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This article examines the change that incurred in the status of African Americans vis-a-vis American collective identity surrounding the civil rights movement. I argue that in terms of different symbolic indicators, African Americas were completely excluded from the American collective identity up until the 1960s. From the 1970s and onward, a gradual process of inclusion in terms of both written symbols (textbooks and general American history books) and commemorative symbols (postal stamps, monuments, holidays, and the like) can be observed.
The 1980s and 1990s have seen a flourish of new studies on American identity (Fuchs, 1990; Karst, 1989; Kettner, 1978; R. M. Smith, 1995). Although citizenship is presented as the fundamental focus of this identity, the perspective of these studies differs from that characteristic of the more traditional ones (Hartz, 1955; Kohn, 1957; Myrdal, 1944). Whereas the traditional works portrayed an identity and citizenship entrenched in ideas and concepts, the new wave, so to speak, approaches citizenship through the prism of membership, thus shifting the discourse from ideology and concepts to issues of inclusion and exclusion. Perception has shifted from citizenship as an ideal toward citizenship as a practical and operative institution.
The earlier works portrayed an inclusive and static American collective identity. Within the new discourse, general issues of membership, patterns of exclusion, and not merely the general trend of inclusion are seen as central to the understanding of the American political community. This focus on issues of exclusion brings into high relief the categories of ethnicity, race, and gender. The exclusion of different minority groups is not dealt with tangentially or implicitly but is seen as an integral part of the understanding of American political community. Hence, the contradictions of citizenship are given prominence. The research raises such questions as follow: Are there and have there been gradations of citizenship? What does this status of citizenship bestow on the individual? What is the relationship between the institution of citizenship and the American collective identity?
In this article, I focus on the relationship between citizenship and American collective identity by exploring the symbolic mechanisms and political logic of inclusion. Specifically, I explain the change in the membership status of African Americans before and after the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Thus, I contribute toward an understanding of the practical and operative aspects of identity and citizenship alike.
AMERICAN COLLECTIVE IDENTITY
American collective identity is a difficult concept to analyze. Ingrained misperceptions of American identity, residues of the pluralist paradigm that so deeply dominated thinking about America for almost half a century, contend that in fact, there is no such thing as an American collective identity. Unsurprisingly, however, most Americans identify themselves as Americans (hyphenated or not), and there is clearly a distinguishing line between Americans and non-Americans both within and outside of American society (Walzer, 1990). Recent debates concerning multiculturalism and the cultural fabric of American society are testimony to the existence of an albeit contested, but existent nonetheless, American identity (Arthur & Shapiro, 1992).
Moreover, there is a history of scholarship on American collective identity, which itself has gone through shifts and turns. Traditionally, this scholarship has articulated the American identity as entrenched within two fundamental tenets. The first is that the identity that bound Americans together and that incorporated them as Americans was ideational, grounded in the belief in a set of universal values. This perspective on American identity was first identified by the French social observer Alexis de Tocqueville and has served as the accepted version or interpretation of American collective identity for almost two centuries (Tocqueville, 1945). Accordingly, American identity has been fueled by what Tocqueville identified as the "equality of conditions." This fundamental equality, born out of the fact that America--as opposed to Europe--lacked a feudal social structure; generated a civic identity; and associated more with the free exercise of civil rights than with a particular history, ethnicity and cultural tradition.
Picture to yourself... if you can, a... people differing from one
another in language, in beliefs, in opinions; in a word a society possessing
no roots, no memories, no prejudices, no routine, no common
ideas, no national character, yet with a happiness far greater
than our own. (Mayer, 1979, p. 30)
The second characteristic was that the instances of exclusion within American society, so unavoidably exemplified by the African Americans and by the Native American, existed somehow outside of the collective identity and thus did not seriously alter the essential meaning of it. These two tenets are accepted by most of the so-called canonical theorists of American identity (Arieli, 1964; Hartz, 1955; Kohn, 1957; Lipset, 1966; Myrdal, 1944). Accordingly, American identity is seen as rooted in the notion of citizenship, and the mere belief in this notion is enough to serve as an inclusionary mechanism.
Citizenship was the only criterion which made the individual a
member of the national community and national loyalty meant loyalty
to the Constitution. The formative force of American national
unity has been, then, the idea of citizenship; through this concept the
integration of state and society into a nation has been achieved.
(Arieli, 1964, p. 22)
American identity is itself a conceptual entity, defined by shared beliefs and quite divorced from the individuals who populated it. The values of equality, individualism, and achievement are seen to. underlie the basic identity of American society, that is, basic liberal values. Hence, the American "character" is defined in nonethnic and distinctly political terms--for example, the prototype of the territorial nation--that is, a collective whose defining characteristics are mainly civic and territorial is characterized by a legal and/or political community and a common civic culture and ideology (A. Smith, 1986, 1992).
This portrayal of American collective identity emerges as fundamentally static and nonchanging in both its contours and content. It assumes to incorporate a people, without designating any concrete mechanisms that determine exactly who constitutes this people. It is founded on adherence to a set of values, whereas the application of the values is presented as belonging to a different realm of reality and a different discipline of study. Because analytically the institution of citizenship, at least following the passing of the 15th amendment, was inherently inclusionary, this discourse saw no need to be concerned with specific exclusionary or inclusionary mechanisms.
AFRICAN AMERICANS AND AMERICAN COLLECTIVE IDENTITY
Nonetheless, American collective identity is not only inclusionary but for a long time in its history was blatantly exclusionary toward certain groups. The case of African Americans is undoubtedly a prime example of the discriminatory and nonegalitarian aspect of American democracy and American collective identity. With the establishment of the United States, and the writing of the constitution, African Americans were considered to be property. As property, they were denied the basic rights afforded to citizens of liberal democracies, as well as the basic human rights secured for the average citizens of the new federation. They had no protection under law, save the protection accorded to property (Foner, 1990).
As property, there is clearly no question as to whether African Americans were, at that time, members of the newly founded American nation, and as such members of the American collective identity. However, at this time, more then 200 years later, it is equally uncontested that they are. On the whole, they are considered by others and by themselves to be hyphenated Americans: African Americans …