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dehumanization, citizenship, humanity, race


The 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 discusses the concept of dehumanization and its role in the infliction of harm on a dehumanized class of people. Part II discusses 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 examines 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.

Part IV concludes 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.


University of Akron