Monday, January 7, 2013

Shifting Definitions of Race and Citizenship: The Case of Shankar Gokhale

"I am neither an American citizen nor a British subject, but a man without a country, an outlaw of the world, having been punished in this way for my unpardonable crime of pledging my allegiance to the only flag which at one time had offered to treat me as a 'free white person.' But . . . the Supreme Court of the United States, the bureau of naturalization and the Department of State decided otherwise."
- Shankar Gokhale, speaking to Schenectady's Hindustan Club in 1926 about his citizenship fight

Shankar Gokhale was a resident of Schenectady for over fifty years. Schenectady County made Gokhale a citizen in 1920; only a few short years later, the United States Supreme Court declared his citizenship invalid. The story of Gokhale's personal struggle illustrates the changes surrounding ideas of race and immigration in the 1920s.

Shankar Laxman Gokhale was born in 1869 in Wai, India. He earned two master's degrees from the University of Calcutta in physics and chemistry, and was awarded prizes for having the highest overall academic average as well the highest average in physics. In India, he served as a professor and as President at Holkar College. He was dismissed from his position under suspicion of engaging in seditious activity, although no evidence of seditious activity was discovered by the police. He came to the United States in 1911 and almost immediately moved to Schenectady, where he worked for General Electric as a magnetic engineer, working with Charles Steinmetz, L.T. Robinson, and others. His wife Uma and older children joined him in Schenectady in 1922; the couple had three more children born in the United States. Gokhale would continue to work for GE until his retirement in 1933.

Gokhale was also active in political and religious life in Schenectady. He was a founding member of the Sociology Club (also known as the Economic Club) and the Schenectady Free Thought Society. He frequently spoke publicly about unemployment, comparative religion, and Indian customs, culture and history. Although he worked closely with many Socialists in the Sociology Club, he did not consider himself to be a Socialist and sought to debate Socialists at any opportunity, publishing letters to the editor seeking public debates in the Schenectady Gazette as well as in The New York Call, a Socialist newspaper published in New York City. He also spoke several times about the life and teachings of Jesus; although he had not converted to Christianity, he was interested in the study and discussion of religion and taught a Bible class at the First Congregational Church. He and his wife were also members of the First Methodist Church's Golden Age Fellowship. He died in Schenectady in 1962.

In 1969, Gokhale's son, Madhu, a 1927 graduate of Union College, established the annual Shankar Gokhale Prize at Union College.  The prize is, according to the college's website, is awarded to a "senior in engineering, preferably in the five-year program with the second major in economics, judged to have the greatest potential for community service in the area of mathematical approaches to economic problems." A Shankar Gokhale Prize was also established the same year at Indore University in India.

The story of Gokhale's struggle for citizenship begins with the story of how the United States has defined which foreign-born residents could become citizens. The Naturalization Act of 1790 restricted naturalization to "free white persons" of "good moral character," thus excluding Native Americans, indentured servants, slaves, and free African-Americans. Nearly a century later, the law expanded to grant citizenship to African-Americans. Asians were excluded from becoming naturalized citizens.

Although Asians were excluded from naturalization, South Asians from India were not always considered to be Asian and were considered to be Caucasian or white under the law. In 1913, Akhay Kumar Mozumdar became the first Indian-born person to earn U.S. citizenship; his case established a legal precedent that people from India were technically "Caucasian" and thus should be considered white and eligible for naturalization.

Gokhale became a naturalized citizen in Schenectady County in 1920. "The question was raised whether or not it was advisable to admit him, as his wife and two children are still in India and his wife cannot speak English," reported the Schenectady Gazette on Gokhale's case. Gokhale reiterated his intention to make the United States his home and assured the examiners that his wife would soon begin study of English and would not join him in the United States before she had some command of the language. He was then naturalized. Further, the definition of Gokhale as Caucasian, and thus white, seemed to be reflected in his racial identification by New York State and Federal Censuses workers; Shankar Gokhale was defined as being "white" in the 1915 NYS Census and 1920 Federal Census. Interestingly, following the changing immigration and naturalization laws, Gokhale and his family were defined as "black" in the 1925 NYS Census, and thereafter defined in Federal Censuses as "Hindu," which was used as a racial term rather than a religious one.

This shift came in part from a landmark 1923 Supreme Court ruling in the case of Bhagat Singh Thind, an Indian Sikh and veteran of World War I. The court found that, despite being anthropologically Caucasian, Indians were not white and would be considered Asian. This ruling stripped all previously-naturalized Indian-born people -- including Shankar Gokhale -- of their U.S. citizenship, as prosecutors argued that Indian-born immigrants had secured their citizenship illegally.

Following United States v. Thind, the Immigration Act of 1924 (Johnson–Reed Act) further codified the exclusion of members of certain racial and ethnic groups from immigrating to the United States. It was passed amid an atmosphere of xenophobia and fear of the changing face of American demographics; the Office of the Historian of the U.S. State Department has described the law as an attempt to "preserve the ideal of American homogeneity." The law severely restricted the immigration of Southern and Eastern Europeans and completely prohibited the immigration of Asians. South Asians were finally explicitly permitted to become naturalized citizens under the Luce–Celler Act in 1946. Racial distinctions were not completely eliminated in naturalization and citizenship law until 1952, under the Immigration and Nationality Act (also known as the McCarran-Walter Act).

Gokhale fought hard for his citizenship following the Thind case. In 1926, Senator David Reed of Pennsylvania introduced a resolution that would confirm the naturalizations of Indian-born persons prior to the Thind decision. The resolution would affect about 70 Indian-Americans. Reed arranged for a hearing before the Senate Committee on Immigration at which a number of Indian-Americans were called to demonstrate "the high character and intellectual achievement of most of the Hindus who have become naturalized citizens." Gokhale gave his testimony, answering questions about his work, family, and his political involvement. In the end, Reed's resolution was tabled. In United States v. Gokhale, the Circuit Court of Appeals found that Gokhale "was not in fact eligible for naturalization . . . for he is concededly a Hindu, and under that case a Hindu is not a white person as the statute defines that phrase." In 1928, the Supreme Court moved to have the appeal of Gokhale vacated with the understanding that he would be permitted to regain his citizenship.

As Gokhale fought the United States government in the courts for his right to citizenship, he contrasted his treatment by the government with his treatment by people in Schenectady. "Justice Sutherland of the United States Supreme Court has now declared that the people of this country do not want any Hindus here, as they are instinctively opposed to the assimilation of Hindus," said Gokhale as he spoke to the Hindustan Club at the Hotel Van Curler. "My personal experience during the last 15 years is just the reverse. I have received the heartiest welcome from all my American friends and acquaintances." In another instance, a newspaper story dispatched from Washington, D.C. following the Senate hearing quoted Gokhale as speaking in broken English. One of Gokhale's Schenectady friends, Ben Levy, quickly wrote a letter to the Schenectady Gazette in Gokhale's defense. Levy explained that he had known Gokhale for over a decade and had heard him as a public speaker many times. "It is true, Mr. Gokhale lacks the characteristic pronunciation of English as used by the American born," wrote Levy, "but his exceptionally able command of English has been the source of favorable comment on more than one occasion. I truly wish that my English could be compared favorably to that of Mr. Gokhale. I am asking you to publish this as a matter of simple justice to a very exceptional man."

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