Diversity and Democracy

Clashes Over Citizenship: Lady Liberty, Under Construction or On the Run?

St. Cloud, Minnesota: Population 190,000. Ninety percent white; majority Catholic or Lutheran. Five percent are Somali Americans, a population that first settled here as refugees after a twenty-five-year civil war. In 2015, some citizens pressed their Republican Congressman Tom Emmer for “a ban on Muslims.” “We did not ask for those Somalis,” one person said. Others supporting the ban insisted that “it’s not about race” and “we like [our city] the way it is” (This American Life 2016).

New York City: Having just left a church service, a group of Asian Americans were deciding where to go for lunch when a well-dressed woman, frustrated that the group was slowing her pace, shouted angrily as she passed, “Go back to China!” Among the group, Michael Luo—American-born Harvard graduate and New York Times editor—responded to this verbal assault. “It’s this persistent sense of otherness that a lot of us [Asian Americans] struggle with every day. That no matter what we do, how successful we are, what friends we make, we don’t belong. We’re foreign. We’re not American” (Luo 2016).

By contrast, in Healing the Heart of Democracy, author Parker Palmer offers a confession from the perspective of an entitled citizen:

As a white, male American who has always been well-off—the kind of person for whom this nation has always worked best—the gift of full citizenship, unquestioned and unchallenged, came to me as an accident of birth. Today I realize the magnitude of that gift. But for years I was an unconscious and ungrateful recipient because attaining citizenship required no effort from me. (2011, 29)

Palmer’s experience of entitlement is not the norm. For vast numbers of people historically, and for many college students today, citizenship is neither unquestioned nor a gift of birth. Instead, it has varying gradations: full, partial, stratified, postponed, or denied.

Our National Narrative

Exploring citizenship as a touchstone for many of the divisive issues that are fracturing America today—as they have throughout our nation’s history—was the focal point of Citizenship Under Siege, a project I directed in 2016 for the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) in cooperation with The Democracy Commitment, a community college initiative. Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Citizenship Under Siege posited that the humanities could be used as an ameliorating force to enhance learning, listening, and engagement, both in and out of the classroom and on and off campus. The project proposed that by conducting historical investigations; raising ethical and moral questions; listening to or reading stories of people’s journeys, aspirations, and humiliations; or surrendering to the power of dance, theater, and film, participants could tackle volatile issues affecting citizenship rights such as economic inequality, immigration, racial discrimination, the relationship between gender and political power, religious pluralism, and massive cultural transitions. Our argument was that the humanities can grease the intellectual and emotional gears to contribute to constructive and respectful, if demanding, processes through which people holding varying viewpoints can examine the contentious question of who counts—and who should count—as American citizens.

For college students and others, an essential discovery is what can be gleaned about today’s struggles by studying earlier periods in US history. A snapshot of who over time has been deemed worthy of American citizenship—and who has not—provides ample proof that clashes over citizenship are as much a part of our national narrative as the Preamble to our Constitution. Enslaved people were once deemed chattel in the US Constitution. All women were once entirely denied citizenship rights. The Naturalization Act of 1790 extended citizenship to immigrants, but restricted the privilege to people who were white. Patterns. Sorting. Stratifications. Their rhythms are familiar. Similar struggles for full and equal rights as Americans continued in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries for Native Americans, African Americans, and women, each group subjected to status designations deeming them as unworthy of citizenship.

The angry New Yorker in the opening vignette above echoes an earlier America in which the Immigration Act of 1924 (including a provision known as the Asian Exclusion Act) eliminated a pathway to citizenship for all those born in Asia, setting restrictions that would not be fully abolished until the elimination of the quota system in 1965. By contrast, especially between 1892 and 1924, immigrants flooded through Ellis Island, so that at one point nearly “half of all living Americans [could] trace their heritage to one or more family members who first stepped onto American soil” there, where the iconic Statue of Liberty welcomed them (AAC&U [1995] 2011, xxii). But the welcome was not universal, not even for European whites. Nativism, racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Catholicism in the first decades of the twentieth century served as catalysts for the reappearance and resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

Today, two images sum up the internal tensions in the nation’s immigration narrative. One depicts the modern restoration of the Statue of Liberty, whose pedestal features Emma Lazarus’s poem referring to Lady Liberty as the “Mother of Exiles” and describing her as lighting the way for “homeless” and “tempest-tost” (1883) (see fig. 1). Another image of Lady Liberty, by political cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz, depicts Lady Liberty on the run, family in tow, not welcomed but chased down as “illegal aliens”—a situation faced by many Latinos in contemporary Arizona and elsewhere (see fig. 2). The construction and deconstruction of citizenship continues.


Figure 1. Image by Jet Lowe (1984). Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, HAER, reproduction number HAER NY, 31-NEYO, 89–32.


Figure 2. Lalo Alcaraz/Distributed by Andrews McMeel Syndication. Cartoon appears courtesy of Lalo Alcaraz.

The Value of the Humanities

In a toxic presidential campaign in which immigrants (both legal and undocumented) and Muslims (globally and locally) were singled out with special venom, and where after the election white supremacists in Durham, North Carolina, spray painted on two walls “black lives don’t matter and neither does your votes [sic]” (Candace 2016), conversations about who counts as American and attempts to find a common way forward are both arduous and urgent. College campuses—as precious, if charged, sites for contentious investigations held in the privacy of dorms, the intimate spaces of the classroom, and the larger public squares where campus and community converge—offer opportunities for students, educators, and community members to make thoughtful decisions about what it means to act collectively with others to enact democracy’s core aspirations of equality, dignity, and opportunity for all.

But such thoughtful, collaborative work is not easy, especially when fierce, emotional, and divisive debates about citizenship are at a boiling point. In the face of seemingly intractable divisions, how can higher education prompt people to move from the corners of the combative ring to seats around a shared table where they can engage in thoughtful exchange? Even more importantly, how can education become a vehicle for interrogating the frames of mind that feed conflict and allow one group to define another as foreign, undeserving, or less than human and their own group as superior and worthy of all the privileges of citizenship? The Citizenship Under Siege project proposed that the humanities offer key answers to these questions, challenging the lapses in clear thinking and human empathy that combine to sustain bigotry and intolerance.

In a climate marked by stereotyping, misinformation, historical amnesia, demagoguery, fear, and social isolationism, the humanities need to be visible everywhere, their engagement adopted strategically rather than left to happenstance. Below are four major educational approaches to consider.

  1. Deploy the power of the humanities across curricula and in the public square. Imagination, storytelling, and empathy offer windows into people’s lives, their dreams, their anguish. Historical contexts help us understand the origins of the present. Ethical, philosophical, and moral lenses prompt us to question, reflect, and care. Expressions of delight in human variety introduce us to cultures beyond our own. Creativity engenders the power to reimagine what might otherwise seem intractable and inevitable. Combining these practices and qualities, the humanities generate representations of individual humans that help intrude upon unexamined, generalized abstractions.
  2. Design curricula to include a focus on citizenship. As A Crucible Moment (National Task Force 2012) argued, the very content of curricula needs to include, across disciplines, routine and widespread interrogations about multiple aspects of democracy and citizenship. Curricular opportunities could prompt students to explore such concepts by examining legislated and experienced differentials; the daily and long-term consequences of being marked as either belonging or alien; past and current processes for becoming a citizen; the knowledge and political processes required for informed participation in democratic society, whether related to scientific, media, health, or business issues; the histories of social and cultural movements to correct or enforce exclusion; and the levers for effecting citizen-driven change in a modern democracy. These investigations should be designed to expand knowledge, surface contentious issues, and foster careful examination of these issues through differing perspectives.
  3. Adopt pedagogies of democratic engagement. AAC&U has long promoted engaged student learning and high-impact practices as educationally valuable. But some of those practices and pedagogies rely more than others on democratic processes and result more commonly in democratic outcomes. For example, service learning can disrupt usual patterns of thought and association and, when practiced well, connects students with others from disparate backgrounds and perspectives to address common concerns. Community-based research is another option made democratic when its focus and methods are collaborative, responsive to community needs, and shaped by multiple stakeholders. Some educators have turned to different modes of dialogue—intergroup, deliberative, structured, or action-driven. Additional stereotype-shattering pedagogies include interviewing, filming, recording, and documenting others; reflecting and journaling; role-playing; writing ethnic autobiographies or collecting oral histories of families and communities; and participating in immersive study both abroad and at home.
  4. Carry investigations about clashes over citizenship into multiple arenas of campus and community life through varying formats. As described in several articles included in this issue of Diversity & Democracy, Citizenship Under Siege challenged participating teams at seven community colleges to break out of the containment of the classroom. Participating campuses found myriad ways to create new venues beyond the classroom to interrogate questions about citizenship, including public forums, discussions, and dialogues; experiential opportunities connected with resident life; programming within student organizations; yearlong themes for campus-wide exploration; film series and art exhibits; digital formats; codesigned events by the campus and community; and human “library” programs through which “readers” can “check out” “books” by asking real people from marginalized groups questions.

Citizenship in the United States, like democracy itself, is always under construction—provisional until new approaches displace the old. That is why students, educators, and community members must explore questions of citizenship and practice democratic values, habits, and skills—and not assume that democratic citizenship is granted as an incontrovertible gift. If Lady Liberty is to avoid being on the run rather than under construction, students and others will need to study, refine values, and hone skills so they are prepared to act in collaboration to protect her. She welcomes “your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” She stands beside a “golden door” (Lazarus 1883), not a wall guarded by armed US border patrols and anti-immigrant vigilante militias bearing semiautomatic weapons.


Association of American Colleges and Universities. (1995) 2011. The Drama of Diversity & Democracy: Higher Education and American Commitments. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Candace. 2016. “Downtown Durham: ‘Black Lives Don’t Matter and Neither Does Your Vote, Wake Up.’” Urban Intellectuals, November 10. http://urbanintellectuals.com/2016/11/10/downtown-durham-black-lives-dont-matter-neither-vote-wake/.

Lazarus, Emma. 1883. “The New Colossus.” National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/stli/learn/historyculture/colossus.htm.

Lowe, Jet. 1984. “Profile View of Left-Side of Head. May 1984. Statue of Liberty, Liberty Island, Manhattan, New York County, NY.” Photograph from the Historic American Engineering Record, National Park Service, US Department of the Interior. From Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (HAER NY,31-NEYO,89—32). http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ny1251.photos.120290p/.

Luo, Michael. 2016. “An Open Letter to the Woman Who Told Us: Go Back to China.” New York Times, October 9: A1, A20.

National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. 2012. A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Palmer, Parker J. 2011. Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

This American Life. 2016. “Will I Know Anyone at This Party?” Transcript, Episode 600, October 28. https://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/600/transcript.

Caryn McTighe Musil is Project Director for Citizenship Under Siege at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Previous Issues