What Is White?
Building upon the last unit, it is important for students to understand how the legal is shaped and changed by the circumstances of historical time periods. Most Americans in 2019 would agree that we are in the midst of a huge demographic shift. According to the US census, the highest racial minority eligible to vote in the 2020 election will be Hispanics. However, this would hardly be the first time that demographic changes would affect the political and legal landscape of the US government. At the turn of the 20th century, and in the midst of an economic boom in the United States, an influx of immigrants entered the country in search of a better life. From 1880 to 1920, population growth was concentrated in cities—the urban fraction expanded from a little more than one-quarter of the national population to more than one half (Lopez, 1996). This time period, in a history classroom usually concentrated on terms such as urbanization and the development of the American industry. However, this time was also significantly challenging in how Americans viewed the race.
In his work, White By Law by Ian Haney Lopez, the time period from 1880 to 1920 is seen is an entirely new lens. As seen in our previous lesson, just a generation ago, being a “white person” as a condition for acquiring citizenship. This is challenged during the aftermath of the Civil War when African Americans are granted rights based on birthright citizenship with the 14th amendment. But how did these laws apply to those not born in the country?
From 1907, when the federal government began collecting data on naturalization, until 1920, over one million people gained citizenship under the racially restrictive naturalization laws. Armenians, Japanese, Sikh Indians, Polish, and Slavs were each vying for a chance to be considered white under the current US immigration law system. However, in the same way, that the immigrants themselves were not sure if they would be considered white, the Supreme Court was unsure as well. Who was white? What is white?
Although now largely forgotten, the prerequisite cases were at the center of racial debates in the United States for the fifty years following the Civil War, when immigration and nativism were both running high (Lopez, 1996). The court played a significant role in framing these debates and placing validity on how Americans would be identified.
The two case studies in which students will focusing in on will be the Thind and Ozawa cases. Both cases were brought to the Supreme Court and both verdicts produced very contradictory ideas on how to define race. To begin this portion of the lesson, I would begin taking pictures of both Takao Ozawa and Thind and questioning the class whether or not they would consider these men to be white. After discussion, explain that at the turn of the 1920s, both of these men could be considered under the justifications of the Supreme Court, but both of these men were denied citizenship.
The lesson should begin with students taking a look at the categories for the race at the turn of the 20th century. Using the Census What Census Calls Us: A Historical Timeline, by the Pew Research Center, students will be able to trace the different terms used to identify from the founding of the country. They will be able to gauge how terms were added, reshaped and removed. Students will be able to identify antiquated terms such as quadroon, mulatoo, and octaroon while noticing the additions of different ethnicities such as Hindi, Armenian and Chinese. The strategy I would use for this is to encourage students to use deep analytical skills to establish a deeper understanding of the data. The strategy was adapted from Data Wise.4
First, students should make observations without making any statements/questions.
Example: I observe the change of black to the negro in the decade 1930?”
Second, students should ask questions without anyone providing an immediate answer.
Example: I question the definition of octaroon.
Third, students should wonder what information they would need to better contextualize.
Example: I would need to understand the immigration data on African Americans during 1910.
After students complete this assignment, students can read an excerpt from White By Law which can be found easily accessible online. The introduction offers an overview of the time period in which the students are analyzing while also offering us guiding questions that can help provide students a foundation for how they look at the two individual case studies. Lopez’s guiding questions can be applied to the classroom to help our students to not only critically analyze racial formation but how does the law work on behalf of crafting our social notions about the law.