May 1, 2022 - Politics & Policy

The 1898 moment: A turning point in Asian American History

Photo illustration of Wong Kim Ark with the Supreme Court.
Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photo: National Archives ID 296479

Few people in the U.S. know much about Asian American history beyond Chinese migrants building railroads and Japanese American detention during WWII. Advocates hope attention to an 1898 Supreme Court ruling changes that.

Why it matters: The Wong Kim Ark case affirmed that American-born people of Asian descent were U.S. citizens — giving protections to millions of Asian Americans, Latinos and even Native Americans decades later. It's an overlooked example of how Asian American civil rights fights transformed the nation.

  • 1619 is the year the first enslaved Africans arrived in the English colony of Virginia. The New York Times 1619 Project sought to reframe that moment by placing it at the center of the nation's narrative.
  • As Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month begins, historians and activists tell Axios the year 1898 could be a similar marker for Asian Americans, but as a way to show the nation's promise.

Driving the news: Connecticut lawmakers are considering a bill to make Asian American history a requirement in public schools.

  • The proposal mirrors a bill passed last year in Illinois that made it the first state to require schools to teach Asian American history. New Jersey passed a similar measure this year.
  • Arizona, Ohio, California, New York and Florida have considered their own versions of Asian American history requirements.

The intrigue: The push to integrate Asian American history into public school classes comes as some states — including some of the same ones debating the new requirements — are passing bills to limit diversity education under the guise of banning critical race theory.

  • Groups like Make Us Visible and the Asian American Education Project are promoting Asian American history initiatives to fight a surge in anti-Asian violence.
  • The Wong Kim Ark story is regularly cited to show how vital Asian American history is to the nation's narrative.

Details: San Francisco-born Wong Kim Ark returned to the city of his birth in 1895 after visiting family in China, but was refused re-entry.

  • John Wise, an openly anti-Chinese bigot and the collector of customs in San Francisco who controlled immigration into the port, wanted a test case that would deny U.S. citizenship to ethnic Chinese residents.
  • But Wong fought his case all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled on March 28, 1898, that the 14th Amendment guaranteed U.S. citizenship to Wong and any other person born on U.S. soil.

What they're saying: "It's a hallmark case in Asian American history because it establishes the activism that the Asian American community had been waging for decades," Jason Oliver Chang, an Asian American studies and history professor at the University of Connecticut, told Axios.

  • Leading up to the case, Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans had suffered repeated violence and lynchings by mobs, said Gordon H. Chang, a historian and senior associate vice provost at Stanford University.
  • "The difference is that with 1619, we lament that it's a tragic moment. But 1898 is a celebratory moment. It raises the duality of America. ... As a country, there's both promise and possibility, but also the reality of exclusion and segregation."

Between the lines: The Wong Kim Ark case established the Birthright Citizenship clause and led to the dramatic demographic transformation of the U.S.

  • U.S.-born children and grandchildren of immigrants from Asia and Latin America are among the nation's fastest-growing populations. They are expected to be the majority of the country by mid-century.

The Wong Kim Ark ruling is a gateway to open students up to more Asian American history for a complete picture of the U.S., Lynn Lin, who teaches Chinese languages to fourth graders up to middle schoolers in New York City, told Axios.

  • "As an educator, I try to tell students that sometimes pain and suffering or negative feelings are not bad. In some ways, they're sort of an alarm to warn us, hey, it's time to make some change."
  • "I know that there is this surge right now in terms of interest in Asian American Studies and Asian American history. But I think the story has always been there," said Sophia Bae, a Korean American high school teacher from Long Island, New York.

What's next: Lin and Bae are part of the growing chapters of Make Us Visible, seeking to build classroom curriculum around AAPI contributions.

Editor's note: This post has been corrected to reflect that Wong Kim Ark was refused entry into San Francisco in 1895 (not 1894).

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