Race, Citizenship, and a Search for Intellectual Honesty

Race, Citizenship, and a Search for Intellectual Honesty

Perhaps I’ve been wrong about African American citizenship.

The anniversary year of the Fourteenth Amendment’s ratification is upon us. 2018 marks 150 years since birthright citizenship was constitutionalized. I’ve told this story many times, even recounting it in an article for the Journal of the Civil War Era.[1]

The Fourteenth Amendment established black Americans, and indeed nearly all those born in the United States, as its citizens: “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.” In 1868, the legal force of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, which deemed all black people non-citizens, was overcome. The new Constitution removed all doubt about African American claims to belonging, even as the content and the character of their rights would remain (and continue to be) subject of debate.

I have regarded this interpretation as ironclad, approaching something like a truth. Unlike their Chinese American counterparts, after 1868 black Americans did not face state-sponsored schemes of exclusion. Nor did African Americans confront schemes for their removal or threats to their sovereignty, as had Native Americans. The long history of citizenship shows how people of color have not been on equal footing before the law.

But perhaps I’ve been wrong; perhaps black citizenship is not a sure thing after all.

For me, a seed of doubt was sown by a recent incident at Southern Illinois University–Edwardsville (SIUE). A professor reported entering a classroom to find this message written on the blackboard: “NO PERSON OF AFRICAN Descent shall be Citizen of the U.S.… NOR were they ever intended to be.” Dred Scott Decision <– GOOGLE IT. What’s YOUR NATIONALITY? Million dollar ?[2]

Image of the blackboard notation at SIUE. Courtesy of the Belleville News-Democrat.

Nineteen members of SIUE’s Philosophy faculty issued a denunciation in an open letter to the SIUE community: “What was written on the board, which referred to the Dred Scott case, expressed white supremacist propaganda that is intellectually dishonest.”[3] Here, they suggested that intellectual dishonesty lies not in the characterization of the decision in Dred Scott, which did indeed draw into serious question the citizenship of black Americans. The dishonestly lies in the failure to add that Dred Scott was rendered inoperable by way of the Fourteenth Amendment’s birthright provision. It is intellectually dishonest to draw into question the citizenship of black Americans.

Or is it? This is the question that underlies the “Space Traders” story, penned by the late legal scholar Derrick Bell in 1992.[4] If you’re not familiar with Bell’s story, it is a must read. But I’ll summarize it here. Aliens arrive on the shore of the United States, eager to strike a bargain. They offer the nation wealth, a clean environment, and safe energy in exchange for one thing: all black Americans. Bell goes on to explore how the nation responds, from the halls of Congress to the streets.

I’ll let you discover the ending for yourself. But for my concern about black citizenship, Bell is on point. His story is intended to test our contemporary thinking about black belonging. Are black Americans equal and unassailable citizens of the United States, such that the Space Traders’ bargain must be rejected? Or are black people mere sojourners to be traded away en masse for the good of the nation with citizenship revoked or reconfigured?

Back to that blackboard comment at SIUE that so unsettled me. Bell’s story affirms my sense of unease. How confident should we be in the terms of the Fourteenth Amendment? In Bell’s story, in the face of the Space Traders proposal, a national consensus emerges such that Congress swiftly amends the Constitution. A national service requirement is adopted, one to which black Americans are subjected in short order. His lesson? There is nothing unassailable about law. There is nothing in the Constitution not subject to amendment if the political winds blow in a new direction.

No writing on a classroom blackboard signals a Constitutional sea change. Still, it is a reminder that my analysis must always allow for the contingencies. It’s unlikely that Space Traders will visit our shores anytime soon. But the terms of their bargain remain nonetheless relevant today. Did the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee the citizenship of black Americans born in the United States? Yes, at least until ideas scrawled on mid-western walls make their way to the nation’s main stage.



[1] Martha S. Jones, “Birthright Citizenship and Reconstruction’s Unfinished Revolution,” in Forum: The Future of Reconstruction Studies, Journal of the Civil War Era 7, no. 1 (March 2017): 10. https://journalofthecivilwarera.org/forum-the-future-of-reconstruction-studies/birthright-citizenship-reconstructions-unfinished-revolution/.

[2] Nassim Benchaabane, “Racist Message Left on SIUE Blackboard Under Investigation,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 1, 2017, http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/racist-message-left-on-siue-blackboard-under-investigation/article_8324ea11-b605-527d-b34f-253b4e67d63d.html. The university denounced the “racist comment” and initiated an investigation. An investigation confirmed that the comment was not part of a class lesson, but there are no reports that its author has been identified. Elizabeth Donald, “Racist Message on SIUE Blackboard Wasn’t Part of a Class, Officials Say,” Belleville News-Democrat, December 8, 2017, http://www.bnd.com/news/local/article188890239.html.

[3] Department of Philosophy, “An Open Letter to the SIUE Community,” accessed January 2, 2018, https://www.siue.edu/artsandsciences/philosophy/.

[4] Derrick Bell, “The Space Traders,” in Faces At The Bottom Of The Well: The Permanence Of Racism (New York: Basic Books, 1992), 158-195.

Martha S. Jones

Martha S. Jones is the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor and Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University. Among other publications, she is the author of Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America, recently published by Cambridge University Press. You can follow her on Twitter at @marthasjones_.

2 Replies to “Race, Citizenship, and a Search for Intellectual Honesty”

  1. How is it that the very fate of the enslaved African is determined by the system which enslaved without permitting the enslaved the basic human right to determine whether or not becoming a citizen of the house of the enslaver was a desireable option? The African Descendants were denied a referendum. The space to heal and decide their own fate. Rather they are decidedly placed into another hundred years of defacto slavery with the bill for their keep as their responsibility. The fate of the enslaved African like that of the African in the West Indies becomes an economic advantage with great benefits for U.S. capitalists: corporate genocide. “There is an All Seeing Eye watching you. Hearing everything you say seeing everything you do. Massa and Missus got an All Seeing Eye watching you.” Until the African Descendants are provided just Referendum and Reparations they are not yet free. No legal apparatus of the evil slaver can free a People. The enslaved African Descendants must free Themselves.

    1. You’ve raised an important point and black activists in their political conventions debated this. Some warned that to be US citizens would make black people party to the nation’s wrongs. They had in mind, among other things, Indian removal. It’s worth underscoring that the 14th Amendment did not make Native peoples citizens. Nor were black immigrants affected. Only later, in 1870, would Congress pride for the (voluntary) naturalization of black immigrants.

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