Citizenship, Rights, And Race

A week ago, the Departments of Sociology and History at the University of Michigan organized a symposium in honor of Peggy Somers, Theorizing and Historicizing: Political Economy, Rights, and Moral Worth. I have learned much from reading Somers and consider her to be in the first rank of sociologists and theorists of her generation, so I was honored to be asked to contribute to a conference that recognized her work. What follows was adapted from my presentation. – LC 

As the subtitle of Peggy Somers’ 2008 book, Genealogies of Citizenship: Markets, Statelessness, and the Right to Have Rightsmakes clear, her subject rests on a conceptual foundation taken from Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. That is, the twin ideas that citizenship is the “right to have rights” and that the denial of citizenship takes the form of “statelessness.”The architecture of Somers’ compelling argument – including her powerful analysis of the dialectic of citizenship and race in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which unfortunately has proven so prescient for understanding the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico today – is built upon this foundation. To fully appreciate Somers’ use of these concepts, it is important to begin with the understanding that, intertwined in these Arendtian formulations, are political science claims of an analytical nature and political philosophy claims of a normative nature.

Arendt’s political science claim is rooted in her analysis of the historical experience of Jews under Nazi Germany. She finds the immediate origins of the Holocaust in the post-World War One breakup of the Austrian-Hungarian, Ottoman, German and Russian empires. Europe was reorganized into nation states defined by distinct ethnic identities, creating national-ethnic minorities that were denied citizenship in a number of cases. As people who had been the historic target of racist tropes that questioned their loyalty to the community as a whole, Jews and Roma were particularly vulnerable in this new European order, too easily made into "stateless" people with no rights.

Arendt’s political philosophy claim is based on her debt to the classical republicanism of ancient Greece and Rome, which had citizenship at its center. She embraced the Aristotelian precept that “man is a political animal” - that is, that it is only inside the polis, as a citizen living a public life and seeking the common good, that one can be fully human. To be denied citizenship, therefore, is to be denied one’s humanity. For Arendt, there is a direct line from the Nuremburg laws, with the denial of Jewish humanity found in the legal proscription of citizenship and its associated rights, to the concentration camps and gas chambers. That line could be called "statelessness."

There are important insights in this Arendtian formulation, and Somers employs them to full benefit, but there are also significant blind spots and absences, especially around questions of race, and they demand the use of a critical lens when Arendt is employed to analyze issues of citizenship in the American context.The connections between citizenship, rights and race need to be teased out in ways that Arendt herself was unable to do.

As a result of James Whitman’s historical research, we now know that the Nazi regime Arendt analyzed in Origins did extensive research on the Jim Crow legal order, much of which was used in their drafting of the Nuremberg laws.And we have been reminded by the Trumpist assault on the Fourteenth Amendment’s birthright citizenship clause that the amendment was adopted to undo the legal doctrine of the Dred Scott case that African-Americans have “no rights which the white man is bound to respect.” The historical oppression of African-Americans centers on questions of the denial of citizenship and its associated rights, a crucial point that animates Somers’Genealogies.The 20th century oppression of Jews in Europe, which was the focus of Arendt’s analysis in Origins, and the 20th century oppression of African-Americans in the US are of the same political species, each a product of an authoritarian dynamic formed in a crucible of racial oppression and lodged within the modern state, but they are from distinct if related political families. Upon reflection, it is clear that Arendt’s condition of "statelessness" is more suited as a metaphorical than analytical description of the historical experience of the denial of African-American citizenship. 

Arendt’s Origins distinguished itself among the post-World War Two literature on totalitarianism by incorporating European imperialism into its analysis, with references to Germany’s Herero and Namaqua genocide in modern day Namibia and to Belgium’s genocide in the Congo. But it did not investigate the imperial state and legal order as it functioned in the colonial context, or the place of citizenship and its denial in them, and so the discussion of genocide in Africa lacked the foundation and depth that the discussion of genocide in Europe was given: it appears in the Origins almost as if it were there as a foreboding preface to what concerned Arendt, the genocide in Europe itself. Mahmood Mamdani’s Citizen and Subject provides precisely that missing analysis for Africa, in which the denial of citizenship is theorized more generally than in Arendt, as being subjected to the rule of the state, while being denied the citizenship rights to partake in that rule.This provides a model that is more congruent with the post-slavery experiences of African-Americans, one in which the denial of citizenship takes the general form of exclusion from political and social life. "Statelessness" is one form of exclusion from citizenship, but by no means the only one.

There is a logic that lurks in the polarities of Arendt’s citizenship-statelessness dualism that seems at times to be almost teleological; in The Origins, it is as if the denial of citizenship inexorably ends in concentration camps and genocide, with the Jewish experience in Nazi Germany as paradigmatic. The authoritarian state appears on the historical stage as political subject, the stateless as political object. But the history of the African-American freedom struggle shows that citizenship and its associated rights are not simply given or withdrawn, with the state possessing all of the agency and all of the power: it is the subject of struggle between the excluded and the state, as well as between the excluded and the included. One could say that citizenship, understood as the right to partake fully in political and civil society as an equal, is never granted or bestowed, but always taken and won, and that victories in the struggles for citizenship are never final. The limited field of vision of Arendt’s republicanism makes it difficult for her to hear the voice of Frederick Douglass: “Power concedes nothing without a demand… Without struggle, there is no progress.” 

This Arendtian lacuna looms large in considering the critique of natural rights philosophy and the idea of a social contract she lays out in the Origins chapter on “The Decline of the Nation State and the End of the Rights of Man.” Somers uses this chapter to positive effect, finding in Arendt the basis for a sociological and historical critique of the idea of natural rights. With Arendt, she argues that when we take literally the ideas that rights are derived from nature and prior to civil society and the state, and that individuals enter into a social contract establishing the state to secure these natural rights, we end up with a normative theory of rights that proves inadequate for their defense from an authoritarian state. In this regard, Locke, who is often viewed as the theorist of individual rights and liberal government against the absolutist Hobbes, is revelatory. A careful reading of his Second Discourse shows that the problem resides in the very conception of natural rights and social contract: in the Lockean social contract established to secure rights, the individual must "part with as much of his natural liberty in providing for himself as the good, prosperity and safety of the Society shall require..."6

Since the sovereign created by the social contract is the decider of just how much liberty is required, natural rights philosophy provides no intrinsic normative limits to how much of a citizen’s freedom the state can claim. Somers also uses Arendt well in her criticisms of what C. B. Macpherson called the “possessive individualism” of the Hobbesian and Lockean social contract, the reduction of citizens to bearers of property rights that are exchanged in a marketplace.This conception of citizenship and rights fits, hand in glove, with the market fundamentalist project Somers so ably dissects.

There comes a point, however, where Somers’ use of the Arendtian critique of natural rights, as well as her embrace of Marx’s critique of rights as bourgeois in character, is less useful. Something important is lost if all we do is engage in a literal reading of natural rights philosophy and social contract theory as an historical and sociological account of origins of rights and the state: this road ends in a singular view of a philosophical tradition that is in reality richer and more complicated, and it elides what is its most productive aspect – its capacity to organize thought experiments on the nature of rights and the state. Take the American Declaration of Independence, which is deeply steeped in natural rights philosophy and social contract theory, with a particular debt to Locke. Despite all of that, the Declaration has been the touchstone of struggles to expand American citizenship and rights throughout our history, from abolitionism and woman’s suffrage to the labor and socialist movement to the civil rights, feminist, LGBTQ and immigrant rights movements of more recent vintage. It created a language of American politics that generations of insurgent movements have taken up to make their claims on a more inclusive, more democratic American citizenship. 

Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration provides a powerful example of how the Declaration can be read as the basis for a more robust republicanism than that provided by Arendt, one in which the political equality of citizenship at the center of the Declaration serves as the foundation of our liberty and rights, and provides the normative basis for our judgments on the actions of government and on government itself.Seen in this light, the Declaration is a toolbox for citizen action, from the analysis of the legitimate ends of government to the identification of grievances where those ends have been usurped to ideas for political redress.

With Allen, I would argue for a republicanism that can draw upon such resources as the Declaration of Independence and the African-American freedom struggle, rather than ignore or dismiss them as do Arendt and Marx. What if we normatively grounded rights not in fictional states of nature and artifices of natural law, but in republican government and citizenship itself? If we said that in order for citizens to engage in the democratic self-rule that defines republican government, rights are necessary? That without such rights as the freedom of expression, of conscience, of press and media, of association and of protest, to begin with just those listed in the First Amendment, there is no public sphere and no possibility of democratic discussion and deliberation, and republican government necessarily dies? That without an equality of citizenship, republican government withers away into autocracy and worse? Conceiving of republican liberty as non-domination, as an emerging tendency in political thought inspired by Philip Pettit’s Republicanism has done, allows us to expand this framework to include the social components of citizenship identified in the work of T. H. Marshall, which Somers incorporates into her argument in Genealogies.9

And, continuing in this vein of thought experiments, what if we went beyond literal readings of social contract theory as the imposition of economic market conceptions upon politics to recapture the notion of a social compact often employed within that tradition? The idea of a social compact allows us to develop a normative theory of the state that is focused on agreement for collective action, the pursuit of common goals and objectives, rather than on relations of exchange. The notion of reciprocity embedded in a social compact is not one of individuals bartering property, but of solidarity rooted in common cause.

The thought experiments of normative political philosophy are connected to our political practices. In Genealogies, Somers is right to be concerned with the polarized dualism of state and individual found in much of the social contract tradition. This dualism is not simply a dystopian conception of what ought to be, but also a barometer of the dangers in what is: it is a marker of state authoritarianism that it seeks to render impotent the associations and institutions of civil society that stand between the state and the individual, and to undermine them as the wellspring of collective, democratic action independent of the state.

As someone who has spent virtually all of his adult working life in that civil society space, in public education and in teacher unions, I am sympathetic to Somers’ arguments on the political importance of civil society to a democratic political project. But I am also keenly aware that the state and civil society are not so much distinct and separate spheres, but interpenetrated spaces, especially in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Janus decision designed to eviscerate public sector unions and the wave of teacher insurgency strikes that have occurred subsequently. Overcoming the dualism of state and individual demands more than the interposition of an intervening element of civil society. It requires us to break with homogeneous conceptions of the political and instrumental theories of the state, replacing them with an agonistic approach that understands them as terrains that are riven with conflict.

To address the polarized duality of administrative state vs. laissez-faire market, which Somers so rightly criticizes in Genealogies, we must deconstruct the very notion of an "administrative state," an intellectual project made all the more urgent with the deployment of that idea by such political actors as the Federalist Society and Steve Bannon. In their hands, it is used to justify a political agenda of massive deregulation that would decimate labor, civil rights, consumer, environmental and other protections. These regulations of the "administrative state" are in no small measure a manifestation of the presence of popular forces inside the state in opposition to the power elite, and they place limits on what that elite can accomplish through the state. An understanding of the state as both a condensation of power relations in the larger society and as a site in which those power relations are continually contested and recalibrated is essential to the furtherance of our genealogies of citizenship.


Margaret Somers, Genealogies of Citizenship: Markets, Statelessness and the Right to Have Rights. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. and Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt, 1966.

Arendt’s racial blind spots were most famously on display in her 1959 Dissent Magazine article “Reflections on Little Rock,” in which she criticized the movement to desegregate Jim Crow schools in the southern United States. For a full examination of Arendt and race, see Kathryn Gines, Hannah Arendt and the Negro Question. Indiana University Press, 2014.

James Q. Whitman, Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law. Princeton University Press, 2017.

I have made this argument at more length in “The Perils of Universalism” in Dissent Magazine (Winter 2018) and “The Limits of Class: A Reply to Shuja Haider” available at

Mahmood Mamdani, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. Princeton University Press, 1996.

John Locke, Two Treatises of Government. Peter Laslett, editor. New York: Signet Classics, 1965. (Second Treatise, Chapter IX, Paragraph 130.) p. 390.

C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962.

Danielle Allen, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality. New York: W. W. Norton, 2014.

Philip Pettit, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. and T. H. Marshall, Citizenship and Social Class. London: Pluto Press, 1992.