Defining the Other'

Book cover
Unequal Freedomby By Evelyn Nakano GlennHarvard University Press. 306p $39.95

The idea of citizenship has permeated our political atmosphere in recent years. Surging immigration, legal and illegal, has compelled our political leaders and institutions to confront this issue. Swelling populations of recently arrived Asians and Latinos have become a social force to be reckoned withas the White House, for one, is famously aware. At the same time, academics debating the definition of democracy have joined in a spirited debate over rival liberal, republican and communitarian civic ideals. Politicos and political philosophers alike have asked: what characterizes the office of citizen, the nature of citizenship, in a democratic republic?

In Unequal Freedom, Evelyn Nakano Glenn argues that all too often race and gender have defined citizenship in the United States.

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The author begins by recalling how often Americans adapted classical republican models of citizenship under which only those who retained the independence needed to exercise free choice and the moral and intellectual qualities needed to practice civic virtue were entitled to a voice in politics. But Glenn, director of the Center for Race and Gender at the University of California, Berkely, pointedly observes that from the nation’s youth these definitions were shaped by contrast with those others excluded from citizenship. Black chattel slaves were obviously not independent; women and children were the prototypical dependents. Furthermore, white men often argued that both groups were afflicted with deficiencies of character and intelligence that doomed them forever to their subordinate status. They would never acquire the judgment required of the citizenor, for that matter, even the freedom to manage their own affairs.

Three case studies, each spanning the years from the end of Reconstruction through the Progressive Era, elaborate Glenn’s argument. She examines in turn how political and social relations between whites and blacks in the South, Mexicans in the Southwest and Japanese in Hawaii shaped ideas of citizenship in those times and places. In each case she finds that the dominant white group defined citizenship in ways that excluded the other from political rights and economic opportunities, while the blacks, Mexicans and Japanese all found various ways to challenge that definition and the exclusion that followed.

A certain species of academic jargon makes Unequal Freedom forbidding territory for the general reader. In line with the approach of viewing race and gender as fluid and decentered complexes, Glenn explains, my interest is in how race-gender relations and meanings were rearticulated, contested, and transformed in the course of the capitalist reorganization of the economy. This inaccessibility is unfortunate, because Glenn has important points to make.

Her argument poses a potentially serious challenge to writers (like myself) who believe that the classical notion of citizenship has much to recommend it. It seems self-evident that political participation demands a certain level of knowledge and character from the citizen. Yet so long as women and nonwhites endure unequal social circumstances, any conceivable civic standard would likely entail ethnic and gender discrimination.

But Glenn cannot take up this argument squarely, for she is entirely dismissive of the notion of civic virtueit figures in her story only as a tool used by elites to exclude others. This rather cramped ideological framework leads her to miss some of the most interesting implications of her account.

It is intriguing, for instance, to discover that black activists deserve much of the credit for establishing universal public education in the South; public schooling, well established in the North, was unfamiliar in most of these states before Reconstruction. This fact is even more intriguing in light of Glenn’s description of Jim Crow-era black reformers and their activities. Middle-class blacks wanted to combat white racist stereotypes and caricatures of blacks as lazy, dishonest, and sexually promiscuous by upholding standards of sobriety, hard work, and decorum. Since they were acutely aware that in the white mind the actions of any single black person reflected on blacks as a whole, it was up to respectable middle-class blacks to foster education, economic self-sufficiency, and respectability not only among their own class but also among other blacks.

Glenn almost sniffs at this gender- and class-inflected ideology of uplift, seeming to favor instead such transgressions against this middle-class respectability as she could locate. Education, sobriety, hard work, economic self-sufficiency and decorum! Horrors! A writer of less confined political views might have seen something different: a community ardently dedicated to fostering civic virtue in its members, in defiance of a social order designed to degrade them.

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