In America, there have always been conflicts over identity. While the United States has been more open to outsiders than most nations, from the very beginning there has been uneasiness in allowing people in. If the nation were a ship, it would be a ship manned by people from many nations, captained by the President, and navigated by the Congress and Supreme Court. The problem is that the ship was never designed for the places we would reach or the kinds of people that would become passengers. So, how has the United States treated these unexpected passengers? To explore this concept further, you need begin where it all began: the day we declared independence from the British Empire.
When we declared independence, the biggest issue at the time according to our textbooks was the issue of taxation. But if we overlay an understanding of the Citizenship Complex, it becomes clear that issues of voice
citizenship mattered a great deal. Indeed, questions of citizenship and identity were bound up in the Founding itself. Who could be trusted to steer this ship? Who had earned the trust of the American people in an era before telephones, cable news, or the Wall Street Journal?
During the period in which we abandoned the Articles of Confederation (our first formal government) and emerged as the “United States,” questions of identity were deeply bound up with people’s state of residence, and there were serious debates about whether every state had to be included and how.
Later on federalism would become a means by which rights were created and won, as social movements used state and local power to push forward equality.
Although many across the colonies wanted relief from what they perceived to be the actions of an oppressive monarch, not everyone wanted to break away. It is in this moment that the citizenship complex first arises as we begin to understand the
of a citizen. Citizenship is not a class that you are fortunate to be a part of; instead it is a
commitment to ideals
of freedom and equality that make you a citizen. This is what made a colonial American at the time. Many of our students have a hard time recognizing the deep values that undergird our citizenship because all they are told to do is vote, which is only one aspect of civic duty.
There were also debates on what should happen if the government became too powerful. The distrust of government “jump-started” the debates on the inclusion of a Bill of Rights. These debates eventually led to the Constitution that would convince loyalists to see that the colonial American experiment might actually succeed.
Prior to this revolution in political thought, no government had been born out of such distrust for itself. That fact helps explain both the need for a written text and the addition of the Bill of Rights. But should we forget the people that were not part of the conversation? Should we forget those who were directly impacted by the decisions of a few? At the same time, should we ignore the accomplishment of the Founder, who did what was never thought possible in the history of government: created a government of the people, by the people, for the people?
Under President George Washington, this unique republican democracy was thought to be egalitarian, but it fell far short and disturbingly excluded most of the country. The nation’s priorities dictated the need of strong national identity that would put aside state interests long enough to create unity. Despite Washington’s leadership, there were fights over whether states required more rights and powers. My student’s best understanding of this time period generally stops when colonists, with the help of the French, defeated the British. The need for a strong federal government is about as much as they remember from their days
high school. Because they lack a deep connection to their country’s history, they forget that many of those who debated the Constitution thought they had given up too much of their freedom.
The nation was still very agrarian, and there was an intense debate about how our economy would unfold.
At a very basic level federalism was about shaping the identity of a national community. The nation had to pay off war debts, build a navy, and build infrastructure to promote industry. This wasn’t going to be done by relying on the charity of the colonies. And people looked to the notion of fair representation to reassure those who had something to lose. Later on, federalism would become a means by which rights were created and won, as social movements used state and local power to push forward equality. None of this came without political conflict, even civil unrest.
As time passed, the story of identity switched from states and economic interests to race, gender, and ethnicity as one group after another sought full inclusion in our community. Though our students sometimes think that equality is something conferred by courts, in fact groups must first fight for recognition of their right to equality. Those fights are almost always framed within the lens of citizenship. They are almost always waged at the state level before moving to the national. But the pattern for each is markedly similar. A group must gain enough political power to draw attention to inequality. Over time, social movements challenge the stereotypes that undergird the unequal treatment. Eventually these calls for inclusion – for equal citizenship – move us farther down the path to genuine equality. Therein lies the root of what I will call the “Citizenship Complex.”
One of the deep ironies of American history is that once outsiders gain insider status and are treated as full citizens, they often forget how difficult it is to be an outsider. People who would have been denied the privileges of citizenship in the past are the same ones denying it to others today. Many students would simply place blame the forefathers for not anticipating issues of economic inequality, promoting racial injustice, and even creating today’s social strata. But that is not the correct way to look at and understand our forefathers. Our students need to remember the historical perspective. [Simply put: the Founders weren’t in their shoes.
The course will focus on three groups which have experienced the “Citizenship Complex”: African-American slaves, women, and the Japanese. The final group, the LGBTQIA community, will be discussed in terms of the new “invisible other” status that poses new dangers if not addressed. These battles for inclusion often focused on the right to vote. Without the right to vote, a group suffering from in equality will never have the power to gain a representative voice and thus care for the proverbial other.
Why African American slaves?
, & 15
Amendments were passed to ensure that former African slaves and freed men could not be denied equality or the right to vote. This was earth shattering: for the first time in American history, the federal government acknowledged the humanity of African slaves and freed men and passed a law so they would be treated as equals. Despite this noble achievement, when the dust settled not everyone had the right to vote. States enacted black codes and restrictions on the vote to oppress African Americans. African-Americans began to heavily support churches like the African Methodist Episcopalian Church started by Reverend Richard Allen in the early 1800’s. These churches became a “safe space” to advocate for equal rights with a receptive group of parishioners who supplied a source of community and protection.
Few people would doubt that the history of African American slaves is bound up with the Citizenship Complex. There has been so much discrimination against African Americans. Southern blacks were disenfranchised for generations, and our country has long been split by racial division. The quest for equality depended on the efforts of freed men like Fredrick Douglass and abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, as well as groups like revivalist and American Methodist Episcopal Christians (AKA the first Black Church, women like Sojourner Truth (formerly known as Isabella ("Bell") Baumfree) and Harriet Tubman’s illegal efforts as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. Freeing the slaves required a war for which casualties still number higher than all the other wars combined
Some of these efforts were illegal at the time, but the aim of all of these activities was the same: to create the momentum for change.
Even after the passage of the 13
Amendments, it took a century and a Civil Rights Movement for basic rights to be vindicated. Even after decades of agitation, there remained much to do. After abolishing slavery and making freed blacks citizens, Congress went the extra step of guaranteeing their right to vote despite color, race or “previous condition of servitude” as part of the 15
Amendment. As noted above, it’s important for students to reflect not just on why the right to vote mattered so much, but on why the
of that right mattered so much
One lens for helping students understand the process of inclusion and its relationship to citizenship is Dred Scott. The meaning of citizenship in the 1800’s was very different, but even then it mattered a great deal to be counted as a citizen. In the Dred Scott case, the Court ruled that blacks were not citizens of the United States, a ruling that had enormous implications both for the rights of free blacks in the North and South. In order to right this wrong, Congress adopted the 14
Amendment, which guaranteed citizenship to African American men. Soon after, Congress passed the 15
Amendment, which allowed African American men to exercise a core right of citizenship and one that mattered deeply to the equality project going forward. Very soon after the Civil War, African Americans were able to exercise the right to vote. They often built coalitions with poor whites. It was, needless to say, an unlikely pairing but one forged from shared economic inequalities.
Eventually, Southern elites shattered these white/black coalitions, disenfranchised African American voters, and established Jim Crow. It was only decades later that the United States began to deliver on the promise of the 14
Amendments. Education came to the forefront as African-Americans began their push to dismantle Jim Crow. These efforts were often met with violence from white Southerners. Ida B. Wells describes a lynching which would later inspire the song
by Billie Holiday: “Thomas Moss, Calvin Mc Dowell, and Lee Stewart had been lynched in Memphis…
[where] no lynching had taken place before…This is what opened my eyes to what lynching really was. An excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized.”
It wasn’t until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s that African Americans had an opportunity to exercise their full rights as citizens.
One of the legacies of the Civil Rights Movement was to involve all three branches of government in enforcing the constitutional mandate articulated in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. In the immediate wake of the decision, very little changed. It wasn’t until federal funding for local schools was threatened that states began to integrate their schools. Eventually the fight over school desegregation cases exposed issues of class (why should my child go to school in your neighborhood?) and prompted the phenomenon known as “white flight.” This was when working and middle class white families left cities for the suburbs, both out of racial prejudice and in an attempt to get their students into better schools and away from schools and districts that have a high proportion of dropouts or high incidence of failure. The Brown case’s biggest take away was that schools are a place of equality and you can’t treat children like objects or make them feel less than because of their race.
Women have also experienced the Citizenship Complex. When women first started agitating for representation, they were divided by class and race. They also lacked funding to organize and amplify their message. By relying on support from sympathetic husbands, abolitionist periodicals, and local papers, they could only move at what felt like inches at a time.
By the time we reach 1850, the national stage only had room for one social justice issue. The question was whether African Americans or women were going to be granted the right to vote. African-American women were torn over which group to support. White women took a variety of positions to advance their cause, sometimes appealing to racial prejudice in order to advance their own causes.
Even though women made important contributions to the war effort, after the Civil War, it was clear that the abolition fight was going to take precedence over the woman’s suffrage debate. I am hoping that by exposing this complex fact to students, they will grapple with the difficult choice of which cause to put at the forefront.
In 1896, the roles that woman played in the Civil War made them feel valued.
When the war ended, women perhaps felt used and that their recognition for contributions was forgotten.
Women used their momentum from their war efforts to form organizations for support.
One of these organizations was the National Association of Colored Women which was created as a merge of three organizations: The National Federation of African-American Women, the Women’s Era Club of Boston, and the National League of Colored Women of Washington, D.C. whose logo boldly proclaims “Lifting as we climb”. Many women had seen home improvements in terms of living conditions and at work (with fewer hours and higher wages), but that was not enough to give them full control over their lives. In the fervor for social change, women began advocating for strict laws on alcohol consumption. Alcoholism was (and still is) rampant in America and affects them and their children deeply.
Women needed a plan to finally push their right to vote and they did it through the “Tri-Enfranchisement Strategy.”
First, women attempted to convince state legislatures that they deserved the right to vote and were partially successful with their first victory in 1869 in Wyoming. By the 1890’s Utah, Colorado, and Idaho had granted voting rights for women as well. After 1896, attempts in other states failed to pass. Second, women turned to the courts to interpret the 14
Amendment in the hope of being granted the right to vote by virtue of their citizenship. Here again, their efforts failed, with the Court rejecting this argument in Minor v. Happersett.
Finally, women pushed for a national constitutional amendment. With the help of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, they succeeded in having it introduced in California, though it was later killed in the process.
Eventually World War I overshadowed efforts to grant women the franchise. In the words of Jane Addam: “The spirit of fighting burns away all those impulses…which foster the will to justice.”
Perhaps it is fitting that a socially progressive president like Wilson eventually granted women the right to vote. After women played an integral role in supporting the war effort at home, Congress passed the 19
Amendment in 1919. By August 1920, the Amendment was ratified, right before Wilson left office. This time, after major contributions in wartime including serving in the military, women’s voices were stronger and their quest for equality now had more avenues to travel. Many other countries such as Australia and New Zealand had achieved the women’s right to vote, so the movement now had global implications.
Once women had the right to vote, what did they do with it? Over time, although women have never voted as a unified block, they began to use their political muscle to protect constitutional rights like the right to contraception and abortion, something that in turn helped women gain an equal economic footing in the workplace and society.