Submitted by: Amanda Jarrett
In a world where historic trends evidently display various ways in which white supremacy and colonialization has subjugated and inferiorized people of color, the struggles of black people in America and Puerto Rico demonstrate the critical impact that these demoralizing narratives have had on their status of citizenry and political membership. The realm of citizenryis vast and diverse. It can include political, economic, and cultural association with a specific entity that can be legal and/or cultural as well as have different classes. However, for the purpose of this paper, “Citizenship is a condition of civic equality. It consists of membership of a political community where all citizens can determine the terms of social cooperation on an equal basis” (Bellamy, 2008, p. 17).
Citizenship assumes that every person who is labelled as a citizen has access to all of the privileges that come along with that status as well as the right to perform them. In reality, there are legally vocalized restrictions of citizenship that negatively impact the political membership of black people due to their inferiority as a race and therefore leaves them to feel like second-class citizens. The lack of recognition both politically and socially has caused deep-rooted issues with identity and belonging to the state. Through the discussion of gun law restrictions in Antebellum America and the question of citizenry of Puerto Rican people, the significant relationship between citizenship and recognition in how they impact the ability to perform and access political membership will be demonstrated.
During the time of Antebellum America, places like Maryland and Baltimore would purposefully come up with ways to restrict the citizenry of a ‘free’ black slave. ‘Freed’ slaves may have physically escaped slavery and gained some legality, but they were still slaves to the unjust political system. The state government required travel permits and licenses to own a gun as a way to limit the freedom of black people. In order for them to obtain a license, they needed references from three respectable white people and approval of the Superior Court. These requirements were implemented by a system that privileges white supremacy and rests on the “reputations and authority of white men” (Jones, 2018, p.105). Going through this process of acquiring a gun license allowed for free black people to feel a sense of belonging within thecommunity because, for once, they were allowed the same privileges as a white person. Additionally, exercising this right allowed for them to have a material symbol to represent their freedom (Jones, 2018, p. 104).
Though, the actual act of going through the process in order to obtain a larger degree of political membership may have significantly impacted their political and social belonging and therefore possibly reducing the amount of political membership that they were originally looking to expand upon. Working through the unjust system highlights the ways in which a black person is actually being defined—by the color of their skin—and could increase the sense of marginalization, further alienating themselves from mainstream society, of whom have full access to their rights as citizens. Furthermore, there is an inherent tension between being black and a citizen due to the lack of a consistent sense of individual and communal security due to a clash in their personal and political identities. Therefore, proper recognition and acceptance into society of one’s identity becomes a crucial aspect of their willingness and ability to perform their political membership.
As demonstrated with the obstacles for black people to access and perform certain rights provided to them by their citizenry in Antebellum America, citizenship is a privileged system, benefiting those who belong to a state and keeping anyone else stationary and without access to rights or recognition (Bellamy, 2008).
Puerto Rico was a ‘former’ colony of the United States. When it became a territory in 1898, Puerto Ricans were granted American citizenship. Though, they quickly found the informal constraints to this privileged position. “Citizenship was, to them, a false guarantee proffered by the colonial power disguised as a liberal democracy promising rights to all its members” (Thomas, 2010, p.9). The established colonial relationship between America and its territory allowed for the United States to continuously treat Puerto Rican citizens as inferior to themselves due to the colonialist narratives that perpetuate white supremacy. This resulted in a “political invisibility” of the territory, making it extremely difficult for those who live on the island to have any political membership (Thomas, 2010, p. 11).
Therefore, the political membership of Puerto Rican citizens is scarce and will continue to be this way until their identity politics are acknowledged by the United States, which will in turn increase their sense of belonging and enhance their experience as ‘citizens,’ no longer being considered second-class. The importance of recognition in terms of Puerto Rican citizenry allows for the expansion of the current understanding of citizenship by directly linking the cultural and political aspects of an individual and creating a space for them to demonstrate the different aspects of their identity. Hence, ‘cultural citizenship’ would need to be further incorporated into the narratives of Puerto Rican advocacy and American acceptance of Puerto Rican citizens, allowing them to become defined as something more than just their race (Thomas, 2010, p.17).
This denial of recognition is strongly influencing Puerto Rican citizens’ political membership to America because the debates on becoming a state in the United States or a sovereign nation are rooted in a desire to exercise political membership. If Puerto Rico accepted statehood, the United States would have to fully incorporate them as citizens, which goes against their colonialist projections because they would now have to consider them equal. Additionally, there would be a conflict of community identity, not only within the black community but also culturally. Black people in America and black people in Puerto Rico are on two different levels of inferiority in the eyes of America, with Puerto Rico being on the lower end of the scale.
In conclusion, as demonstrated through both Antebellum America and the question of Puerto Rican citizenry, there seems to be a strong correlation between one’s ability to performthe rights provided to them by their citizenship and the recognition of their identity. By acknowledging black people for who they are and allowing for there to be a political and social space for them to operate within society, their sense of belonging will become more actualized and therefore leading to more political membership on the side of the government as well as through the actions of the individual. As for the experiences of black people today, the remnants of black laws and the suppression of black identity throughout all of America’s history is still strongly felt by the black community. They are stilling having to fight for space in society to have their voices heard and in turn is affecting their political membership. As for Puerto Rico, its citizens are still fighting their positioning as a modern colony of the United States and also having to fight for space within American society in order to exercise their political membership. In order to move past the standard definitions and applications of citizenship, there must be an acceptance and recognition for people who differ from the white West because a more successful society stems from its own inclusivity of multicultural identity due to their contributions to elevate the political sphere.
Bellamy, Richard. (2008). Citizenship: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press.
Jones, Martha S. (2018). Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America. Cambridge University Press.
Thomas, Lorrin. (2010). Puerto Rican Citizen: History and Political Identity in Twentieth-Century New York City. The University of Chicago Press.