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Back | Programme Area: Identities, Conflict and Cohesion (2000 - 2009)

The Historical Construction of Race and Citizenship in the United States

This paper reviews how race has been socially constructed in the United States since the founding of the republic, and how conceptions of racial difference and inequality have affected, and been affected by, prevailing views of citizenship and American national identity.

The American Revolution appealed to universalistic conceptions of human rights deriving from the Enlightenment. But the Constitution of 1789 authorized exclusions from citizenship resulting from the enslavement of people of African descent and the consignment of conquered indigenous peoples to a dependent status. The Naturalization Law of 1790 made a colour bar explicit when it limited the right of naturalization to “free white person[s]”. In the 1820s and 1830s, suffrage was extended to all white males, but was taken away from some free blacks who had previously been granted the right to vote.

As the controversy over slavery heated up in the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s, defenders of black servitude relied increasingly on pseudo-scientific racist ideologies. The Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision of 1857 declared all African-Americans—free or slave—ineligible for citizenship. Racism was a national phenomenon on the eve of the Civil War. “Free Negroes” in the Northern states were often segregated and denied legal and political rights; some states and territories even prohibited their entry. But the Civil War made emancipation and the use of black troops essential to preservation of the union and gave African-Americans a claim to equal citizenship that was realized with the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1868. National citizenship was thus made available to anyone born in the United States, regardless of race, except Native Americans living in tribal communities. In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment outlawed denial of the right to vote on the grounds of “race, colour, or previous condition of servitude”. Henceforth, racial difference could not be the explicit basis for a denial of legal and political equality.

Egalitarian constitutional reform did not, however, lead to substantive equality for African-Americans. True citizenship means more than pro forma legal equality. It also entails equality of respect and the willingness of an ethno-racial majority to acknowledge in word and deed that members of a minority belong to the nation. Blacks in the South during the Jim Crow era, beginning in the 1880s and lasting until the 1960s, were discriminated against, disenfranchised and terrorized. Ideological racism, aimed not only at blacks, but at anyone who was not definitively white, peaked in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Beginning in 1882, most Chinese immigration was prohibited. The fitness of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe was also questioned on racial grounds, and immigration laws passed in the 1920s established a quota system based in part on beliefs about the innate characteristics of various peoples. “Ascriptive Americanism” had seemingly triumphed over the universalistic liberalism that had inspired the abolitionist movement and the post-Civil War constitutional amendments. The extension and intensification of racism in the period between the 1880s and the 1920s resulted from an interaction between racial stereotypes already embedded in the culture, and from the tensions associated with class and status formation in a rapidly industrializing capitalist society. Working- or lower-class whites could conclude that racially different, lower-paid workers threatened their economic status; or, alternatively, they could be compensated for their own poverty and lack of opportunity by the “psychological wage” of racial or ethnic status. Established elites could inhibit class conflict by encouraging ethno-racial divisions among the disadvantaged, or they could buttress their status and authority as charter Americans by opposing the immigration of those deemed racially inferior.

Between the 1930s and the 1970s, members of racial minorities and their sympathizers struggled to establish a broader and more enforceable conception of citizenship, one that would realize the egalitarian promise of the Declaration of Independence. The New Deal promulgated a new conception of social citizenship—“freedom from want” in Roosevelt’s idiom—but most blacks were initially denied coverage by the new social insurance policies. The massive migration of Southern blacks to the North, however, restored their right to vote and enhanced their political leverage. At the same time, scientific racism was coming under attack from social and natural scientists. But it was the Second World War and the revulsion against Nazi racism that provided much of the impetus for the racial reforms of the post-war era. The partially successful civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s also acquired legitimacy from the strategic need of the United States in the Cold War to compete with the Soviet Union for “the hearts and minds” of recently decolonized people of colour in Africa and Asia. The Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, and the simultaneous elimination of racially justified immigration quotas, can be attributed to the activation of previously dormant egalitarian ideals at a time when altered circumstances made it appear that the application of those ideals would serve the national interest, as well as the interests of influential groups within the society.

The Civil Rights Acts made the legal and political rights of citizenship more enforceable, but they did not establish the right to equal respect for those who were still regarded by a majority of white Americans as “other”. Furthermore, beginning in the 1980s, the social citizenship adumbrated by the New Deal began to be dismantled, with particularly detrimental effects on racialized minorities. Contemporary statistics showing that a substantially higher proportion of blacks than whites are likely to be imprisoned, unemployed, socially isolated or destitute, reveal that structural inequality associated with race remains a central problem of American society. Although no longer sanctioned by law, discrimination persists, not only against African-Americans, but also against poor Latinos, among other groups. The growth of ethnic consciousness among blacks and the desire of Latino and Asian immigrants to preserve aspects of their culture have made “multiculturalism”, rather than simple integrationism or assimilationism, the dominant anti-racist ideology in the United States today.

In addition to surveying the history of race and citizenship in the United States, this paper attempts to place the US constructions of race and ethnicity in comparative perspective. What is special about the case of the United States is the coexistence of a universalistic human rights tradition existing together with a strong historical tendency toward exclusion on racial grounds. France also has a universalistic human rights tradition, but has not erected colour bars to nearly the same extent. Whereas colour-coded racism has predominated in the United States, French ethno-racial intolerance has more often been culture-coded. An even sharper contrast can be made between the US “civic nationalism” with a racial qualification, and the German tradition of straightforward ethnic nationalism that came to hideous fruition in the Nazi era. German identity involved a categorical rejection of Enlightenment conceptions of individual liberty and democratic government to which most white Americans professed adherence, but which did not prevent them from discriminating against those deemed biologically incapable of self- governance.

But American racism has constantly been challenged, not only by its victims, but also by its purported beneficiaries, in the name of universal human rights. The affirmation in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” has sanctioned major anti-racist reforms in the past and offers hope for the future.

George M. Fredrickson is the Edgar E. Robinson Professor of United States History, Emeritus, at Stanford University, California.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Oct 2003
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8194
    From: UNRISD