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Equal Justice Under Law: Yick Wo v. Hopkins


In its first constitutional challenge to the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear a case brought by a Chinese immigrant, not an American citizen.

Yick Wo believed city ordinances had been unfairly applied to him, so he challenged their constitutionality under the equal protection clause, and took his case all the way to the Supreme Court. Initiated by the Chinese in San Francisco, the precedent-setting case expanded the interpretation of the equal protection clause to include both citizens and noncitizens alike. It also established foundational principles of law.

In Yick Wo v. Hopkins, the Court ruled that “an administration of a municipal ordinance . . . violates the Constitution . . . if it makes arbitrary and unjust discriminations founded on differences of race . . . ” “The guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment extend to “all persons within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States, without regard to differences of race, or color, or of nationality.” ” . . . the equal protection of the laws is a pledge of the protection of equal laws.”

In this lesson, based on the Annenberg Classroom video “Yick Wo and the Equal Protection Clause,” students explore the cause-and-effect relationships between historical events and the development of constitutional principles that protect the rights of all people in America today. The words inscribed on the U.S. Supreme Court building are a reminder of that protection: “Equal Justice Under Law.”

The estimated time for this lesson plan is three class periods.

Download the lesson plan