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Excerpted From: Reginald Oh, Black Citizenship, Dehumanization, and the Fourteenth Amendment, 12 ConLawNOW 157 (2021) (72 Footnote) (Full Document)


reginaldohThe fight for full Black citizenship has been in large measure a fight against the systematic dehumanization of African Americans. Dehumanization is the process of treating people as less than human, as subhuman. Denying Blacks full and equal citizenship has gone hand in hand with denying their full humanity. To effectively promote equal citizenship for African Americans, therefore, requires an explicit commitment to ending their dehumanization.

In this Essay, Part I will discuss the concept of dehumanization and its role in the infliction of harm on a dehumanized class of people. Part II will discuss the concept of citizenship, and contend that full and equal citizenship consists of four layers of citizenship: formal, political, civil, and social citizenship. While the first three types of citizenship are familiar, social citizenship is a neglected yet crucial aspect of full citizenship. Social citizenship entails the right and ability to enter into and have personal relationships based on mutual respect and equality with other members or citizens of the political community.

Part III will examine three key race and citizenship cases to illustrate how dehumanization has been pivotal in denying full citizenship or imposing second-class citizenship on Blacks, especially in denying Blacks social citizenship. In Dred Scott v. Sandford, the Supreme Court dehumanized Blacks to deny them formal U.S. citizenship. In Plessy v. Ferguson, the Court dehumanized Blacks in upholding racial segregation and denying them social citizenship. In Naim v. Naim, the Virginia Supreme Court dehumanized racial minorities in upholding a ban on interracial marriage, contending that interracial marriages would undermine good citizenship. IV will conclude by exploring the implications of my analysis for Black citizenship in the twenty-first century. It's only when dehumanization is squarely addressed and eliminated that full and equal citizenship status can realistically be attained. A constitutional doctrine of equal citizenship, then, must address and eliminate practices and policies which systematically dehumanize African Americans, such as racial segregation in education or racist policing.

[. . .]

What are some of the lessons that we can draw from my analysis for what full citizenship for African Americans might mean today?

One key lesson is that dehumanization has been a central feature of the subordination and denial of full citizenship to African Americans throughout American history. Slavery was dehumanization. Jim Crow segregation was dehumanization. The ban on interracial marriage was dehumanization. To state that African Americans have experienced racial discrimination over the centuries, without explicitly linking dehumanization to that discrimination, fails to highlight how truly pernicious and insidious that discrimination was. Dehumanization went hand in hand with differential treatment.

A second lesson is that dehumanization, throughout American history, from Dred Scott to Naim, has been considered a valid justification for racial discrimination and subordination. Instead of being condemned as morally wrong, the defenders of white supremacy believed that the dehumanization of African Americans was completely unproblematic and justifiable. While one may understand how in 1857, the Supreme Court could honor and respect how the framers dehumanized Blacks, it may seem incredible that even in 1967, states like Virginia openly and unabashedly dehumanized Blacks and mixed-race persons. The normalization of dehumanization in American history must be acknowledged and understood if we are to fully grapple with the legacy of systemic racism in America.

A third and perhaps most sobering lesson is that dehumanization is still a central part of the racial discrimination that African Americans and other racial groups experience today. When we look for it, we can see dehumanization virtually everywhere. De facto racial segregation in public schools and housing; the continuing stigma associated with interracial marriages between whites and Blacks; the experience with racist policing; the mass incarceration of Blacks and Latinos; these are all the elements of continuing second-class citizenship and systematic dehumanization of Blacks. Given that dehumanization has been normalized throughout American history, it really should not be surprising that racial dehumanization is still pervasive in America. Dehumanization is an integral aspect of current systemic racism.

Finally, the hopeful lesson is that dehumanization does not have to be inevitable. Dehumanization can be countered through rehumanization. Rehumanization means treating dehumanized people with respect and dignity. In practice, that means actively entering into and maintaining relationships with persons of all races that involve mutual respect.

Racial diversity and inclusion programs are fundamentally about racial rehumanization. They are about the inclusion of Blacks in various arenas of civil, political, and interpersonal society out of the belief that they are social equals deserving of mutual respect and equality. The diversity and inclusion movement seeks to encourage and facilitate recognition of diverse racial identities. To that end, we can think of diversity as fundamentally about granting full citizenship for African Americans.

Professor of Law, Cleveland Marshall College of Law, Cleveland State University.

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