Status: Graduate Student University: Northwestern University / Université Laval Advisor



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Author: Pierre-Luc Dostie Proulx
Email: pierreluc@northwestern.edu
Status: Graduate Student
University: Northwestern University / Université Laval
Advisor: Professor Charles Taylor / Professor Jocelyn Maclure
Title: American Citizenship and Minority Rights
Word count: 6500
Abstract: Since the United States has mostly been built through diversified polyethnic immigration, stability has always been an important political issue. Voluntary integration has been the key to ensuring the cohesion of people coming from very different backgrounds. However, some groups, such as the American Indians and the Puerto Ricans, seem to be bound in a particular way to the ideal of American citizenship. Hence several authors make a conceptual distinction between ‘national minorities’ and ‘ethnic groups.’ Political theorists such as Michael Walzer occasionally acknowledge this difference but refuse to address any of its political consequences, at least from their theoretical standpoints. I will argue that this attitude stems from two political fears of instability. I intend to show that these fears should not have the last word. I will argue for a clear distinction among the patterns of cultural diversity and for a multilayered ideal of American citizenship sustaining a stable society and consistent with self-government rights. However, since American national minority groups are generally small and dispersed, one might question the political pertinence of making a distinction among these patterns and associating specific rights with them. I will defend the idea that these distinctions give us powerful tools to analyze polyethnic demands. An approach integrating such distinctions is not only compatible with a restructured ideal of American citizenship, but is also helpful in handling the interplay between the ‘limitation’ and the ‘recognition’ of ethnic communities.

American Citizenship and Minority Rights
1. Introduction

Is it ‘unamerican’ to grant self-government rights1 to national minorities living within the United States? Can such rights destabilize the shared comprehension of American citizenship or create a ‘ripple effect’ and thus weaken the social union? According to some political theorists such as Michael Walzer, the ideal of American citizenship is inconsistent with the granting of self-government rights to American national minorities. Far from being chauvinists, these theorists fear that the acceptance of such rights would lead to political instability. Even though they acknowledge that some groups’ demands for self-government rights have “a good deal of weight,” they think that we should refuse to grant such privileges so as to preserve political unity (Glazer 1983: 119). According to them, only such unity can sustain political stability. I will argue, in accord with Will Kymlicka and Michel Seymour’s main theses, that this position is based on an ambiguous distinction between the diverse minority groups living in the United States and on a narrow comprehension of what they call the national consensus about American citizenship. Refusing to admit the possibility of a shared comprehension of citizenship consistent with self-government rights, these theorists simply reject the latter option. This paper aims to expose some arguments supporting a theoretical approach which does not refuse, before consideration, American national minorities’ access to self-government rights.


In order to accomplish this task, I will outline some of the main features of the ideal of American citizenship. To this end, I will show how voluntary integration has helped sustain political stability. One of the key elements behind successful integration processes are their equal granting of individual rights. I will argue that this crucial aspect of American politics has hampered the appraisal of group-specific rights (2). This will lead me to point out a specific tension between this ideal of citizenship and some specific groups. So as to clarify the matter, I will make a conceptual distinction between ethnic groups and national minorities. I will also distinguish the different sets of rights generally associated with each group. This section will be closed by a portrayal of the inconsistency of some political theorists in the handling of this tension (3). I will then show the reasons behind this lack of theoretical support. I will point out two political fears related to the granting of self-government rights to American national minorities: 1) the fear of an incompatibility between the ideal of American citizenship and self-government rights and 2) the fear of a ripple effect from national minorities to ethnic groups. I will conclude this section by describing how this emphasis on political stability may clash with the requirements of justice (4). In the last section, I will demonstrate that these political fears of instability are specious and assert that it is possible to propose a multilayered conception of American citizenship which sustains a stable society and recognizes the distinction between national and ethnic minorities. In order to accomplish this, I will need to insist on a clear and thorough distinction between these two patterns of cultural diversity. I will end this paper by asserting that such a distinction gives us useful tools to handle the complex interplay between the ‘limitation’ and the ‘recognition’ of ethnic communities (5).
2. Immigration and integration: the American model

In this section, I will address the main reason that the United States has succeeded in sustaining political stability in spite of the strong polyethnic constitution of the country –namely, its processes of voluntary integration. I will refer to the history of American immigration in order to focus on the ideal of American citizenship and its fundamental characteristics. This will allow me to argue that its insistence on individual rights, beyond all its intrinsic merits, has hampered the appraisal of collective rights.


Rarely does one disregard the fact that one of the most crucial aspects of American history comes from its prominent processes of immigration. As Maldwyn Jones famously asserts, immigration is “America’s historic raison d’être” (Jones 1960: 1). It is now customary to acknowledge that American life takes place in a complex jumble of both diversity and homogeneity. Before its establishment, however, cultural diversity was commonly construed as potentially chaotic for political stability. Hence, many theorists argued that cultural homogeneity was necessary to sustain political stability. They claimed, in accord with John Stuart Mill’s theories, that it is “in general a necessary condition of free institutions that the boundaries of governments should coincide in the main with those of nationalities” (Mill 1972: 233). Seeing no possible political stability outside the limits of a homogeneous nation-state, these theorists defended processes of coercive assimilation and border redrawing wherever cultural differences were considered deep-rooted. This theoretical construal has indeed emerged more than once throughout the development of occidental democracies.
Prior to the 1960s, immigrants… were expected to shed their distinctive heritage and assimilate entirely to existing cultural norms. This is known as the ‘Anglo-conformity’ model of immigration. Indeed, some groups were denied entry if they were seen as unassimilable (e.g. restrictions on Chinese immigration policy in Canada and United States, the ‘white-only’ immigration policy in Australia). Assimilation was seen as essential for political stability, and was further rationalized through ethnocentric denigration of other cultures. (Kymlicka 1995a: 14)
Even though this model had some supporters in the United States between the first wave of Dutch and English settlements and the ethnic revival of the 1960s and 1970s, it is now commonly rejected for a more tolerant and pluralistic one. Several theorists such as William James and Horace Kallen helped to jettison the ‘Anglo-conformity’ model. Kallen argues that there is no intrinsic incompatibility between cultural differences and political stability. In his famous book Culture and Democracy, he asserts that “democracy involves not the elimination of differences but the perfection and conservation of differences” (Kallen 1924: 61). Kallen bases his argumentation on a specific conception of human nature. He asserts that “nature is naturally pluralistic, her unities are eventual, not primary; mutual adjustments, not regimentations of superior force” (Kallen 1924: 178-179). He thus helps sell the idea that political stability does not require cultural homogeneity and that a politics of difference must be considered in the United States. One can say that, from that time, the reception of cultural differences has always met more supporters in the political realm. However, the surging theoretical belief in pluralism had yet to prove successful in practice: it had to show its consistency with political stability. Kymlicka echoes the fear of several theorists in asking, “What would bind people together when they came from such different backgrounds, including every conceivable race, religion, language group, sharing virtually nothing in common?” (Kymlicka 1995: 61). The theoretical celebration of cultural differences did not quench liberal anxiety toward the dearth of political unity. As Walzer puts it:
[Kallen] had surprisingly little to say about how the different groups were to be held together in a single political order [and] what citizenship might mean in a pluralist society. (Walzer 1992: 145)
The crucial problem of pluralistic views consists of encompassing the citizens’ differences within a stable political structure. In the foreword of Multinational Democracies, Charles Taylor evokes several ways in which the conditions of legitimacy of our democratic societies require a minimal base of political unity. He reminds us that in order to sustain processes of deliberation, citizens must have “a minimal common focus, a set of agreed goals, or principles, or concerns, about which they can debate, argue and struggle” (Tully 2001: xiii). No matter how obvious and manifest these conditions of legitimacy are for us now, the ethnic revival of the 1960s and 1970s converts this simple issue into a problem of considerable magnitude. A balance had to be reached between complete assimilation and the conservation of differences – a balance which could sustain political unity without ignoring cultural diversity.
One can say that the ethnic revival gave a clear answer to this conundrum: political unity and, thus, political stability, can be ensured through voluntary integration. Despite the numerous debates concerning the degree of integration necessary, no political theorist would now deny the obvious fact that immigrants arriving in the United States have to bridge the gap between their ethnic identity and their new American identity. In order to hope for the long-term survival of the United States, immigrants must view themselves as members of a single polyethnic American community. In fact, this line of thought has been followed since the mid-1960s. Citizenship was granted to immigrants willing to shed a part of their native culture and embrace the fundamental principles at the basis of the Constitution. Thus, voluntary integration has been the solution to liberal anxiety; it helped sustain the political stability of the country without any type of assimilation processes.
With these preliminary considerations in mind, let us sketch a picture of the ideal of American citizenship. Clearly, this ideal aims to sustain a stable society while avoiding any type of austere assimilation. To this end, it asks immigrants to shed a part of their heritage so they can view themselves as a member of a larger American community. Another fundamental characteristic of this ideal is its inherent aspiration for neutrality. As Walzer posits in his book What It Means to Be American, citizenship ensures neutrality by avoiding any kind of distinctiveness.
The United States is a political nation of cultural nationalities. Citizenship is separated from every sort of particularism: the state is nationally, ethnically, racially, and religiously neutral. At least, this is true in principle, and whenever neutrality is violated, there is likely to be a principled fight against the violation. (Walzer 1992a: 9)
One could argue that this idealistic perception is not entirely accurate. The ideal of American citizenship has been known to demand from the perspective citizen some knowledge of English and American history. Nevertheless, it is hard to deny that neutrality has played (and still plays) an important ideological role in the ideal of American citizenship. One of the central means that had been used to reach such a neutral conception of citizenship was an emphasis on the individual; we can affirm that the neutrality of the ideal of American citizenship is guaranteed in part by the granting of individual rights. The emphasis put on individual rights is directly related to the success of voluntary integration processes and political stability. In retrospect, we can assert that this political emphasis has served the United States well. However, beyond all its intrinsic merits, this aim for a neutral ideal of citizenship is not without side effects. For instance, it has unsurprisingly hampered the demands for protecting particular identities by means of group-specific rights. As the American political theorist Alfred Stepan puts it:
[The American constitution] establishes a form of symmetrical federalism, which is bolstered by a certain normative disinclination on the part of Americans to accept the concept of collective rights … The concept of collective rights is in tension with the traditional American way of thinking about such matters, which is based on individual rights. (Stepan 1999: 29-31)
Even though the reception of polyethnic rights evolved during the last few years, American politics still leaves little room for the appraisal of group-specific rights. Let us examine one consequence of this ‘disinclination.’
3. The distinction between national minorities and ethnic groups

At first glance, some American minority groups seem to be bound in a particular way to the ideal of American citizenship: American Indians, Chicanos (construed as the communities annexed after the Mexican War of 1846-1848), Puerto Ricans, Native Hawaiians, among others. In order to clarify the vocabulary used in this section, I will make a conceptual distinction between national and ethnic groups. This will allow for the explanation of why many authors believe that the differences among minority groups influence the set of rights that they can ask for. Finally, the works of two important theorists, Michael Walzer and Nathan Glazer, will be examined in terms of the inconsistencies in their distinction between national and ethnic groups.


3.1 – Two patterns of cultural diversity

There are a variety of ways in which minorities can integrate into a larger community. According to historian John Higham, “the United States has participated in almost all of the processes by which a nation or empire can incorporate a variety of [minority] groups” (Higham 1984: 8). It is then erroneous to claim that voluntary immigration is the only way in which communities have integrated into American life.



The peopling of America, which Bismarck once called the most important fact of modern history, was accomplished not only through voluntary immigration but also through enslavement, invasion, and conquest. (Thernstrom: 248).
Kymlicka is one of the first authors to emphasize the fact that the differences in the mode of incorporation shape the political status of minority groups and the sort of relationship they desire with the larger community. In order to clarify this claim, I will make a conceptual distinction between two broad patterns of cultural diversity: national and ethnic groups. Obviously, this division is not completely clear-cut and the mixing of communities creates some overlapping. There are also communities which do not belong to either of these two groups – the African-American communities, for instance2. However, this distinction is defined enough to be used unproblematically.
Kymlicka broadly describes a nation as “a historical community, more or less institutionally complete, occupying a given territory or homeland, sharing a distinct language and culture” (Kymlicka 1995a: 11). Thus construed, a national minority is a community which promotes a culture differing from the one of the majority. The most important aspect of these communities is their mode of incorporation into the larger society. These communities have generally been conquered or assimilated; their political position does not reflect a voluntary decision. They are historical communities because their current situation is the result of historical contingency3. National minorities do not view themselves as deeply rooted in the larger community; they typically want to be considered distinct societies.
This specific pattern of cultural diversity can be usefully contrasted with ethnic groups. Within the limits of this paper, I will restrain the definition of ethnic communities to immigrant groups. Thus, as we have seen in the previous section, these communities are expected to integrate into the larger community. Within their new territory, the preservation of their cultural heritage must not thwart their integration into the larger community.
These differentiations are essential for the handling and understanding of minorities’ claims. As Seymour puts it:
These distinctions are crucial for many different reasons. Different sorts of communities with their own sets of problems require specific solutions. It is a superficial understanding of cultural diversity which leads us to confuse them all or run them together. (Seymour 1998: 60)
Among theorists of multiculturalism, there is general agreement that these patterns of cultural diversity influence the legitimacy of minorities’ claims. It is generally accepted that national minorities have legitimate claims that ethnic groups do not have. For instance, national groups are known to call for the right of self-determination4; thus, they may ask the larger society for sovereignty or a weaker form of self-government rights. However, it is interesting to note that the proponents of self-government rights affirm that these claims do not apply to ethnic communities. The latter groups have the duty to integrate the larger community – they cannot legitimately ask for more independence. Yet these communities can ask for polyethnic rights – that is, collective rights which aim to protect a part of their cultural heritage (e.g. holidays, religion, etc.). Hence two varieties of minorities account for two different sets of rights.
The United States is a fascinating laboratory for studying both self-government and polyethnic rights. While the protection of ethnic groups is increasingly accepted in the American political literature, self-government rights are still generally rejected.
3.2 – American theorists and the two patterns of cultural diversity

One could describe the United States as the superlative example of ethnic pluralism. Indeed, for the last two or three centuries, the United States has been the center of global population movements. But this fact does not preclude the presence of American national minorities. As explained by the American historian Stephen Thernstrom:


This category most obviously includes the native peoples Columbus erroneously called “Indians” in the delusion that he had reached the shores of Asia. It includes many others as well: French Acadians who were forcibly uprooted by the British before the American Revolution and dispersed to other colonies, Louisiana especially; Hispanics in the Southwest who were annexed when the United States stripped Mexico of her northern provinces from Texas to California after the Mexican War of 1846-1848; Puerto Ricans, Hawaiians, and various other Pacific islanders taken in America’s final expansionist thrust at the close of the nineteenth century. (Thernstrom 1983: 248)
Surprisingly, American political theorists rarely talk about the distinction between national and ethnic communities. From the few authors making this distinction, I will focus on the works of Michael Walzer and Nathan Glazer. Walzer makes the distinction between national groups and ethnic communities by contrasting the “New World” and the “Old World”. He asserts that:
In contrast to the Old World, where pluralism had its origins in conquest and dynastic alliance, pluralism in the New World originated in individual and familial migration. (Walzer 1982: 5)
In the “New World,” pluralism originates from voluntary integration, as in the United States where immigrants have to uproot themselves and integrate into their new society. However, in the “Old World,” pluralism originates from different national groups. Glazer also uses this distinction by contrasting Old World federations composed of multiple national groups with New World countries composed of “dispersed, mixed, assimilated, integrated” ethnic groups (Glazer 1983: 227).
Nevertheless, both authors are inconsistent with this distinction and its possible implications. Sometimes they clearly agree that American national minorities have a special status and self-government rights seem inevitable. Glazer occasionally speaks about the “idiosyncratic and special position” of certain minority groups (Glazer 1983: 213). He writes that:
The Spanish-speaking groups, the American Indians, and perhaps some other groups can make stronger claims for public support of their distinctive cultures than can European groups … I think there is a good deal of weight in the argument that the distinctive cultural differences of … the Spanish-speaking, and American Indians give them a larger moral claim on American society than European ethnic group possess. (Glazer 1983: 118-19)
Although acknowledging that these groups have a special status, he does not promote any formal political action to protect this status. Instead, he claims that these groups must integrate into American society like other immigrant groups. Perhaps such minority groups have a different status, but “we must not exaggerate the weight of [their] argument” (Glazer 1983: 119).
Walzer follows Glazer by asserting that these groups have a different “value.” In a brilliant but quite unusual article entitled The New Tribalism, Walzer agrees to consider special rights for American Indians because of their special status. According to him, “something more than equal citizenship is due them, some degree of collective self-rule” (Walzer 1992b: 167).
Yet this position is an exception to the rule. In other articles of the same period, Walzer refuses to acknowledge this difference of status. This latter attitude seems to be the prominent one. Although agreeing with Charles Taylor that the political treatment of national minorities calls for a specific liberal approach (in a case such as Canada), Walzer refuses that such an approach is adequate for the United States.
Given the absence of strong territorially based minorities, the American union never faced a “Quebecan” challenge. The plural unions are free to do the best they can on their own behalf. But they get no help from the state; they are all, equally, at risk … There is no privileged majority and there are no exceptional minorities. (Walzer 1992c: 101)
National minority rights are highly contested even among leading political theorists. The complex situation of these groups makes easy labels difficult. In the next section, I will argue that this inconsistency is the result of an unclear distinction among the patterns of cultural diversity and of two political fears related to the granting of national minority rights.
4. Refusing to grant self-government rights to national minorities: two political fears

Why do both authors think that it is better to refuse the granting of self-government rights to American national minorities? Kymlicka asserts that they “reject the implications” of the distinction that they themselves make. Is this true? Walzer and Glazer bring forward two different reasons – two political fears – to explain their positions. First, I will elaborate on the idea that self-government rights are inconsistent with our “shared understanding” of American citizenship. I will then explain the fear, mostly developed by Glazer, of a “ripple effect.” I will finally use these two fears to show how this aim for political stability may clash with the requirements of justice



4.1 – The “shared understanding” of American citizenship

According to Walzer, the key justification for the refusal of rights to national minorities comes from within the common comprehension of American politics. He argues that our “shared understanding” of the ideal of American citizenship is incompatible with self-government rights. As we have seen in the second section, this ideal emphasizes the importance of individual rights – that each person, counting for one and only one, must have the same set of rights. According to him, this neutral conception of citizenship is so rooted in the ‘American experience’ that any breach toward collective rights would weaken the general comprehension of what it means to be an American and may affect the social union. Walzer affirms that national rights are “inconsistent with our historical traditions and shared understandings – inconsistent, too, with contemporary living patterns, deeply and bitterly divisive” (Walzer 1983a: 151).


In his book Sphere of Justice, Walzer asserts that this incompatibility with our “shared understandings” constitutes a sufficient justification for refusing self-government rights.
[The adjustment between national minorities and the larger community] must itself be worked out politically, and its precise character will depend upon understandings shared among the citizens about the value of cultural diversity, local autonomy, and so on. It is to these understandings that we must appeal when we make our arguments–all of us, not philosophers alone; for in matters of morality, argument simply is the appeal to common meanings. (Walzer 1983a: 29)
American history has shaped the common comprehension of ‘political membership.’ According to Walzer, this neutral comprehension excludes any kind of self-government or national rights.
One of the most important consequences of this theory is its promotion of a specific type of political association; that is, to ensure stability, the United States must consider itself to be a nation-state. The American experience calls for a strong commitment to individual rights and neutrality, a commitment which is inconsistent with all sorts of collective goals beyond personal freedom and security. American politics cannot leave space for a type of liberalism which “is committed to the survival and flourishing of a particular nation, culture or religion, or of a (limited) set of nations, cultures or religions.” (Walzer 1992c: 99)
In his article Individual Rights against Group Rights, Glazer develops an idea similar to Walzer’s theories of ‘shared understanding.’ He asserts that “there is such a thing as a state ideology or a national consensus” about American immigration. Glazer argues that the United States has “as a national ideal a unitary and new ethnic identity, that of American” (Glazer 1978: 100). This new identity is the basis for political unity.
According to him, the granting of self-government rights to national minorities could weaken the idea of a shared American identity. It would send an unclear message about the politics of difference used by the United States and, thus, weaken the social union. Again, the threat of political instability and the national understanding of political membership are considered sufficient reasons for the refusal of self-government rights.
This fear of breaking the common comprehension of American citizenship poses an important challenge for the advocates of group-specific rights. But before analyzing this argument more closely, I will present another fear of instability which arises specifically in discussions about self-government rights: the fear of a political “ripple effect.”

4.2 – The fear of a “ripple effect”

In order to warn us about the potential difficulties of self-government rights, Glazer puts forth a second argument. He exposes his apprehension of a “ripple effect” or a “slippery slope” about minority rights. Glazer fears that granting self-government rights to national minorities will encourage ethnic groups to claim similar rights. He asserts that American national minorities are too dispersed and assimilated “to permit without confusion a policy that separates out some for special treatment. But if we try, then many other groups will join the queue, or try to, and the hope of a larger fraternity of all Americans will have to be abandoned.” (Glazer 1983: 227)


In a multiethnic society such as the United States, such a policy would “encourage one group after another” to raise claims for self-government rights. This catenary effect could hamper the integration of ethnic groups into the larger society. Here again, political stability asks for the absence of distinctiveness among communities. In his article The New Tribalism, Walzer describes Glazer’s fear, without agreeing with it, by saying:
[The aim for more independence] will be endless – so we are told – each divorce justifying the next one, smaller and smaller groups claiming the rights of self-determination; and the politics that results will be noisy, incoherent, and deadly. (Walzer 1992b: 166)
For the sake of political unity, Glazer prefers to ignore national minorities’ claims. This theoretical decision is not insignificant since it promotes stability at the expense of justice. Let us now sketch this specific confrontation.
4.3 – Stability before justice

If one agrees that justice implies the possibility of granting self-government rights to national minorities (as these authors do on several occasions), we can say that Walzer and Glazer sacrifice justice for stability – even though national minority demands are not unjustified, both prefer to ignore them than to put the social union of the country at risk.


One can ask whether it is morally wrong to sacrifice justice for stability. At first glance, the answer does not seem obvious. Would it not be harmful for citizens to have a society which accepts a just but unstable conception of justice? In light of Rawlsian liberal theory, it is necessary that a good theory of justice explains how it can create and sustain stability.
However, I intend to show that this particular conflict between justice and stability is the result of a weak conception of American citizenship and not of a genuine inconsistency with self-government rights. I will argue that both fears are unjustified and that it is possible to conceptualize a multilayered conception of American citizenship that sustains a stable society and recognizes the distinction between national and ethnic minorities.
5. Toward a restructured ideal of American citizenship

In order to introduce a restructured ideal of American citizenship consistent with the granting of self-government rights to national minorities, I will show that the two political fears for stability introduced by Walzer and Glazer are spurious. In order to outline these two points, I will show that these fears contain some internal inconsistencies and I will insist on a clear distinction between national minorities and ethnic groups. This will help me establish a multilayered conception of American citizenship consistent with group-specific rights. I will close this section by showing the relevance of these considerations – that a clear distinction among the patterns of cultural diversity and a multilayered conception of American citizenship can help us in the handling of the ‘limitation’ and the ‘recognition’ of group-specific rights.


5.1 – Against the “ripple effect”

Walzer argues against the fear of a “ripple effect” or, as he says, the fear of a “slippery slope.” According to his article The New Tribalism, we can find stopping points along the slope. Walzer suggests that it is not impossible to restrain the principle of self-determination and find arrangements between the larger community and the minorities. As he puts it:


This is a slippery slope down which we need not slide. In fact, there are many conceivable arrangements between dominance and detribalization and between dominance and separation – and there are moral and political reasons for choosing different arrangements in different circumstances. The principle of self-determination is subject to interpretation and amendment. (Walzer 1992b: 166)
As we have already seen, a method used to stop the demands for self-government rights is to distinguish among the patterns of cultural diversity. This is precisely the path followed by Michel Seymour. He asserts that the fear of a “ripple effect” stems from a deficient distinction between national minorities and ethnic groups. Obviously, ignoring such a distinction may influence ethnic groups in asking the same privileges granted to national minorities and, thus, create an unstable political situation. Glazer’s inconsistency in the handling of minority groups leads him to conclude that such policies could engender instability:
But this is a conclusion that we can draw only if we confuse different sort of populational variety. If we do not confuse these, then we shall perhaps be able to identify among the different communities within a state those that can count as nations, and specify the nature of their collective rights. (Seymour 1998: 60)
According to Seymour, a clear and thorough distinction between national and ethnic minorities would alleviate this fear of instability since it would help to shed light on the particular problems of each community and on the specific solutions that they require. This distinction between national and ethnic minorities and its intrinsic limitation of self-government rights would prevent the possibility of such ripple effect.
5.2 – American citizenship and group-specific rights

As stated in the second section, the aim for political stability is tightly linked with the aim for a neutral ideal of American citizenship. Can we construe such an ideal as being consistent with group-specific rights? Is it true that these rights are incompatible with the American political traditions? In order to preserve stability, Walzer asserts that the United States must conceive of itself as a nation-state and avoid distinctions within different types of citizenship. I will argue that this specific conception of American citizenship is misleading.


According to Kymlicka, the distinction among the patterns of cultural diversity is necessary to permit the granting of self-government rights within a stable society. He maintains that such a distinction should be acknowledged by political theorists in their elaboration of the ideal of American citizenship.
[They] say the state must either give political recognition to both ethnic and national groups, or deny political recognition to both sort of groups. But why can the national consensus not emphasize what they themselves emphasize – the difference between the coerced assimilation of minority nations and the voluntary assimilation of immigrants? Why can the national consensus not recognize that national minorities have legitimate claims which voluntary immigrants do not? (Kymlicka 1995: 66)
But one could insist, as Walzer does, that the historical traditions of American citizenship are inconsistent with such recognition – that the distinction between national and ethnic groups is intrinsically divisive and unstable. This historical picture is incomplete. In practice, American policy recognizes the special status of some national minorities and concedes self-government rights. Even though the struggle for recognition continues, the United Sates recognizes several tribal governments of American Indians, Puerto Rico is a commonwealth and the Guam community is under a protectorate, but still on the United Nations list of Non-Self-Governing Territories. Walzer ignores the importance of these arrangements. These specific treatments reflect on the shared understanding of the ideal of citizenship more than Walzer acknowledges. For instance, the special rights granted to American Indians constitute a non-negligible part of the American life. The opponents of this ‘special treatment’ generally disagree about the rights that the government should grant to these minorities (tax deductions, casinos) but not necessarily about the special status itself. Even though we cannot disregard the fact that the ideal of American citizenship generally leans toward individual rights, this ideal is not unknown to self-government rights; these rights are already a part of the common conception of American citizenship.
There is almost no theoretical support for national rights in American political literature. A comprehensive American liberal theory should recognize both the multinational and multiethnic characters of the United States. Considering that the shared understanding of the ideal of American citizenship is not intrinsically inconsistent with self-government rights, I will argue for a multilayered conception of citizenship. I qualify this restructured conception as multilayered since, as I conceive it, it integrates a complex overlapping of national and multinational identities. This conception of citizenship insists on the distinction between national and ethnic minorities and the set of rights they can ask for. It aims to facilitate discussions about the recognition of national minorities and does not construe collective and self-government rights as inconsistent since these rights are already a part of American life. Even though theorists may agree with Stepan to say that “individuals are indeed the primary bearers of rights, and no group rights should violate individual rights in a democratic polity”, we can still defend an ideal of citizenship consistent with collective rights and respectful of the priority of individual rights (Stepan 1999: 31). As Seymour asserts, it is only through a clear distinction among the different patterns of cultural diversity that we can reach “a delicate balance between individual and collective rights” (Seymour 1998: 60). This restructured ideal aims to reach such a balance.
5.3 – Polyethnic rights

I will now show the advantages of supporting a clear and thorough distinction between national minorities and ethnic groups and of clarifying the set of rights associated with each group. I will argue that this distinction gives us powerful tools to handle the necessary interplay between the ‘limitation’ and the ‘recognition’ of ethnic communities.


Many authors posit that there is no ‘strong’ pressure from American national minorities for self-government rights. This perception is not completely accurate. For instance, the struggle for federal recognition by the Monacans and other American Indian tribes within Virginia is one of the most obvious cases of national minorities’ struggles in the United States. They refer to a “paper genocide” from the federal government. Contrary to most of the official documents, these tribes claim that the recognition of their specificity is not acknowledged at the federal level. Even though they are able to get some privileges from the state to which they belong, these American Indians criticize the silence of Congress. The Monacans are a germane example of this ‘paper genocide’ since their sovereignty bill still is stalled in Congress for more than six years. The Monacans tribe members argue that “federal recognition would bring federal grants for college scholarships, job training, housing, health care and other badly needed programs” (Cramer 2006). Opponents refer to the recurring problems of Indians-run casinos, tax exemptions, water rights and police control. Even though this specific tribe asserts that they are not interested in opening casinos, theorists see little prospect for progress in the current Congress. This kind of struggle arises sporadically all around the United States.
The diverse contemporary theories about American national minorities are of little help to solve the demands of American Indian tribes. A theoretical stance which supports the distinction between national and ethnic minorities and the multilayered conception of American citizenship could help settle this issue. However, since these groups are generally small and dispersed, these problems are not urgent in American politics. Thus, one can ask whether it is relevant to integrate the possibility of according self-government rights to national minorities with the ideal of American citizenship. Indeed, the ‘real’ domestic problems that the United States faces are the demands of polyethnic rights by ethnic communities. Why then should we operate with this distinction between national and ethnic groups and argue for a multilayered conception of American citizenship? Why spend our energy on such a ‘small’ issue? I will argue that the pertinence of these specifications about national minorities lies in the fact that they can clear up ethnic communities’ problems.
A clear distinction between the two patterns of cultural diversity will allow us to shed light on polyethnic demands. Such a distinction will give us reasons to justify the granting or the refusal of minority rights to ethnic communities. First and foremost, this distinction gives us tools to explain why we should refuse self-government rights to ethnic groups. It clarifies that only national minorities can use the right of self-determination. Thus, this distinction limits the range of legitimate claims that these communities can make. At the same time, it leaves open the possibilities of some other sort of group-specific rights such as public funding to support cultural programs – it leaves space for the protection of some aspects of their specific culture, such as ethnic associations, holidays and festivals.
Thus, this distinction can help to settle the complex problems of similar national and ethnic groups. Let us examine the example of Chicanos. This group is known to ask for diverse sorts of self-government rights so as to protect their specific identity. Contrary to American Indians, these communities do not have special protections from the federal government and are often considered ethnic groups. As Kymlicka puts forth:
[Hispanic immigrants to the United States] are said to be uninterested in learning English, or in integrating into the anglophone society. This is a mistake perception, which arises because people treat Hispanics as a single category, and so confuse the demands of Spanish-speaking national minorities (Puerto Ricans and Chicanos) with those of Spanish-speaking immigrants recently arrived from Latin America. (Kymlicka 1995: 16)
The distinction among the patterns of cultural diversity may clarify this complex mixing of Hispanic communities – it can help us to set the boundaries of the possible recognition and limitation of Spanish-speaking immigrants and national minorities. Obviously, one could assert that a categorical refusal of all self-government rights would roughly do the same job. But it would also jettison the distinctive status of national minorities, an unfortunate result that we must try to avoid. By differentiating national rights and polyethnic rights, the demarcation between national and ethnic groups can be used to handle the interplay between the ‘recognition’ and the ‘limitation’ of ethnic communities without relinquishing the “special status” of national minorities.
6. Conclusion

This paper aims to propose a multilayered ideal of American citizenship compatible with group-specific rights – an ideal which accounts for a clear distinction among the different patterns of cultural diversity. It is a liberal approach that does not refuse, before consideration, the granting of self-government rights to American national minorities. As we have seen, this approach can serve to explain our acceptance or refusal of polyethnic rights, since it brings about useful conceptual distinctions: it helps us figure out what type of rights can be appropriated (recognition) and what type cannot (limitation). Thus, this flexible approach to citizenship gives us new tools to handle polyethnic rights within the United States.

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1 In this paper, I will use the terms ‘self-government rights’ and ‘group-specific rights’ as coined by Will Kymlicka. (Kymlicka 1995)

2 This special case is not within the scope of this article, but it will probably be the subject of a future work.

3 Let us not forget, however, that the incorporation of a nation into a larger community may also be voluntary, as in many federations. Nevertheless, in these cases, the incorporation of the minority group into the larger society does not weaken the special historical status of the minority.

4 Within the limits of this paper, I will assume that it is possible to give a moral justification for the right of self-determination. Going into the details of such justification would exceed the framework of this article.



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