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Faculty Research: Study of American historical records reveals multi-layer citizenship

Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

After combing through historical records of House and Senate committees between the 1800s and the 1920s, associate professor Amílcar Antonio Barreto and student Kyle Lozano found layers of de facto citizenship throughout American history.

Their research of historical records spun two peer-reviewed journal articles—the first under review and the second to be submitted soon—on the interplay of race, ethnicity and territoriality in the construction of American civic citizenship.

The duo found multi-layers of citizenship differing in ranking that were not officially on paper. According to Barreto, at the very top are white Americans who live in states, followed by white Americans in territories. Below them are racial and ethnic minorities who live in states, and at the bottom of the barrel are racial and ethnic minorities living in territories, he said.

“We have been digging into the notion of what makes someone an American not just in the eyes of the law, but the eyes of society at large,” said Lozano, who is majoring in political science. “Our paper talks about how the racial background of certain people in American territories determined their level of inclusion into the club of ‘American civic citizenship.’”

“American Political Thought” with associate professor Amílcar Antonio Barreto.

“American Political Thought” class with associate professor Amílcar Antonio Barreto.

Last year Lozano took Amilcar’s “American Political Thought” class where he learned the fundamental ideas in U.S. political thought that have shaped American political institutions and policies, including liberalism, neoliberalism, conservatism, and nationalism. Students read excerpts of classic texts and then dissected them, observing how certain themes repeat themselves in American political, legal, constitutional discourse.

Intrigued by the discussions and readings in class, Lozano enrolled in a directed study with Barreto in the spring 2016 and the two started conducting archival research of House and Senate committees’ contentious debates on the future of Puerto Rico after the Spanish-American War.

“There was a 19-year debate in congress about whether to naturalize Puerto Ricans, so we were in the legal ‘no man’s land,’” said Barreto, who is originally from Puerto Rico. “In these debates, a lot of fundamental dimensions about what the politicians of the era thought about American identity and American citizenship just came out.”

Politicians publicly discussed their beliefs of qualities and deficiencies of other races, and they were very concerned about awarding citizenship to people they believed couldn’t handle it or didn’t deserve it, Lozano said.

“Something I did not expect was that for many in congress citizenship was a way to publicly pronounce you belong to us and you can’t leave,” said Barreto, director of the MA in International Affairs. “I wasn’t expecting this multi-layer citizenship.”

Lozano, on the other hand, said he was surprised to find out how openly race was debated and how rarely people of color were part of that debate.

“With all the debate about Puerto Ricans, 99.99 percent of the people debating it were not Puerto Rican at all,” said Lozano, who is currently on co-op as a legal office assistant at Manion Gaynor & Manning, a law firm in Boston. “It was interesting to see the debate go on in a bubble that was devoid of firsthand input from the people they were talking about.”

Barreto is also working on a paper with former doctoral student Mariam Raqib on ethnicity in Afghan presidential elections. Their paper is a sequel to a 2013 article they wrote that explores Taliban’s use of religion and Afghan nationalism. To learn more about their research, click here.


Published On: December 7, 2016 |
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