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Generally speaking, citizenship defines the relationship between the nation-state and those individuals who are considered to be a part of the national polity. Citizenship involves complex notions of rights, obligations, and identity and is a contested social category. Citizenship is a malleable term, which is easily conflated with geopolitical identity. Citizenship can refer to birthplace and national allegiance, but birthplace alone does not define a citizen. Most scholars define citizenship in reference to at least three categories: rights, political activity, and identity. Yet, the most complete definition of citizenship is membership. Citizenship can best be defined by membership in a political community (nation or state) that provides the benefit of political rights of participation, including a right to vote, own property, and participate in governance. Citizenship also involves burdens and duties, including supporting the general will of the nation-state, and participating in activities that benefit the broader community, including paying taxes, subordinating personal interests for the general welfare, and deferring to the broad police powers of the state. In the United States, racial lines and categories demarcated citizenship: whites were citizens, and blacks were, at best, “others.”

A review of legislative history before the U.S. Civil War (1861–1865) reveals significant ambiguity as to what the citizenship concerns were or what the term fully meant to legislators or crafters of the U.S. Constitution. However, one issue was clear: wealth and race were determinate factors in one’s ability to claim full inclusion and the rights associated with citizenship in the United States. The racial dimension of citizenship can be seen in the way that race determined rights and membership in colonial America, the centrality of race in determining who could become a citizen through the naturalization process, and the use of race to demarcate first- and second-class citizenship from the time of independence until the 1960s.

Immigration and subsequent naturalization petitions served a vital function in the early forming of the United States. Free, white Europeans were needed to pioneer and participate in westward expansion. Their arrival served a vital function in the eighteenth century to help claim territory from indigenous populations and create a new definition of citizenship in the West. The geopolitical taking of land and casting out indigenous populations energized a new identity category, whiteness , which defined citizenship at the time and continued to tug at the nation’s conception of citizenship through the Civil War, Reconstruction, the civil rights movement, and even post-9/11.

After the Civil War, amendments to the constitution addressed citizenship more clearly and directly by explicitly implementing language using the term citizenship , in the Fourteenth Amendment for example. Despite this inclusion, the scope of this term remains disputed largely because (as many people believe and legal cases confirm) citizens have at times been treated differently based on race, gender, sexual orientation, health, and religious status.


Now that the children of former slaves were automatically granted citizenship status in the United States, an important question remained unanswered: What about their parents and other immigrants? Following the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment (1865), which abolished slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment conferred citizenship on the formerly enslaved. Congress passed the Naturalization Act of 1870; while the 1870 Act ushered in a right for blacks to naturalize, overall the Act held only limited promise of equality in the United States; it provided only for the naturalization of whites and persons of “African descent” and continued to exclude Asians and Native Americans from citizenship. Moreover, the law became symbolic for blacks as their claims to legal citizenship were seemingly trumped by social and political subordination and physical backlash.

In 1882, Congress addressed Asian citizenship directly in the Chinese Exclusion Act. The anti-Asian legislation is considered one of the most significant laws restricting immigration into the United States on the basis of race. Chinese workers were the targets of significant racial animus from working class whites in Western states. Despite the fact that the Chinese comprised less than 1 percent of the U.S. population, Congress intervened to assuage racial fears that Asians were “stealing” jobs from white Americans.

The Exclusion Act, which was renewed in 1892 and in 1902, sought to restrict Chinese immigration and naturalization. The Act formed the basis for other race-based exclusion measures, including successful efforts to deny naturalization to Hindus, Japanese, Middle Easterners, and East Indians. Chinese persons, including Chinese Americans, were ineligible to apply for citizenship until 1943, when the Exclusion Act was effectively nullified.

Citizenship rights for Native Americans were dealt with in the case of Elk v. Wilkins (1884), which denied John Elk the right to vote in Nebraska. The Court held that citizenship was established by the federal government and that Native Americans were not included in the guarantees of citizenship, nor extended the right to vote by the Fifteenth Amendment. The Court emphasized that Congress did not intend for such rights to be established for Native persons. That precedent would stand until 1887, when Congress enacted the Dawes General Allotment Act, which granted citizenship to Native Americans who disavowed tribal affiliations and allegiance. Finally, in 1890, twenty years after blacks were granted the right to naturalize, Native Americans were extended the same right with the Indian Naturalization Act of 1890.


Whiteness was a valuable commodity in the United States; it was unquestionably the most significant feature of citizenship requirements according to Justice Roger B. Taney’s infamous holding in the Dred Scott decision. Whereas the 1870 Naturalization Act provided citizenship to whites and blacks, for other ethnic, nonwhite populations, efforts to naturalize were met with unyielding legislative and judicial opposition. Color became the measuring stick by which to evaluate citizenship and naturalization in the United States. In a rather ironic twist, throughout the early twentieth century members of Asian and other ethnic groups petitioned courts claiming whiteness in order to gain citizenship.

Petitions for naturalization based on whiteness almost always failed for Asians and other ethnic minorities. Historians have yet to capture the full meaning of such efforts. For example, might some ethnic groups have been more successful applying for citizenship if they had cast themselves as black instead of white? Why was whiteness the natural or preferred avenue to citizenship given that blackness afforded—in naturalization cases—an equal opportunity for citizenship? Whiteness, just as blackness, however, was a social construction enforced by law, built on very unsteady ground. In other words whiteness was an arbitrary physiological distinction, but which courts claimed was clear by “common knowledge.”

Whiteness, however, also exposed the fault lines inherent in creating racial hierarchies. Clear distinctions were erected to define the quality of citizenship between whites and nonwhites. Nevertheless, all whites were not treated equally; the English, Irish, French, Scandinavians, Germans, and others found unity in whiteness buttressed against blackness in the competition for jobs, services, public accommodations, and quality schools, but divisiveness based on religion, national origin, or geographical affiliation and minor phenotype distinctions plagued that tenuous coalition throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. Public forms of discrimination against the Irish, including signs posted in windows that read “No Irish Need Apply,” evidenced the tension. While the Irish hoped to ascend into politics and assimilate in the United States, southern Europeans, such as the Italians, preferred to build in small communities and often hoped to return to their homelands.


Is citizenship any less meaningful if members of a group enjoy legal entitlements, but experience social, political, and sometimes violent obstacles in obtaining or exercising those rights? The Jim Crow era in the United States (from Reconstruction through the 1960s) signified a return to the tyranny of second-class citizenship for Americans of African descent. The constitutional rights obtained during Reconstruction and later amendments to naturalization policies stood as hollow promises while blacks were subjected to mob violence for attempting to vote, denied equitable public education, and were the victims of heinous lynchings, sexual violence, and systemic brutality.

The tyranny of the Jim Crow era in American life is given stark definition by the murders (too often with the complicity of local law enforcement) of teenagers and young adults attempting to assist blacks in voting during the 1950s and 1960s, and the horrific lynching and castration of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old boy murdered in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white storekeeper’s wife. When considering what citizenship meant during Jim Crow, it is clear that there were two tiers of social and political empowerment in society. Those tiers were vertical and not horizontal as the Supreme Court led the nation to believe by its ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).

Plessy v. Ferguson was central in recasting hierarchical differences in citizenship in the United States. In that case, the United States Supreme Court ruled that blacks enjoyed the same rights as whites, but those rights were to be accommodated in separate, but equal, spaces. The ramifications of this case traveled far beyond its original context (a biracial passenger on a train being removed from an all-white car), to justify housing discrimination; segregated schooling, and obstacles in blacks being admitted to universities, medical schools, and law schools; and discrimination in accommodations on trains, buses, and trolleys, and in pharmacies, restaurants, stores, and the voting booth. The reality of Plessy was a return to the state of affairs referred to by Taney in the Dred Scott decision when he iterated for the nation that those of African descent had no rights that whites were obligated to respect. Despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), overturning Plessy as a matter of law, the legacy of the Dred Scott and Plessy decisions lives on.

Citizenship is about membership and sociopolitical belonging. The test of one’s citizenship in a society may take place at the ballot box, but it also occurs during one’s daily routine of going to school, work, shopping, accessing accommodations, worshipping, and returning home. It is in these spheres where the quality of citizenship is often revealed, and it continues to be in these domains where immigrants, those of African descent, and others continue to encounter challenges to their status as U.S. citizens. Racial profiling, the denial of services, and hate crimes evidence that full incorporation of citizenship is not exclusively a legal function, but also a process with social, cultural, and political meaning.

Citizenship and “The Border” [next] [back] Cirri, Giovanni Battista

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over 2 years ago

As a American born African American i believe that we as people should not have to be concerned as to our RIGHT TO VOTE, we are born here. There is NO question that our RIGHT TO VOTE is permanent, no question.

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