Benjamin Rasmussen


The Preamble to the U.S. Constitution begins: “We the People of the United States.” But who that statement includes is not a static concept. The Naturalization Act of 1790 limited naturalization to “free white persons,” one of a series of foundational laws and texts that established a legal basis for white privilege. Since then, the courts have been at the forefront of both protecting that privilege and, in recent years, challenging it.

V explores the contemporary ripples of landmark Supreme Court decisions. Tracing Dred Scott v. Sanford to the protests in Ferguson, Mo., the xenophobia of Korematsu v. United States and Japanese internment to the appropriation of Japanese culture today, V uses legal texts to examine the evolving definition of "We the People." The case law serves not only as historical document, but as a literary point of departure.
This is a preview of the first 3 chapters of V.


“A free negro of the African race, whose ancestors were brought to this country and sold as slaves, is not a ‘citizen’ within the meaning of the Constitution... and are not entitled to sue in that character in a court of the United States. For if the language, as understood in that day, would embrace them, the conduct of the distinguished men who framed the Declaration of Independence would have been utterly and flagrantly inconsistent with the principles they asserted, and instead of the sympathy of mankind to which they so confidently appealed, they would have deserved and received universal rebuke and reprobation.”
Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)
Dred Scott died one year after losing his case and is buried in the Calvary Cemetery on West Florissant Avenue in Saint Lvouis, Missouri. When an 18-year-old unarmed black man named Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer 156 years later, protestors poured out onto West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Missouri, just four miles north of Scott’s grave.


“The words ‘white person,’ as well argued by petitioner’s counsel, taken in a strictly literal sense, constitute a very indefinite description of a class of persons, where none can be said to be literally white. and those called white may be found of every shade from the lightest blonde to the most swarthy brunette. But these words in this country, at least, have undoubtedly acquired a well settled meaning in common popular speech, and they are constantly used in the sense so acquired in the literature of the country, as well as in common parlance. As ordinarily used everywhere in the United States, one would scarcely fail to understand that the party employing the words ‘white person’ would intend a person of the Caucasian race.”
In re Ah Yup (1878)
When citizenship was first defined by Congress in 1790, naturalization was restricted to “white persons”. Though specific previsions of the law shifted over time, whiteness remained a prerequisite until the Immigration and Naturalization act of 1952. Between 1878 and 1952 there were 52 court cases in which people from immigrant communities sued the US government to be considered white and therefore be eligible for naturalization.


“When a man has emerged from slavery, and by the aid of beneficent legislation has shaken off the inseparable concomitants of that state, there must be some stage in the progress of his elevation when he takes the rank of a mere citizen, and ceases to be the special favorite of the laws, and when his rights as a citizen, or a man, are to be protected in the ordinary modes by which other men’s rights are protected.”
Civil Rights Cases (1883)
The Civil Rights Act of 1875 stated that “That all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of inns, public conveyances on land or water, theatres, and other places of public amusement.” It was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the Civil Rights Cases of 1883, leaving blacks with no protection against violence or oppression from whites and opening the doors for Jim Crow and as Alabama Governor George Wallace famously stated in his 1963 Inaugural Address, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Legal protections finally came with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, though change was much slower, as can be seen from acceptance of Wallace and his views through his four presidential runs in 1964 through 1976.
Photographing on V. is will wrap up in early 2019 and it will be published as a book and series of shows soon after. Please reach out if you would like to partner in this process. · 720.514.1267