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    Citizenship Fragility

    By Derek Barnes–

    Over the last eight years and primarily during election season, political pundits and leaders have tried to gain their base’s attention and support by using hyperbole that brands individuals and acts as “existential threats to democracy.” What does a “threat to democracy” mean to the average American, and how concerned should we be about democracy’s fragility? Some Americans don’t know what a democracy is or how it works and why it’s different from other forms of government. Political historians would argue that the real “threat to democracy” is voter apathy, lack of civic engagement, and loss of citizenship rights, which can happen slowly and methodically over time—especially during times of crisis.

    In the chronicles of American history, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 stands as progress and a milestone in the struggle for racial equality. Yet, despite the legislative triumph, the erosion of rights for African Americans has persisted, casting a shadow over the promise of full equality under the law. The journey from emancipation to the Civil Rights Movement was marked by struggle, sacrifice, and resilience, but the path toward true citizenship remains fraught with obstacles, challenges, and continued assaults.

    Over the last 60 years, eroding citizenship and rights for Black Americans have been a persistent and insidious phenomenon, manifested in various forms of discrimination, disenfranchisement, and structural inequality. From the rise of mass incarceration to the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, vestiges of racism continue to shape the lived experiences of Black and brown people in America, and all U.S. citizens should be concerned and take heed.

    Despite progress in some areas, such as the rise of Black businesses and political leaders, the influence of mega-celebrities, and the election of Barack Obama, systemic barriers to full citizenship and equal access to resources remain deeply entrenched in the fabric of society. Access to more exclusive products and upmarket services has turbocharged mega-consumerism in populations that didn’t have access to these markets historically. The quest for a better life and a higher standard of living has led to more wealth and capital extraction without tangible community investment or reinvestment by businesses that market to communities of color.

    Economic justice is essential in claiming Black citizenship rights. Despite the gains of the civil rights movement, economic disparities between Black and white Americans remain stark and persistent. From employment discrimination to wealth inequality, Black communities continue to face structural barriers to economic opportunity and prosperity. To reverse this trend, we must enact policies that promote economic empowerment and business investment while addressing the root causes of poverty and inequality, including systemic racism, bias, and pay disparities in the workplace.

    One of the most glaring examples of what causes the loss of citizenship rights is the criminal justice system, which disproportionately targets and incarcerates Black and brown people. Over-policing these communities was born out of 19th-century slave patrols and white vigilante groups. From racial profiling to harsh sentencing practices, the criminal justice system perpetuates cycles of poverty, disenfranchisement, and social exclusion. Mass incarceration not only deprives individuals of their liberty but also strips them of their citizenship rights, including the right to vote, access to public assistance, and full participation in civic life. Comprehensive reforms are needed to address systemic injustices and inequality within the criminal justice system.

    The consistent effort to gerrymander communities and peel back voting rights poses a grave threat to American citizenship. Since the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to strike down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, states across the country have enacted voter suppression laws targeting minority communities with surgical precision. From voter ID requirements to the purging of voter rolls, these tactics are designed to disenfranchise voters of color and undermine the democratic process. To safeguard the right to vote and ensure equal access to the ballot box, Congress must pass legislation to restore and strengthen the Voting Rights Act, and states must enact measures to expand access to voting for all citizens.

    Education is another battleground in the fight for citizenship rights. Despite the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, which declared racial segregation in schools unconstitutional, educational disparities persist along racial lines today. In many ways, it has gotten worse with permanent public-school closings, demands for more charter and private schools, and limited school choices—primarily for Black, Latino, and working-class families.

    From underfunded schools to the school-to-prison pipeline, underserved communities continue to face systemic barriers to academic success and social mobility. Underpaid and underqualified teachers and harsher punishment for Black and Latino boys in school adds to the crisis. Investing in equitable and inclusive education policies that address the root causes of educational inequality and ensuring that all students have access to high-quality schools and social services resources is imperative.

    At the heart of the struggle for full citizenship and rights is the need for a collective reckoning with our nation’s history of racial injustice. From slavery to segregation, the legacy of white supremacy continues to shape our society and perpetuate cycles of inequality and oppression—fueled today by anti-woke and anti-history movements. To move forward, we must confront and reconcile this history with honesty and humility, acknowledging the deep wounds and trauma of the past while committing ourselves to building a more just and equitable future.

    Restoring and protecting citizenship rights requires more than just legislative reforms; it demands a fundamental shift in our society’s values and priorities. It requires us to recognize the inherent dignity and worth of every individual, regardless of race, ethnicity, or economic standing, and to work tirelessly to dismantle the structures of racism, white supremacy, and inequality that continue to divide us. Let’s listen to the voices of those who have been marginalized and oppressed and stand in solidarity as allies and advocates for change and rehabilitation.

    Today, powerful forces continue undermining the freedom and individual rights of many historically marginalized communities that are often divided by gender, race, ethnicity, religion, and LGBTQ+ identity. In a rapidly changing America, retaining political power and economic control by an elite class is critical. Controlling commodities, information, and the distribution of resources will ensure an enduring power structure is maintained. Keeping communities divided is essential to ensuring people aren’t enlightened or organized enough to push back and dismantle embedded power centers that harm us.

    Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The erosion of citizenship and rights for Black Americans is not just a Black issue; it is a moral and ethical imperative for all of us who believe in the principles of justice, equality, and democracy. It is a call to action to reaffirm our commitment to the fundamental values that define us as a nation and to work together to build a more inclusive and equitable society for future generations. Only then can we genuinely claim the mantle of citizenship and democracy for all.

    Derek Barnes is the CEO of the East Bay Rental Housing Association ( ). He currently serves on the board of Homebridge CA and Homerise. Follow him on Twitter @DerekBarnesSF and on Instagram at DerekBarnes.SF

    Social Philanthropreneur
    Published on February 22, 2024