by Ediberto Román. New York: New York University Press, 2010 (Critical America Series). 224pp. Cloth $45.00. ISBN: 9780814776070.

Reviewed by Julie Novkov, Department of Political Science and Women’s Studies, University at Albany, SUNY. Email: jnovkov [at]


Ediberto Román’s CITIZENSHIP AND ITS EXCLUSIONS: A CLASSICAL, CONSTITUTIONAL, AND CRITICAL RACE CRITIQUE primarily analyzes exclusionary and partial practices of state recognition of citizenship in the United States. Román identifies several ways that citizenship as a concept, despite its universalist aspirations, fails to embrace all those subject to the laws of the United States in equal ways. Relying on T.H. Marshall’s tripartite classification of citizenship (political, civil, and social), Román shows in historical and contemporary terms that members of some groups (women, African Americans, and Latinos, for instance), do not achieve full access to the rights of citizenship in Marshall’s terms. However, he also notes that millions of individuals living under the sovereign authority of the United States possess rights of citizenship only at the whim of Congress because they live in territories rather than states. His goal is to show that, while “Western societies have uniformly accepted the aspects of citizenship discourse that have championed equality . . . these same societies have repeatedly denied disfavored groups full social, civil, and political citizenship rights” (p.12).

Román does not critique this situation on the basis of its mismatch with an ideal of equal citizenship. Rather, he suggests that this is a natural consequence of how citizenship has worked historically and theoretically. To understand citizenship, he argues, we must not look only to contemporary practices, but to the deeper roots of the concept both in practice and in theory. He thus provides a swift historical overview, beginning with Greek and Roman citizenship and tracing it through its medieval European evolution and into the Enlightenment. Through his historical work, he shows how citizenship began as a gradated and exclusionary status. The idea of full citizenship as simultaneously securing complete civic membership for its possessors and as investing in them the privilege and responsibility of governance dates back to Aristotle, but as Román reminds the reader, Aristotle’s conception of citizenship was complex and incorporated limits. Román summarizes the development of citizenship through the medieval period, as lingering Roman practices influenced feudalism and its decline through the emergence of cities with citizens. He describes how late medieval thinkers like Aquinas, Marsilius of Padua, and Bartolus drew from Aristotle and the Roman precedents to revivify citizenship as an aspiration but also as a crucial political building block for the state. These thinkers, he emphasizes, retained the exclusionary aspects of the concept. [*205]

Román provides an analysis of how the great Enlightenment contract theorists treated citizenship, exploring the idea in the major writings of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. Drawing from the large body of critical analysis of the history of political thought, particularly by feminist theorists, he highlights how these thinkers’ treatments of citizenship all incorporated conditional understandings and all placed some individuals outside the boundaries of citizenship. Their work is important in understanding citizenship in the United States, Román argues, because their ideas formed the foundations for core elements in the American constitutional system. Celebrants of the constitution emphasize Machiavelli’s pragmatism, Hobbes’ careful analysis of power, Locke’s analysis of the necessity of consent and his commitment to liberty, Montesquieu’s structural theories, and Rousseau’s conception of freedom and natural equality as core elements in the American constitutional system. In contrast, Román notes that in importing these ideas, the framers necessarily imported the less benign gradated citizenship with unbreachable barriers for some groups that all of these theorists endorsed.

The historical and theoretical analysis Román provides is solid and quite informative. Its condensed nature makes it a lively and accessible introduction to these issues. He does not break significant new ground in this discussion, and all of these issues are treated in greater length and with more sophistication in other works. Román’s contribution is praiseworthy nonetheless, as he pulls all of this information together in one sustained and short discussion. One would hope that a graduate, law, or undergraduate student reading this book in a course on citizenship (for which it would be a terrific choice) would be intrigued enough to delve further into the rich literature available.

Román provides this background for the purpose of discussing how citizenship issues have evolved in the United States, with the understanding that it was gradated and limited at the outset. He organizes this discussion by addressing “de jure subordinates” and “de facto subordinates” from the founding to the present day.

De jure subordination, argues Román, can be traced through the antebellum era, past the fourteenth amendment, and into the twentieth century, and persists today. The Supreme Court was responsible for much of the work as, “between 1823 and 1922, the Supreme Court reiterated the importance of citizenship in a democracy but endorsed a model of differentiated levels of membership” (p.84). The Court’s rulings, Román claims, defined and supported Congress’s plenary powers and removed the exercise of these powers from rights-based limitations. In a stunning array of cases, the Court disavowed its authority to support access to political, civic, and social rights for blacks, Native Americans, Asians, and Asian Americans. Román discusses how this groundwork supported the constitutional infrastructure the Court created to deal with territories acquired in the Spanish-American War and afterward that Congress did not place on a path to statehood. Ultimately, the Court found that the residents of these territories, while under US rule, did not [*206] have to be afforded the full rights of citizens either individually or collectively.

The contribution here again is Román’s telling of these stories as intimately interrelated around the core of diminished citizenship. His basic point is reminiscent of Rogers Smith’s argument in CIVIC IDEALS (1997), but Román’s analysis is more focused specifically on doctrinal development and incorporates a full discussion of territories rather than focusing on citizenship concerns within the geographic boundaries of the states. The exploration of the particular forms of formally bounded citizenship granted to Native Americans and territorial residents expands debates over citizenship, which have tended to address the category either as a 0/1 form of legal status or as a theoretically and culturally inflected category describing tensions between ascriptive limits and liberal egalitarian full membership. Román also addresses limits on women’s citizenship, though this material has been covered in more depth by feminist constitutional and political development scholars, Gretchen Ritter in particular (2006).

Román’s analysis also covers what he labels as de facto subordinate citizenship. His work here summarizes a wealth of critical historical scholarship concerning the crabbed practical forms of citizenship experienced by African Americans, Mexican Americans, and, very briefly, other non-whites (Asian Americans particularly). His goal here is to show that the ideal of equality does not reflect the realities of conditional citizenship experienced by these citizens. This discussion sets up the final stage of Román’s critical analysis, which argues for the recognition that, despite the ideal of full and equal citizenship, the historical legacy of limits has persisted into the present. He undercuts the ideal itself, arguing that “although the citizenship concept is largely viewed as inclusive, the thousands of years since the concept’s development demonstrate a practice of it being an exclusive and exclusionary tool for Western democracies to define and control themselves” (p.150). What, then, should be done with citizenship? Can it be saved?

Román argues that it can. He proposes a model that 1) draws from international norms to ground a baseline for fundamental human and civil rights to be extended to all, regardless of their citizenship status, 2) allows citizenship to persist as a status but demands the elimination of its selective application to groups, and 3) expands the social and civil components of citizenship to demand fully equal membership for all who claim attachment to a polity through citizenship.

Román’s advocacy for fuller and more equal citizenship and his use of T.H. Marshall’s framework to structure his call for equality are not novel ideas, to be sure. Critical historians and critical race thinkers who have considered citizenship’s evolution in the United States have made similar observations. In particular, his conclusions closely align with those of Ian Haney Lopez (1996) and Mae Ngai (2004), both of whom have provided more in-depth and empirical analyses of some of the ground that Román has covered. Nonetheless, his incorporation of a breadth of citizenship tales in the United States as well as his consideration of the category [*207] from its ancient inception to the present day provide him with significant critical leverage on the concept.

I wonder, though, if perhaps the critical case he has made isn’t too strong. His review of citizenship from the Greeks to contemporary struggles in the United States over immigration, the status of territorial residents, and the many remaining legacies of formal ascriptive citizenship may lead some readers to conclude that, not only has citizenship been exclusionary in practice, but that it is irreparably hard-wired to exclude and delimit some from the privileges of full membership. Román does not want to eliminate citizenship as a status but rather to reform it both by making it more available and by making it truly egalitarian in its scope and implications. The entire historical and theoretical record he presents, however, suggests that this aspiration may well be impossible to achieve. His work supports the conclusion that citizenship as a status is inherently conditional upon the putative citizen’s capacity to perform his citizenship in ways that replicate or at least reflect the civic practices of those who have always had full access to the privileges attached to the status.

The reader leaves Román’s book, then, within the classic critical race perspective that, while the ideal of equality may well be unachievable, political reality dictates continued investment in the struggle. Further, political reality demands that equality be presented as a tangible concrete goal, both to inspire activists to continue their work and to hold policy makers accountable for their failures to meet the mark. Perhaps this is ultimately unsatisfying to some readers, but those readers must necessarily either conclude that Román is incorrect in his critique – a challenging task – or grapple with the more radical implications of abandoning equal citizenship as an ideal.

Haney Lopez, Ian. 1996. WHITE BY LAW: THE LEGAL CONSTRUCTION OF RACE. New York: New York University Press.
Smith, Rogers. 1997. CIVIC IDEALS: CONFLICTING VISIONS OF CITIZENSHIP IN U.S. HISTORY. New Haven: Yale University Press.

© Copyright 2011 by the author, Julie Novkov.