dozens of non-Chinese laundry owners had received permits. He also brings up another ordinance, which prohibited the operation of laundries overnight, and compares the ways in which the two ordinances were enforced. He points out that this ordinance is constitutional because the government was using its power to protect the public’s safety and it was applied equally and fairly. If the law in question was applied the same way, it would have been considered valid, but its application was what made it unconstitutional. Because of the unanimous decision, the court overturned the ordinance.
Lee Yick’s willingness to stand up for what was right led to this very important case in United States history. Not only did it enforce the fact that the equal protection clause in the Fourteenth Amendment spoke to the application as well as the intent of the law, but it also affirmed that noncitizens have these rights in the equal protection clause. It made the clear declaration that seemingly nondiscriminatory laws that are unequally enforced do in fact violate the Constitution. It was a huge step for the Chinese immigrants and other immigrants who weren’t necessarily welcomed by Americans. It gave them some sort of protection from the discrimination they faced.
The Yick Wo case has been cited by the Supreme Court over 150 times since the ruling, and it’s become the basis for declaring state laws concerning interracial marriage, segregated schools, segregation in housing, voting rights, disability rights, gender discrimination, and gay marriage. Although the reaction of the ruling was negative at the time, it was extremely impactful in future cases and in protecting groups that were discriminated.