“Making Race, Making Space: Bhagat Singh Thind Beyond the Supreme Court Case”
If we consider the conflation of race and religion as a type of “racial project” (Omi and Winant), how might we turn our attention to the ways in which such projects not only produce vulnerability, but also resist it?
The 1923 Thind case has gained a great deal of scholarly attention as a key moment in the history of what Khyati Joshi calls the “racialization of religion.” In the case, Bhagat Singh Thind’s lawyers argued that as a “high-caste Hindu” and an “Aryan,” their client should be given the status of a white person, and thus access to U.S. citizenship. The Supreme Court disagreed, refusing Thind on the grounds, basically, of a “common sense” agreement that he was not, and never could be, perceived as white. In this paper I’d like to look at Thind himself as an active participant in these negotiations of race, religion, and identity, someone who conducted ongoing experiments with these taxonomies in order to mitigate his vulnerability within them. He was in fact not a Hindu but a turbaned and bearded Sikh who attended the prestigious Khalsa College in Amritsar, served in the U.S. military, participated in the transnational Gadar movement for Indian independence, and eventually styled himself as a spiritual teacher for an American audience.
I argue that the conflation of racial and religious categories was necessary to Thind’s survival in early-to-mid-twentieth century America. Further, his multiple approaches to racial and religious identity—from his self-presentation as “high-caste Hindu” in court to his image as a “Sikh Savior” on the lecture circuit—illuminate the polyvalence of racial and religious categories.
- Joshi, Khyati Y. “The Racialization of Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism in the United States,” Equity & Excellence in Education 39 (2006): 211-226
- Snow, Jennifer, “The Civilization of White Men: The Race of the Hindu in The United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind,” in Race, Nation and Religion in the Americas, ed. Henry Goldschmidt and Elizabeth McAlister (New York: Oxford, 2004): 259-280.
- United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923). 261 U.S. 204
- Omi, Michael., and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 1994.