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Back | Project: Racism and Public Policy

Abstract of paper by George Fredrickson

  • Project from: 2000 to 2001

The Social 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, or 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 immigration 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, the suffrage was extended to all white males, but was taken away from most free blacks. 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 14th Amendment to the Constitution in 1868. National citizenship was thus made available to anyone born in the United States, regardless of race, except Indians living in tribal communities. In 1870, the 15th 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 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 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 to 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 reveals 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. 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, the paper attempts to place the US pattern in comparative perspective. What is special about the case of the United States is the coexistence of a universalistic human rights tradition and 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-rule. The United States has been comparable to South Africa in its historical commitment to white supremacy, but the contemporary situations are quite different. ‘Nonracialism’ enforced by a liberated African majority is quite different from ‘colour-blind constitutionalism’ imposed by a complacent white majority. ‘Affirmative action’ is justified in both cases to overcome disadvantages resulting from centuries of discrimination and unequal segregation, but the future of such compensatory action seems brighter in nonracial South Africa than in the United States, where a majority of whites appears to believe that equality has already been achieved.