Ambiguity, Law, and Racial Exclusion

katrina quisumbing king, Northwestern University

In this paper, I explore three foundational Supreme Court decisions that institutionalized ambiguous legal statuses for nonwhite populations in the United States. First, the in the case of Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), the state defined American Indians as domestic dependent nations. Second, in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the United States Supreme Court decided that facilities for whites and Blacks (and by extension other non-white racial minorities) could be “separate, but equal.” Finally, in the case of Downes v. Bidwell (1901), the Court ruled that the island colonies acquired from Spain were “foreign in a domestic sense.” In all three cases, the Court’s decisions allowed state actors to defer debates over incorporation and integration of racial others. Through these ambiguous legal decisions, the United States Supreme Court managed tensions of claiming territory, expanding sovereignty, and denying citizenship to racialized populations. Analysis of these three cases has implications for similarly ambiguous political decisions today, like DACA. When put in a historical perspective, we see that ambiguous decisions are attempts to manage foundational conflicts over the scope of democracy in a white settler “nation.” They are political compromises. Not only that, these ambiguous decisions are flimsy. They create conditions for an array of future political possibilities. Ambiguity and the possible decisions that flow from it, have implications for the rule of racialized populations and control of territory.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 235. Immigration, Race, and State Gatekeepers