How white is white?

Students will learn how anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States at the turn of the century led immigrants to find legal ways to ascertain their rights and forced the courts to try and determine the legal meaning of “white” when determining citizenship.

Historical Background

Students spend Unit 2 learning about the increase in immigration and the impact immigrants had on the Railroad and the Industrial Revolution. Throughout the Unit, students are taught about the difficulties many immigrant groups were faced with as they tried to settle and become citizens in the United States. The focus in Unit Two is primarily on the Chinese and their contribution to the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. There is also some reference made to other immigrant groups that were part of industrialization and urbanization on the east coast.

From the 1890’s through the 1920’s the anti-immigrant sentiment led to a series of court cases that were tried in order to determine who was eligible for citizenship based on their ethnicity, their genealogy and often times, their color. The judicial branch was then tasked with the job of determining which ethnic groups could be considered “white” under the Naturalization Act of 1790, which stated that only “white” people could become naturalized citizens. The question then became, “Who was ‘white’?”. Because the question of one’s whiteness is so vague and indefinable, the courts found it near impossible to set a standard that could hold up across the board.

Students will examine primary source documents including political cartoons, editorials, legal documents and census data to learn about the historical construction of race and the role it played in society at the turn of the century.

Lesson Objective

Analyze new sources of large-scale immigration by using statistics that show the different ethnic groups that immigrated into the country.

Evaluate the manifestations of prejudice and discrimination on individuals and groups by examining court cases and documents that show America’s resistance to awarding certain groups’ equal rights and privileges under the law.

Demonstrate an understanding of the material through primary source evaluation, completion of homework worksheet and two BCR’s.



  1. Day One: It may be necessary to mention the sensitivity of the topic with students and remind them that the issue of race and immigration can be difficult to talk about.
  2. Begin with the question “Should Americans have birthright citizenship? Discuss with students the restrictions in immigration (Who should be citizens? Why? What are some issues today?)
  3. All class instruction – Look at picture of “The Immigrant” (on flipchart and on student worksheet) and discuss what the students notice. Ask questions about any stereotypes they see, encourage them to use vocabulary terms and context when discussing the cartoon.
  4. Have students work in groups to finish the following two cartoons (Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving and Uncle Sam’s Lodging House) and Document 4 “Journal” editorial about Chinese immigrants. Have student’s complete the worksheet questions.
  5. End class by having showing students the Chinese Exclusion Act and reading it aloud (on flipchart). Have them complete the exit question on worksheet.
  6. Day 2
  7. Distribute “Court Cases Regarding Race” worksheet.
  8. Begin by having students answer the warm up questions on the 14th amendment and naturalization and then discuss answers.
  9. Have students read the Naturalization Act of 1790 (on flipchart) and encourage a discussion based on the following: Context of law, Potential problems in the future, and Who is white?
  10. Briefly discuss with students trends of Asian immigration between 1850 and 1930 using tables in flipchart
  11. Lecture students on US vs. Wong Kim Ark case – take notes and ask students to decide if Ark is a citizen and why.
  12. Background information on the case can be found on the flipchart and on the following websites: (“Laying Claim to America”);
  13. Go over opinion and decision in the case using the flipchart
  14. Discuss how the Chinese Exclusion Act may have played a role in this case (background knowledge, students should have already gone over act)
  15. HW – Thind Case
  16. Day 3
  17. Students will need note taking worksheet from previous class
  18. Begin class by providing students with background information and Supreme Court opinion in the US vs. Takeo Ozawa case.
  19. Background info on flipchart and the following website:
  20. Discuss the opinion in the Thind case and answer any questions students have from their homework
  21. Close the discussion on the cases by pointing out the irony in the two cases. (Ozawa is white in color but not in race, while Thind is Caucasian but not white). Look at the Prerequisite Cases in Chronological Order chart and show students the inconsistencies within the court in trying to determine one’s “whiteness”.
  22. Finally show students the “How to be an American” slideshow on the PBS website “Me, My Race and I”.
  23. After watching the slideshow and discussing what they’ve seen, have students answer the BCR question (see attached worksheet).


Exit card question on the Chinese Exclusion Act

Homework Assignment on Thind case

BCR question on “Me, My Race and I”


This lesson is designed for an honors class. Teachers of on-level, Spec. Ed or ESOL could differentiate by using fewer primary sources and teaching only the Ark case.


Lopez, Ian Haney. “Prerequisite Cases in Chronological Order.” Racial Classification Cases. Race, Racism and American Law. Last updated November 2010. 10 November 2011,

“Not All Caucasians Are White: The Supreme Court Rejects Citizenship for Asian Indians.” History Matters- The US Survey Course on the Web. American Social History Productions. Last Updated March 31, 2006. 10 November 2011,

Race: The Power of an Illusion. Background Readings. California Newsreel.
23 March 2011,

“The Immigrant.” The Opper Project – Using Editorial Cartoons to Teach History. The Ohio State University Cartoon Research Library. The Ohio State University 10 November 2011,

“Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner.” Cartoon of the Day. Harp Week Cartoons 10 November 2011,

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