EastLaw: How laundry laws brought a huge civil rights leap

May 11, 2011

Asian American theme monthMay is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.  During the month of May, we’ll be looking at important legal landmarks in U.S. history relating to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

For the first post on Chinese Exclusion, click here.

As discussed last week, Asian Americans faced discrimination almost as soon as they began arriving in the country.

Chinese were the first target of major discrimination, and in addition to the physical restrictions imposed by Chinese Exclusion laws, they were also targeted by economic constraints.

In fact, Article XIX of the California Constitution of 1879 contained provisions that forbade private corporations and local governments from employing Chinese.

As a result, many Chinese employed themselves and opened up their own businesses.

Most prominently were laundry shops, which, by the 1880s, were predominantly run by Chinese owners.

This made it easy for local governments to target the industry, seeking to impose further hardships on Chinese and eventually drive them out of the country.

Many arbitrary regulations were passed, and many of them were struck down as discriminatory by lower state courts.

However, one law reached the U.S. Supreme Court, and its overturning led to one of the most significant advancements in legal civil rights in the nation’s history.

That case is Yick Wo v. Hopkins.

The ordinance, which Yick Wo was in violation of, required that one needed a permit from the city’s Board of Supervisors in order to operate a laundry in a wooden building.

The Board of Supervisors had broad discretion in granting or denying these permits.

At the time, 95% of the city’s laundry shops were operating in wooden buildings, so the ordinance required the majority of shops to apply for permits.

Over 65% of the shops were owned by Chinese, and none of which were granted any permits (and only one woman out of 80 non-Chinese applicants was denied a permit).

The city justified its need for the law on safety concerns, citing the flammability of wood (over stone or metal buildings).

However, the petitioner fired back that the inspection and approval of laundries in wooden buildings had been delegated to fire wardens before the new law went into effect, and that he had never failed a fire safety inspection.

The Supreme Court unanimously found for the petitioner, finding that the ordinance was facially neutral, but discriminatorily applied.

Therefore, the law was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

This is the first time the Supreme Court had made such a ruling, but it would be far from the last.

In fact, the case has been cited over 150 times since it was decided.

In addition, it served as the backbone for many overturnings of Deep South racial discrimination laws during the 1950s and 1960s.

More recently, Justice O’Connor’s concurrence in Lawrence v. Texas, the ruling that struck down anti-sodomy laws nationwide, relied on Yick Wo as part of her Equal Protection argument against the law.

Strangely, while the case is widely cited in Constitutional Law texts, the historical circumstances surrounding the case have been lost.

And along with it, the Chinese’s major contribution to Civil Rights.

So while there are many Asian cultural observances during the month of May, people should not overlook the legal milestones reached because of Asian influences.