Reframing & Reimagining Black American Citizenship

By: Breanne Palmer

It’s probably been quite some time since most of us took an American History class. However, discussions about the various Amendments to the U.S. Constitution are rampant in our modern society. I want to discuss one Amendment in particular: the Fourteenth Amendment. More specifically, Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment, which states:

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. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

In sum, Section 1:

  • Granted every person born on U.S. soil birthright citizenship;

  • Granted people who undergo the process of naturalization U.S. citizenship;

  • Ensured that U.S. citizens are guaranteed certain privileges and immunities;

  • Promised that states will not deprive U.S. citizens their life, liberty, and property without due process of law; and

  • Ensured that states grant people equal protection under the law.

That’s a hefty set of promises for just one section of one Amendment (Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment is also one of the most heavily-litigated parts of the Constitution). But what is most interesting about the Fourteenth Amendment is that it is one of the “Reconstruction Amendments.” The Reconstruction Amendments (the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments) were adopted in the aftermath of the Civil War. Meaning that these Amendments were adopted in direct response to the effects of the emancipation of enslaved Black Americans.

We, as a nation, had to amend our founding document to include Black people, who had been present in the North American colonies since at least 1619.

I think it is important for us to repeatedly revisit that historical fact.


The Fourteenth Amendment granted newly-freed Black Americans birthright citizenship. This was revolutionary, at the time. Prior to the enactment of the Fourteenth Amendment, no Black person in America was entitled to U.S. citizenship. The infamous Supreme Court case, Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857), which was the law of the land until the Fourteenth Amendment was enacted, gave us some true gems:

In the opinion of the court, the legislation and histories of the times, and the language used in the Declaration of Independence, show, that neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves, nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people, nor intended to be included in the general words used in that memorable instrument.

Translation: Black people in America, be they captured and enslaved themselves or their descendants, were never intended to be included in the Declaration of Independence as citizens of the U.S.

[Black people] had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.

Translation: Black people were inferior, unfit to socialize with White people, and had absolutely no rights which any White person was obligated to respect or acknowledge.

[Granting citizenship] would give to persons of the negro race, ... the right to enter every other State whenever they pleased, ... to sojourn there as long as they pleased, to go where they pleased ... the full liberty of speech in public and in private upon all subjects upon which its own citizens might speak; to hold public meetings upon political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went.

Translation: Granting Black people birthright citizenship (thus the right to travel, to free speech, to bear arms, etc.) would allow them to act as White citizens do--which was completely unacceptable.

As you can see, until the enactment of the Fourteenth Amendment, Black people in America, whether they were captured and transported there or born into enslavement, were not U.S. citizens. So what did that make them?

To me, that blatant denial of citizenship made enslaved Black people one of America’s first, centuries-old, exploited, undocumented labor forces.

Black U.S. citizenship was an American afterthought. Again, I remind us that the nation had to amend its founding document to include Black people in its bounty, to guarantee Black people could reap the benefits of its promises. The nation had to edit its charter to include Black people in the concept of its citizenry.

Black people in America have not always been U.S. citizens. U.S. citizenship as applied to Black Americans is not a God-given right, innate and unchanging. It was a purposeful granting of particular privileges and immunities, triggered by the end of slavery and the Civil War.

At this point, you’re probably wondering where I’m going with this.

I propose that Black Americans and Black immigrants reframe and reimagine what U.S. citizenship means. I believe there is a pervasive myth among both Black American and Black immigrant communities that somehow, Black Americans are, by default, included under the protective umbrella of U.S. citizenship. As I have tried to flesh out above, it is important to note that Black Americans were not always citizens: the nation had to undertake one of its most extreme methods (the amendment of the Constitution) to grant Black people in particular, and anyone born on U.S. soil in general, the privilege of U.S. citizenship. Taking it a step further, I hope we also examine just what that citizenship grant did for Black Americans.

What has U.S. citizenship truly done for Black people in America? Tamara Nopper, an activist in Asian American and immigration politics, states, “Under the racial state, there is no such thing as Black citizenship.” She goes on, in her works, to describe the “myth of Black citizenship.” Black people in America with legal status (citizens, lawful permanent residents, visa-carriers, etc.) are still subject to state-sanctioned violence, racial profiling, discrimination, and other evils. Black people in America with legal status are still murdered extralegally. What protection has U.S. citizenship granted Black Americans with legal status? And by examining how little U.S. citizenship appears to truly protect Black Americans, how can we begin to see beyond “pathways to citizenship” for Black immigrants who lack legal status? I believe that with further analysis, it becomes clear that citizenship is neither the solution to Black immigrants’ struggles nor a saving grace for Black Americans.

I believe that if Black Americans and Black immigrants begin to chart the many parallels between our experiences (while also respecting that our experiences can and do differ vastly), we will find better ways to collaborate and liberate our collective communities. Reimagining and reframing Black American citizenship is just one launchpad; just one concept to chew on. Where can we go from there?


More Resources and Discussion:

Savior Mentality In International Development

I-N-D-E-P-E-N-D-E-N-T Do You Know What That Mean?