Xenophobia Past and Present

Danny Stock

8th grade history students tackle SCOTUS cases 100 years before COVID-19.

Dear Mr. Takao Ozawa,

[Julian] I am in the eighth grade at Georgetown Day School and have recently learned about citizenship in the early 1900s. One of the things we learned about was your Supreme Court Case, Ozawa v. United States. I want to thank you for being one of the first immigrants to stand up [against] a system of citizenship that was deeply racist.

[Indira] Even if you didn't change the whole immigration system, you brought attention to other immigrants and inspired others to also do so.
[Caroline G.] The court simply wanted a way to prevent anyone who [didn’t fit] their (confusing) definition of “white” to become a citizen. This racism was hidden by their belief of “racial differences” and not racial inferiority, while they clearly believed the latter. Overall, I think that you should not even have had to come to the Supreme Court to become a citizen, but the racist laws at the time forced you to. I admire your courage and resilience.
[Dalton] It is unfortunate that you will never be able to experience the joys of citizenship. Forgive the briefness of this letter, I have other very pressing matters to attend to but know that I feel for your situation and sympathize and would support you in further efforts.
The 8th Grade Class of 2024
In 8th grade history, students have been grappling with the long-term impact of a pair of Supreme Court's rulings in the 1920s* that supported the Naturalization Act of 1906’s requirement that only people who appeared white could become naturalized citizens.
Asynchronously, kids responded by writing letters to the 1920s citizenship challengers Ozawa and Thind, reflecting on SCOTUS's decisions to refuse them citizenship. Many also shared their personal family immigration stories. During her office hours, Middle School history teacher Julia Blount ’08 asked students to consider those SCOTUS decisions against the backdrop of the present day by asking them to make connections between assumptions about "Americanness" and xenophobic and racist behavior (including towards Asian Americans during COVID-19).
Here are some of their reflections:
"I have friends who are Asian that have been living in America their entire lives, but...there will automatically be an assumption that they have the coronavirus just because they look Asian…” said Avery.
"It's assuming that, in this case, Chinese [American] people aren't really American," added Anna.
"In America, if you're not white, you can never be really 'American,’ opined Iansã. “This happened to me and my mom, [when people] were asking where we both were from..."
"If you're not white, then you're not American, that's the assumption,” said Ila. “Even though I'm half white and I am American people ask me, 'Where are you from?' and then I’ll say, ‘DC,’ and they're like ‘No, like what language do you speak?' and I'm like 'I speak English, calm down' and that's like what Iansã is saying, it comes from our past and our history."
"Even now, after all of these years, there's still this like thought in the back of people's heads that if you're not white, then you're really not from America,” said Avery. “Now it's still being reflected upon today's society—what the Supreme Court did such a long time ago still reflects upon today's society."
*The Naturalization Act of 1906 allowed that only “free white persons” (and “persons of African nativity or persons of African descent”) were eligible for naturalization. When the Supreme Court denied citizenship to Mr. Ozawa, a 20-year resident of the U.S. of Japanese descent, Justice Sutherland penned the opinion that “white person” meant “Caucasian.” Then, just three months later, SCOTUS handed down a contradictory ruling in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, when a man of South Asian heritage—who argued he was technically "Caucasian" under the racial categorization of the time—petitioned unsuccessfully to be considered white and eligible for citizenship. This time, Justice Sutherland argued that only people the “common man” recognized as a “white person” could hold that identity; “white” is “synonymous with the word 'Caucasian' only as that word is popularly understood.”
  • DEI
  • Middle School