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New Scholarship in Race and Ethnicity - Multiple Identities and the Demands of Democratic Citizenship

June 14, 2004 // 12:00am

The increasing globalization of society and the rising number of individuals moving across national boundaries has resulted in the growing significance of the issue of multiple national loyalties and the more formal question of simultaneous multiple citizenship. In the fourth Division of United States Studies program showcasing New Scholarship in Race and Ethnicity, Professor Edwina Barvosa-Carter examined the question of multi-national political participation. The nature of citizenship is changing, she argued, and as individuals continue to identify with and participate in the civic life of multiple nations, the question of whether they can maintain dual national identities with the kind of political loyalty to each system necessary for participation as full democratic citizens becomes increasingly important.

These lasting transnational ties take the form of remittances that are not only financial but social as well: they include the cross-cultural transfer of values and mores, which result in alterations of social, religious, and cultural practices in both the sending and receiving countries. Given the existence of these networks, formal dual citizenship would seem to be a logical continuation of the bi- or multi-national identities already being maintained. It can augment and encourage political participation in both sending and receiving countries by making democratic participation one of the values transmitted back and forth across borders by transnational migrants.

Using an interdisciplinary approach to advocate legitimizing dual citizenship, Barvosa-Carter drew extensively on Latina political theorists, social psychology and ethnic studies to challenge the assumption that multiple identities and loyalties are impossible. She noted that one's self-concept is multiple and diverse, consisting, e.g., of class, race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexuality, and profession. The specific elements of the self-concept operationalized at a given moment depend upon the circumstances and the salience of those elements to the situation at hand. "Multiple identities are not zero sum," she noted; one can have dual political loyalties. Barvosa-Carter utilized the literature's analogy of these relationships to a marriage, which contains exclusive elements but also has room for other ties that frequently include those to a previous spouse. Just as we value the honoring of prior commitments in domestic relations, she argued, we should value the honoring of the commitments and responsibilities of prior residence through, i.e., participation in hometown associations or the sending of remittances to family members still residing in the sending country.

While commending Barvosa-Carter for her work, David Gutiérrez proposed the addition of an historical dimension to her analysis. The current waves of immigration to the United States, he noted, do not constitute a new phenomenon but are instead an intensification of earlier patterns. The migrations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in fact resulted in a higher percentage of foreign-born residents in the national population than exists today. Remittances were huge, naturalization was low, and return from the United States to home countries reached well over 50% for immigrants from many nations. Those who stayed in the U.S. continued their involvement in their homelands, including in their politics.

Gutiérrez reminded the audience that the concept of citizenship is fundamentally about inclusion and exclusion, and decisions regarding who is "alien" are designed to maintain inequality between groups, reinforcing society's existing power structures. Essentially, outsiders are refused a share of the society's goods. U.S. citizenship law has always been based on ideas about race as an element in what does and does not make people worthy of citizenship. The question is whether human beings can think outside given categories such as "citizenship" to focus on a common humanity.

Peter Spiro seconded Gutiérrez's commendation of Barvosa-Carter's research but cautioned her against use of the marriage metaphor which, he warned, ran the risk of likening multiple citizenship to polygamy and therefore becoming unlikely to garner public support. He also questioned the wisdom of adopting the idea of "loyalty," which connotes exclusivity and zero sum identity. "Distributive loyalty" might be a better concept and in fact reflects the multi-faceted nature of political action in the United States: the federal system requires citizens to vote not only as Americans, but also as residents of their states, counties, and cities. If we trust citizens to manage multiple domestic political loyalties, he suggested, perhaps we might realize that they can manage loyalty to multiple nations—provided that the national political systems in question remain broadly compatible. Finally, he suggested that while he remained sympathetic to Barvosa-Carter's ultimate policy objective of legitimizing dual nationality, he was unconvinced that her proposal was wise. The current U.S. legal requirement that naturalizing citizens renounce their previous citizenship is generally ignored, which he suggested might allow a perpetuation of the reality Barvosa-Carter wants to see without causing the political uproar that might come with an explicit alteration in public policy.

This event was made possible in part through the generosity of The Arthur and Sara Jo Kobacker, Alfred and Ida Kobacker Foundation

Drafted by Ann Chernicoff

Philippa Strum, Director, Division of U.S. Studies (202) 691-4129

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