Op-Ed: White Privilege and the U.S. Citizenship Process

By Tiffani Knowles

citizenship united states naturalization
FILE - In this Aug. 16, 2019, file photo a citizen candidate holds an American flag and the words to The Star-Spangled Banner before the start of a naturalization ceremony at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Miami field office in Miami. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officers can now create fictitious social media accounts to monitor information on foreigners seeking visas, green cards and citizenship. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

I took time to peruse sociology professor Crystal Fleming’s controversial book “How to Be Less Stupid about Race” during Black History Month. It was a doozie.

And while examining the underpinnings of such a controversial book, I couldn’t help but think about the 2020 version of the United States Civics test, a test that must be taken by all foreigners before they become naturalized citizens of the U.S. This 2020 iteration was one that has made us all uncomfortable.

In her book, Fleming was adamant that the KKK is no longer what hinders racial equality in America. The klan is a poor and short-sighted scapegoat, she claimed.

“White supremacy…is systematically maintained by hundreds of millions of ordinary people, as well as by everyday institutional practices that protect the racial order,” Fleming wrote in her 2018, Trump-era work.

Indeed, white supremacy is built into American society.

And we needn’t look any further than one of the last changes made to the immigration system while Donald Trump was still in office. I, for one, helped hundreds of green card holders make sense of the convoluted questions, the biased multi-part answers and the white-washed history found within the new official test.

I even began developing tricks that immigrants could use to help them overcome the inaccuracies of the new test. But, as a professor of communication, I couldn’t help but feel a constant tug at my conscience.

How could I not agree with Fleming when the official U.S. gatekeepers developed an assessment enrooted in segregation and racial bias?

My suspicions were confirmed when President Biden did the unthinkable on Feb. 22.

He discarded the 2020 test and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services declared that it would reinstate the old 2008 version of the citizenship test on April 19.

So why, after the 2020 test was active for over two months, did President Biden make such a disruptive change?

It’s simple.

He is fighting for the soul of America and he means it.

According to immigration attorneys, advocates and legal researchers, the 2020 test contained information that stemmed from a bias that was too characteristic of the Trump Administration. Some would say it was reminiscent of the poll tax or the literacy test used to keep Black people from voting in America before 1965.

The 2020 version of the test had an additional 28 questions to the already hefty 100-question test bank. Wording changes made it more complex for immigrants to understand. Plus, immigrants had to get 12 out of 20 questions correct even though the 2008 requirement was only 6 out of 10 questions.

If you think I’m joking.

Let us examine five of the most blatantly biased and/or erroneous questions in the now defunct 2020 Citizenship test.

Question: Who does a U.S. senator represent?

The answer to this question was altered from “all the people” to “citizens of their state” in the 2020 test to quietly leave out residents who are merely green card holders, visa holders and undocumented individuals awaiting status adjustment. Do you think that this change had nothing to do with our president of the last four years? Hmmmmm.

Question: Name one power of the president.

This question was a redundancy, considering that: “Who is the Commander in Chief of the U.S. military?” “Who signs bills to become laws?” and “Who vetoes bills?” are already questions on the test. All roads lead to one answer — the president. But the 2020 version “name one power…” question only allows test-takers to choose from a limited list of powers, of which “to pardon criminals” is not one.  This kind of question is tricky because it does not reward a good student of American civics.

Question: There were 13 original states. Name five.

I mean, really. I’d like to ask a person born in the U.S. whether they remember a whole list of five original colonies. The 2008 test only requires three answers. In that case, it was always easy to remember the states that started with “new” and lay on the East coast. New York, New Jersey and New Hampshire. The 2020 version insisted on weighing the applicant down with unnecessary details about the country’s history.

Question: When did all men get the right to vote?

This white-washed question did not appear on the 2008 test. And, rightfully so. Technically, all men received the right after the Civil War when all slaves were considered free under the Emancipation Proclamation. However, you may recall that President Lyndon B. Johnson had to sign into law something called the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Why do you think he had to endorse this legislation, dearies?  Even though the 15th Amendment was ratified in 1870, poll workers and white citizens continued to “deny a male citizen the right to vote based on race, color or previous condition of servitude.” Violence, intimidation and other suppression techniques like having a black voter recite the entire U.S. Constitution caused that “right to vote” not to be realized by most Black people until 1965.

Question: Name one example of an American innovation.

Again, the white-washed history. This question does not appear on the 2008 iteration of the test. Thank God! It makes my blood boil. This limited choice question takes into account only the following answers — the light bulb, the car, the airplane, skyscrapers, the assembly line, landing on the moon and the integrated circuit –  as genuine, American innovations. What if an immigration officer ends up assessing a naturalization applicant who is a true student of American history? They might be in for the surprise of their life if the applicant rattles off inventions like: the kayak, the traffic signal or CAPTCHA technology. These were invented by Native Americans, an African American and a Latin American, respectively.

An exam like the 2020 Citizenship test is just one of the many examples of how White privilege is built into the very fabric of the American experience.

We can only hope that the eradication of the biased, Trump-era citizenship test is a sign of the consistent undoing that must be accomplished to restore the soul of America – even if we have to unearth certain ghosts.



Tiffani Knowles is a professor of communication and the co-author of HOLA America: Guts, Grit, Grind and Further Traits in the Successful American Immigrant. For immigrants interested in a pathway to citizenship, here’s a free download to the reinstated 2008 version of the United States Citizenship test.




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