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Identities, Conflict and Cohesion Programme Paper 1: The Historical Construction of Race and Citizenship in the United States

4 Dec 2003

  • Author(s): George M. Fredrickson


It is argued that if the Civil Rights Acts made the legal and political rights of citizenship more enforceable, they did not establish the right to equal respect for those who were still regarded by a majority of white Americans as “other”.

Since the 1980s there has been a dismantling of the social citizenship adumbrated by the New Deal, with detrimental effects on racialized minorities. Contemporary statistics show that a substantially higher proportion of blacks than whites are likely to be imprisoned, unemployed, socially isolated or destitute and reveal that structural inequality associated with race remains a central problem of American society.

Although no longer legal, discrimination persists against African-Americans, poor Latinos and 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 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 with France and Germany. 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.

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 paper concludes that the affirmation in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” has sanctioned major anti-racist reforms and offers hope for the future.

George M. Fredrickson is the Edgar E. Robinson Professor of United States History, Emeritus, at Stanford University, California.

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