Sebastian Awatramani

On American Citizenship

Citizenship in the contemporary United States is perhaps known primarily in its legal context. A citizen, by this definition, is differentiated from the non-citizen merely by their right to vote, or in some instances, by their right to benefit from social programs. And too in contemporary America have virtually all major demographics been enfranchised. With the passage of the 14th Amendment, all people born on US soil are rendered citizens by their birth, without regard to the color of their skin, their social status, or even the citizenship status of their parents. In stark contrast, this sits, with what Judith Shklar, writing in American Citizenship, describes as “a series of conflicts arising from enduring anti-liberal dispositions that have regularly asserted themselves … against the promise of equal political rights.” (13)

For Shklar, citizenship is an expression of status, or “standing” as she refers to it, and inherent in her treatment of citizenship as standing is the notion that standing is conferred in contrast to those who don’t have it by both the ability to vote, and the ability to earn. More specifically, this contradiction in America between rights as promulgated, and rights in effect, is rooted in what it means to not have had citizenship in a time when not having it rendered one without enough distinction, for the personal feelings of some, from black chattel slaves.

But it would help to differentiate her notion of citizenship as standing from other conceptions of citizenship, if only because Shklar saw fit to make this distinction herself. One we have already mentioned in the introductory paragraph, i.e. citizenship as nationality, which implies merely a legal conception of citizenship. Second, Shklar discusses citizenship as “’good’ citizenship,” a construct defined as a function of the laws of the particular polity. (6) This implies not moral goodness, but rather that one “fulfills the demands of their polity,” which may be better or worse than any other.” Finally, she differentiates citizenship as standing from citizenship as the “ideal republican” citizenship, a citizen she describes as having “no serious interests apart from public activity; they live in and for the forum … perfect citizens will pursue the public good with single-minded devotion and will do so in a direct rather than in a representative democracy.” (11) Having dealt with other notions of citizenship, let us put these aside and focus on Shklar’s conception, perhaps best paraphrased in a single sentence on page 16, “the value of citizenship was derived primarily from its denial to slaves, to some white men, and to all women.”

Shklar begins to demonstrate this by pointing out that the language of slavery permeated the major suffrage movements, “the Colonists rebelling against English rule, the white males disenfranchised by property and tax qualifications, the freedman after the Civil War, and finally women all protested that they were reduced to the level of slaves if they did not have the vote and equal representation.” (16) She notes that, while exaggeratory, “to be less than a full citizen is at the very least to approach the dreaded condition of a slave. To be a second-class citizen is to suffer derogation and the loss of respectable standing.” (17) As a counter example she offers suffrage granted to teenagers, a group which had little demand for the vote, and little appreciation for it, as teenagers as a class stood to gain no sense of standing from attaining it. (18)

Shklar’s argument here, in essence, is that those who were disenfranchised and who lived in a time when slavery was an American institution, slavery acted as a constant reminder of what it meant not to be a citizen. That is, the American non-citizen understood what it meant to lack standing to an extreme degree in American society, and citizenship conferred a status that would differentiate them from that institution entirely.

Similarly, Shklar notes the history between the right to earn and between that of suffrage. The right to earn, she notes, is what separates the free person from the slave, who may work but who may not earn a wage. In this sense, citizenship as standing required that one be able to earn, so much so that in some cases the demand for suffrage was eschewed if it meant that a right to earn could be gained or kept. She notes, for example, the willingness of some black leaders to “postpone [voting] in the interest of economic advancement and opportunity to earn,” (20) when faced with the prospect of sinking back into slavery. Similarly, for the Northern white factory worker, who realistically had no reason to fear the circumstances African slaves faced, but who were beginning to lose power as merely “another factor in the process of production,” the loss of standing, and thus citizenship was apparent.

With regard to Shklar’s latter qualification, earning, it is not difficult to see that this attitude still permeates American society today. She notes that we still view the unemployed and those on long term assistance as something less than citizens, even if they do have the right to vote. Meanwhile, the right to vote, it seems, now that there are few groups still left disenfranchised (e.g. non-documented workers), has lost much of its meaning in a society where something close to a minority exercise it and have no lack of it with which to contrast.