Freedom: A History of US

Webisode 8. Segment 6
The Strange Case of the Chinese Laundry

In 1886, Sheriff Hopkins entered the Yick Wo laundry in San Francisco See It Now - A Chinese Laundry. The sheriff had a warrant for the arrest of the owner. The warrant said he had broken the law. A San Francisco ordinance said that all laundries had to be operated in brick buildings. The Yick Wo laundry was in a wooden building, and wooden buildings were more vulnerable to fires. But there was one problem: of San Francisco's 320 laundries, 310 were in wooden buildings. Most of the laundries—240 of them—were owned by Chinese persons. During the Gold Rush, the men who flocked to California needed to get their clothes washed. Traditionally, in Europe and America, women were expected to wash clothes. So most of the miners wouldn't wash their own clothes. But Chinese men would.

Racists are haters, and the racists hated the Chinese. They got mean-spirited laws passed to try to put the Chinese launderers out of business See It Now - An Anti-Chinese Advertisement. Sheriff Hopkins arrested almost all the Chinese owners of laundries in wooden buildings. He arrested only one of the white laundry owners—and she was a woman! Seventy-nine white men who ran laundries were not bothered by the sheriff. The Chinese launderers got together and sued the sheriff. The case was Yick Wo v. Hopkins, or as it is called Yick Wo v. Hopkins. Law students today study that case—it's important—but most don't know that there never was a Yick Wo. Sheriff Hopkins assumed that the man who owned the Yick Wo laundry, and fought for his rights, was named Yick Wo. Actually, his name was Lee Yick. And he fought for his rights.

The law seemed clear. The Chinese laundries were in wooden buildings, and wooden laundries were illegal. The San Francisco court decided against the Chinese launderers. So did the California Supreme Court. Lee Yick took his case to the nation's highest court: the United States Supreme Court See It Now - Justices of the Supreme Court. There were two issues: Do the police have the right to enforce a law one way for some people and another for others? And, should the law treat aliens—people, like Lee Yick, who aren't citizens—the same way it treats American citizens? This is what the Supreme Court said: "For no legitimate reason this body (the California Court) by its action has declared that it is lawful for 80-odd persons who are not subjects of China to wash clothes for hire in wood frame buildings, but unlawful for all subjects of China to do the same thing."

The California law was applied, the Court said, "with an evil eye and an unequal hand." That, said the justices, was wrong. And then the court added this: "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.' "

The sheriff and the state of California lost the argument. The laundrymen beat them. Because of that, all persons in the United States, citizens or not, are entitled to the same fair treatment. Lee Yick and his friends had won a momentous victory Check The Source - Yick Wo v. Hopkins: May 10, 1886.

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