(www.delightimages.com)

In one of its last decisions of 2016, the New York Court of Appeals held that skin color, in addition to race, ethnicity, and gender, can be the basis for a Batson challenge. The case arose from Queens, where Joseph Bridgeforth, an African-American man was charged with three counts of robbery. During jury selection, the prosecution used its peremptory challenges to strike several prospective jurors, including all five dark-complexioned women. In the 1986 case of Batson v. Kentucky, the Supreme Court of the United States held that peremptory challenges could not be used to dismiss potential jurors based solely on race. Such a strike, the Court held, would violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. Lawyers need to have race-neutral reasons for excluding jurors, and opposing counsel can raise “Batson challenges,” or objections to those peremptory strikes, and demand those race-neutral explanations.

Mr. Bridgeforth lodged a Batson challenge stating that the prosecution deliberately excluded all five women with dark complexion, four of whom were African-American, and one who was Indian-American. The prosecution had race-neutral rationales for striking the four African-American jurors, but failed to provide one for the Indian-American woman. Regardless, the trial court did not delve deeper into the question and simply dismissed the juror at issue. Mr. Bridgeforth was convicted and subsequently filed an appeal claiming that the trial court erred in permitting the peremptory strike of the Indian-American woman, as she was a part of a cognizable class due to her skin tone. Thus, Mr. Bridgeforth argued, the prosecution illegally struck her from the jury under the precedent set by Batson. The prosecution argued that skin color is not a protected class and therefore cannot form the basis of a Batson challenge, as all Batson requires is race-neutral, not color-neutral, reasons for dismissing jurors.

Late last month, New York’s Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state, agreed with Mr. Bridgeforth, unanimously reversing his conviction and ordering a new trial. The court held that color is a class that can be a basis of discrimination separate from race. The court partially based its holding on the fact that several provisions of New York law mention color as a specific category vulnerable to discrimination. This was the first time the high court of New York, and possibly any state, has recognized skin color as a class protected under Batson.

The underlying issue in the case was whether Mr. Bridgeforth’s Equal Protection and due process rights were violated by the trial court’s exclusion of the juror in question. However, another aspect that should not be overlooked is the broader implications on issues of race, color, and civic participation. Indeed, while Mr. Bridgeforth’s rights may have been in jeopardy, so was the Indian-American juror’s ability to participate in a key function of civic society. In its opinion, the court highlighted the deep-rooted history of “colorism” in American society and South Asian cultures. This is particularly noteworthy, considering U.S. legal history has used color to bar entire groups from civic participation and even basic acknowledgement as American.

Our nation’s history is notorious for denials of citizenship and humanity to African-Americans, including schemes such as the three-fifths compromise and the so-called “one-drop rule.” Both of these mechanisms served their intended purposes: to dehumanize and limit the civic relevance of a major portion of the population based on race and color. However, perhaps lesser-known—certainly less discussed in legal circles—are the Supreme Court cases of Japanese-American Takao Ozawa and Indian-American Bhagat Singh Thind.

In these cases, which were decided in 1922 and 1923, respectively, Mr. Ozawa and Mr. Thind were each denied naturalization because they were not “white” under the meaning of the immigration and naturalization laws of the time, which reserved citizenship for “free white persons.” The court held that even though Mr. Ozawa argued that he was lighter in color than many white people, he was not “white” under the eyes of the law. According to the court, “white” meant those of the Caucasian race, which was a scientifically determined racial group. However, just three months later in U.S. v. Thind, the court rejected science-based arguments from Mr. Thind’s, a World War I veteran, that Indians were of the Aryan or Caucasian race and therefore “white” under the eyes of the law. “Caucasian,” the court said, was what was “popularly understood” by the common man, which is to say, white. Therefore, the law prohibited Mr. Thind from obtaining citizenship.

Both of these decisions were explicitly centered on analyses of race and color. The court took great pains to demonstrate that both factors could be manipulated in order to determine who deserves to be called an American. Identities could be broadened or narrowed, redefined or reinterpreted for the sakes of exclusion and convenience. A legal Catch-22 emerged: just because one was physically white in color did not mean he was of the right race. And, just because one was anthropologically Caucasian did not mean he was “white.” It wasn’t until decades later that the law allowed non-whites to obtain citizenship.

The Bridgeforth decision shows us how even subtle discrimination, potentially without malice, can serve to limit civic participation. Quite remarkably, Bridgeforth expressly acknowledges colorism and implies that the legacies of racial and color-based hierarchies are deeply entrenched in institutions that govern us. As a result, the decision highlights the way in which two sets of rights and privileges were impacted by one fell swoop: the due process rights of Mr. Bridgeforth and the ability for the Indian-American juror to be a civic participant. The Bridgeforth decision also helps restore faith in the courts, which, currently, may be the one branch of government we can count on to address injustice. But perhaps most importantly, Bridgeforth is a call for constant vigilance, as it is a reminder of the way in which our nation’s history led us to this moment, where discrimination and violations of fundamental rights can go unnoticed, and perniciously seep into our daily lives.

In one of its last decisions of 2016, the New York Court of Appeals held that skin color, in addition to race, ethnicity, and gender, can be the basis for a Batson challenge. The case arose from Queens, where Joseph Bridgeforth, an African-American man was charged with three counts of robbery. During jury selection, the prosecution used its peremptory challenges to strike several prospective jurors, including all five dark-complexioned women. In the 1986 case of Batson v. Kentucky, the Supreme Court of the United States held that peremptory challenges could not be used to dismiss potential jurors based solely on race. Such a strike, the Court held, would violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. Lawyers need to have race-neutral reasons for excluding jurors, and opposing counsel can raise “Batson challenges,” or objections to those peremptory strikes, and demand those race-neutral explanations.

Mr. Bridgeforth lodged a Batson challenge stating that the prosecution deliberately excluded all five women with dark complexion, four of whom were African-American, and one who was Indian-American. The prosecution had race-neutral rationales for striking the four African-American jurors, but failed to provide one for the Indian-American woman. Regardless, the trial court did not delve deeper into the question and simply dismissed the juror at issue. Mr. Bridgeforth was convicted and subsequently filed an appeal claiming that the trial court erred in permitting the peremptory strike of the Indian-American woman, as she was a part of a cognizable class due to her skin tone. Thus, Mr. Bridgeforth argued, the prosecution illegally struck her from the jury under the precedent set by Batson. The prosecution argued that skin color is not a protected class and therefore cannot form the basis of a Batson challenge, as all Batson requires is race-neutral, not color-neutral, reasons for dismissing jurors.

Late last month, New York ‘s Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state, agreed with Mr. Bridgeforth, unanimously reversing his conviction and ordering a new trial. The court held that color is a class that can be a basis of discrimination separate from race. The court partially based its holding on the fact that several provisions of New York law mention color as a specific category vulnerable to discrimination. This was the first time the high court of New York , and possibly any state, has recognized skin color as a class protected under Batson.

The underlying issue in the case was whether Mr. Bridgeforth’s Equal Protection and due process rights were violated by the trial court’s exclusion of the juror in question. However, another aspect that should not be overlooked is the broader implications on issues of race, color, and civic participation. Indeed, while Mr. Bridgeforth’s rights may have been in jeopardy, so was the Indian-American juror’s ability to participate in a key function of civic society. In its opinion, the court highlighted the deep-rooted history of “colorism” in American society and South Asian cultures. This is particularly noteworthy, considering U.S. legal history has used color to bar entire groups from civic participation and even basic acknowledgement as American.

Our nation’s history is notorious for denials of citizenship and humanity to African-Americans, including schemes such as the three-fifths compromise and the so-called “one-drop rule.” Both of these mechanisms served their intended purposes: to dehumanize and limit the civic relevance of a major portion of the population based on race and color. However, perhaps lesser-known—certainly less discussed in legal circles—are the Supreme Court cases of Japanese-American Takao Ozawa and Indian-American Bhagat Singh Thind.

In these cases, which were decided in 1922 and 1923, respectively, Mr. Ozawa and Mr. Thind were each denied naturalization because they were not “white” under the meaning of the immigration and naturalization laws of the time, which reserved citizenship for “free white persons.” The court held that even though Mr. Ozawa argued that he was lighter in color than many white people, he was not “white” under the eyes of the law. According to the court, “white” meant those of the Caucasian race, which was a scientifically determined racial group. However, just three months later in U.S. v. Thind, the court rejected science-based arguments from Mr. Thind’s, a World War I veteran, that Indians were of the Aryan or Caucasian race and therefore “white” under the eyes of the law. “Caucasian,” the court said, was what was “popularly understood” by the common man, which is to say, white. Therefore, the law prohibited Mr. Thind from obtaining citizenship.

Both of these decisions were explicitly centered on analyses of race and color. The court took great pains to demonstrate that both factors could be manipulated in order to determine who deserves to be called an American. Identities could be broadened or narrowed, redefined or reinterpreted for the sakes of exclusion and convenience. A legal Catch-22 emerged: just because one was physically white in color did not mean he was of the right race. And, just because one was anthropologically Caucasian did not mean he was “white.” It wasn’t until decades later that the law allowed non-whites to obtain citizenship.

The Bridgeforth decision shows us how even subtle discrimination, potentially without malice, can serve to limit civic participation. Quite remarkably, Bridgeforth expressly acknowledges colorism and implies that the legacies of racial and color-based hierarchies are deeply entrenched in institutions that govern us. As a result, the decision highlights the way in which two sets of rights and privileges were impacted by one fell swoop: the due process rights of Mr. Bridgeforth and the ability for the Indian-American juror to be a civic participant. The Bridgeforth decision also helps restore faith in the courts, which, currently, may be the one branch of government we can count on to address injustice. But perhaps most importantly, Bridgeforth is a call for constant vigilance, as it is a reminder of the way in which our nation’s history led us to this moment, where discrimination and violations of fundamental rights can go unnoticed, and perniciously seep into our daily lives.