“YOU CAN’T SIT WITH US”: The American Mentality

Ever since the pilgrims landed in America, America has always had an “us” and “them” mentality. Whether it be the pilgrims and the Indians, American citizens and the slaves, Americans and the Japanese, Americans and the illegal immigrants, Americans and the Arabs etc.. As a country that prides itself on being a melting pot mixed of all different cultures, its ironic we also always try to keep someone else out of our “inner group of citizens”.

After realizing this trend of exclusivity in America’s past I started to wonder if that is why citizenship in the United States is so valuable- because not everyone can have it. At the chance of sounding like a stereotypical girl, let me compare it to the Plastics in the movie Mean Girls. For those are you who have not seen the movie, the Plastics are the “cool” girls in high school. They’re the girls that everyone wants to be, the group that everyone wants to be apart of. This group of girls is so “elite” because not everyone can be apart of them, their classmates can’t even sit at the same table at lunch with them unless asked. After watching the movie you realize that the individual girls that make up the plastics are not what makes the group “cool”, but rather it’s the fact that not everyone can be a Plastic. This same idea of exclusivity exists with American citizenship.

If we look back to the days of slavery the ability to call yourself an American citizen had great value to it because a large part of the population, the slaves, was not able to. Not only were slaves not allowed to vote but they were not allowed to earn, which according to Shklar prevents them from being able to be classified as an American citizen. By keeping African Americans in slavery we successfully excluded them from citizenship. Additionally, even after we freed the slaves, thus giving them the ability to earn, they still were excluded from citizenship because they were still not permitted to vote (even though they had the right according to the 15th amendment) until the Voting Rights Act in 1960.

African Americans are not the only ethnicity that America has excluded from its inner circle. During WWII thousands of Japanese Americans citizens (they could vote and they were earning) were treated as traitors and placed in internment camps. Not only were they removed from their homes, forced to leave behind their belongings, and forced into cramp conditions, but these individuals also lost their standing as citizens in Shklar’s terms. While these American citizens technically had the right to vote they were physically unable to since they couldn’t leave the internment to return to their homes during the voting. Thus not only were these Japanese Americans physically excluded from society by being placed in their camps, but they were also excluded from the inner circle due to their loss of citizenship as standing.

Fast-forward now to today and there are thousands of illegal immigrants that are living in our country but are not classified as American citizens. These immigrants only meet one of Shklar’s requirements- they earn. They are the people who are working in the fields harvesting the fruits and vegetables we eat and taking the jobs that some people argue other Americans don’t want. They are successfully keeping America’s industry running, from the bottom level. However, since they cannot give their identity they are not able to vote. It is important for me to note that I am not advocating that illegal immigration is okay- I am only highlighting the fact that America always has a group of individuals that we leave out in society, even if we are benefiting from them.

There will always be those individuals that fall outside of the “inner circle” of citizenships because they don’t meet one of Shklar’s requirements of both earning and being able to vote. Whether it is the homeless, the unemployed, the stay at home mom, the students etc. America has always excluded some group in society as a way to give American citizenship value. After all just like the plastics, if everyone could be an American citizen, what would the value be? America will always be that “cool” group in high school that won’t let everyone sit with them.

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17 Responses to “YOU CAN’T SIT WITH US”: The American Mentality

  1. davidkoz says:

    I understand your argument in terms of exclusivity but I’m having difficulty grasping the comparison to “Mean Girls” in terms of Shklar’s definition of citizenship, which seems to be the focus of your post. While the non-plastics are excluded from the plastics’ lunch table, no high school student has the right to vote and the vast majority of them don’t earn. Thus, couldn’t one say that the plastics are as excluded as the rest of the student body as far as Shklar’s definition of citizenship is concerned? I know that you were using “Mean GIrls” as an example of exclusion but I think it’s interesting to frame the movie in such a political context.

    To look further into “Mean Girls” from the prospective of Shklar yields another apropos example of exclusion: that being the relationship between the students and the teachers. As faculty members, the teachers earn and have the vote (assuming that they are not felons, illegal immigrants, etc.). This example serves as somewhat of a microcosm of citizenship in Shklar’s eyes, as students don’t earn or have the right to vote, but the teachers do.

    I think that your post is an interesting one, which easily allowed me to think about exclusion in the context of Shklar.

  2. Robert Tepper says:

    Whereas I definitely agree that there always seems to be a group of people in this country that is excluded from citizenship, I’m not sure if I agree that the only value of citizenship is that it’s exclusive. Sure, many Americans take solace in the fact that they have certain rights and privileges that others don’t have, but I feel that citizenship offers more than that. Citizenship allows people to have a say in their lives, whether that be through voting or buying health insurance, etc. Currently, in relation to illegal immigration, I don’t feel that people don’t want illegal immigrants to have citizenship because it would make citizenship less exclusive, but rather because they feel they shouldn’t have the same rights and privileges since they don’t pay taxes, sign up for national service, etc.

  3. davehopkins2 says:

    I agree with the vast majority of this post. However, I wonder how Shklar would respond to the notion that the United States is becoming more of a “melting pot” in terms of racial diversity. How does Shklar’s notion of citizenship fare in a society where race becomes less and less definable? Historically, most of our divisions have been on the basis of race or ethnicity. However, as American society progresses, it seems as though there are fewer racial differences that can serve as points of legislative discrimination. It is now considered morally wrong to even proffer the idea of institutional racism in the way that it used to exist. There are truly only two groups that against which it seems politically stable to discriminate: the LGBT community and illegal immigrants. It seems to be stable to discriminate against members of the LGBT community because many politicians still largely view LGBT issues and concerns through the proverbial lens of “abomination”, the basis of which is largely religious. Undocumented immigrants bear the brunt of discrimination and loss of citizenship because they are considered to be un-American to begin with. But, these two issues are the subject of current calls for reform. Hopefully this means that discrimination against these two groups will become politically uncouth as time passes. I know that we will most likely find other groups to discriminate against as a society. But, if we run out of groups that can be easily discriminated against, perhaps the definition of citizenship will change to include more diverse characteristics.

  4. Amanda Gayer says:

    I agree with Robert’s observation that American citizenship is more than simple exclusivity. The plastics are a desirable group because they’re cool and therefore get treated better than other students. They get special privileges, and everyone, including the teachers, seems to be willing to do whatever they want. Perhaps this relates to the privileges that come with American citizenship. In addition to being able to have a say in politics, citizens receive all the fantastic benefits that the US has to offer.
    In mean girls, to be a citizen, one must be, well, mean. American citizenship also requires certain qualities and behaviors. In order to be a citizen, a person from another country must prove themselves worthy of these privileges by contributing to the nation in a wide variety of ways. Earning and voting are not necessarily enough. American citizens must be willing to fight for their country in wars and pay taxes, which is are things illegal immigrants don’t do. Thus, I think the true definition of citizenship is more complex than Shklar makes it out to be. People must earn and vote, but they must also actively contribute to their nation in a number of other ways.

  5. aazilli7 says:

    I agree with your understanding that exclusivity has been present in American citizenship from the beginning; however, I would broaden this and venture to say that exclusivity of this sort is not unique to America. The treatment similar to a lunch table for stuck-up girls seems to be a universal thing among people. To point out an obvious historical example, Jews during World War 2 were treated as less than citizens, if not less than human. One can look at any of the countless genocides in human history and the story is the same. A modern day example outside of Americans lies in the fact that Sunnis and Shi’as suffer from many similar types of exclusion under the government of the opposing religious sect.

    The urge to feel elite or exclusive exists in every scope of human interaction. To go back to your example from Mean Girls, lunch tables are frequently exclusive; it is a pretty common practice among high school students, at least as I’ve seen in my experience. Yet, it does stretch to the size of all of America and the question of its inclusion of groups into citizenship, as you argued. And I am arguing that it stretches beyond that to the level of the entire world, which you probably recognize, but I just think that it is important to not overlook the ubiquitous nature of human exclusivity.

  6. lgeorge905 says:

    I think it’s a really interesting point. One thing that I’d add:

    I think your characterization of America as the plastics of the world is a bit unfair. Of course, there will always be groups excluded from American citizenship. But I believe America has proven throughout its history as willing to accept and assimilate (at least eventually) different groups of people. American citizenship is not necessarily a popularity contest. It is based on real, substantial, meaningful things- like the right to vote, having been born in America, or the ability to earn.

  7. palaie says:

    I enjoyed reading your blog and the way you used a modern example (Mean Girls) to relate to the text we are reading. You brought up a great point that the US has long been excluding groups from gaining citizenship in order to raise the value of the citizenship as a whole. Although the groups that you wrote about were all obviously discriminated against through law, there are also many other hidden and less obvious ways in which the US has excluded people from citizenship. I think it is important to think of citizenship as something other than just a piece of paper granting you the title and the rights that come along with it. What would be the point of citizenship (that piece of paper) if other fellow citizens do not accept you as such? This reminds me of Tocqueville when he explained that laws can only do so much to give citizenship to people and that the more important aspect is the way society accepts its new citizens. In the early history of our nation, Catholics were discriminated against along with other citizens of different religious beliefs. After 2001, Muslim Americans were discriminated against and to this day are still being blamed for an attack on their homeland that they had nothing to do with. These groups and many more face a more challenging aspect of citizenship; gaining the acceptance of the society around them. Without this crucial point, what is the value of citizenship?

  8. eakunne5 says:

    I think a great point that you reference here in your post was exclusivity. Your mean girls comparison was a funny way of describing a very real situation with the sociology of U.S citizens. I would like to add that most countries hold this same exclusivity so they can retain a reward for their part in society. Social acceptance is also something people fight for in all areas of life’s as well. Like in class when Jeanette talked about the Michigan Difference and their networks. Or being part of a special club with special advantages. So your blog really reinforced that for me.

  9. Courtney M says:

    After reading this post and the above comments, I want to draw back a little bit and look at the bigger picture presented in this blog. I agree with some of the comments that the comparison between “Mean Girls” and American citizenship is a little far stretched, but I see a very important connection between them that says something about American society. Exclusion, whether it be in politics, education, the workplace, or even families, is a natural aspect of society, and it results from the very nature of what it means to be a part of a group. Members of a particular group have to share a commonality and have something unique that binds them together, otherwise there would be no purpose in having that group. So whether it’s the mean girls at the lunch table or American citizens, these particular groups take pride in what it means to be a member of their group, and as a result, outsiders are purposely excluded. Therefore, I would argue that “Mean Girls” and American citizenship, if nothing else, share the quality of exclusion, which shows that there is something special about being a member of a group. The members are willing to take measures to protect that commonality and exclude others that don’t possess the unique characteristic that binds the group together.

  10. krisskrosswillmakeyou says:

    The reason exclusion is such a powerful tool, is that it provides a sense of scarcity to a good. In this case, we see the Plastics represented as a very exclusive group and we are comparing it to American citizenship. The Plastics however do not have any specific traits that would characterize themselves from anyone else. As we see towards the end of the movie, each has their own set of flaws and issues to deal with. The reason they were so exclusive was to give themselves the trait of rarity. Had they accepted any girl to be part of their group, it would make their lives less special. The lower the supply of a good and in this case members of the plastics, the more valuable it becomes.
    While American Citizenship and the Plastics are not necessarily perfectly analogous, the reasoning behind each one’s exclusivity makes sense. With fewer citizens and members of Plastics, resources are divided less. With the Plastics we see Cady the newest member of the plastics steal time and attention from others, leading to jealousy amongst the group. For citizenship, a new member will be direct competition for goods and jobs in the country. Therefore, in order for new members to be justified there must be a belief that they bring something to the table that outweighs the downside of needing to share. We can compare this to having 3 roommates instead of 2. With a third roommate, there is less individual space and less privacy. However, if that roommate is paying rent and provides a social benefit higher than the trouble caused by having an extra person around, you will still rather live with them.

  11. Nicole Y says:

    I think your use of the Mean Girls movie is very interesting. I am curious though, if you meant to say that the US represents the “Plastics” of the world or that, more generally, exclusion exemplifies the idea of the Plastics in Mean Girls. Personally, I would not say that the US is equivalent to the Plastics, because I feel that many other countries are equally as “exclusive” (and proud of it) as the US is. However, this raises questions for me surrounding issues of exclusion and national pride in developed countries vs. developing countries. For example, would Mexico, as a so-called “developing” country, be more or less willing than the US to remove national border restraints? Depending on your answer, does this mean that a pride of its exclusionary practices be found only in more developed countries?

  12. brandoneinstein says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with Robert Tepper’s point. While citizenship is certainly valuable due it’s exclusivity, it is not the only reason for its “sacredness”. I understand the “plastics” analogy, but I also think more could have been done to make your point stronger. Citizenship, as Shklar points out, is more so about standing and obtainment than it being exclusive. Having the ability to both earn and vote – not simply working and participating – is conducive to citizenship not because these parameters aren’t necessarily available to everyone, but because they require particular sacrifices that many aren’t willing to make. In other words, what Emerson has shown to be against, citizens continue to sacrifice particular liberties and rights in order to maintain “membership” in society. We sacrifice these innate/natural rights to establish law and order. We subject ourselves as “citizens” to our government, and as compensation, we are able to receive a multitude of benefits (health care, pensions, military protection, etc.). Nonetheless, this isn’t necessarily about exclusion. It isn’t to say that American citizen’s are “cooler” than illegal immigrants, but rather we deserve certain entitlements that other’s are not allowed to retain.

  13. megsavel says:

    I think the strength of this argument depends on which definition of citizenship you most agree with. Some commenters have argued that exclusivity is not what makes citizenship important and have said that the argument would be stronger if it considered Shklar’s definition of citizenship, but if I am not mistaken the original poster was saying that these various groups are being excluded because they are not/have not been allowed to vote or earn. The original poster addresses the issue of voting and earning, and I do think that the comparison of citizenship in the United States to “The Plastics” is a strong and interesting one.

    Additionally, I think the argument is a strong one if you disagree with Shklar’s definition of citizenship. I think that citizenship has much more to do with participation then voting or earning. With this definition of citizenship, the argument and analogy to “The Plastics” is even stronger. “The Plastics” would not let those that they deemed unworthy sit with them and essentially refused to acknowledge the existence of many students at the school. Part of their power was in choosing who was important enough to know about. Those that were not cool enough were not invited to parties or allowed to participate in other events. If everyone was worth knowing and everyone got invited to everything, it would no longer be cool to do any of those formerly exclusive things and people would stop going to some of the events.

  14. nmanningham says:

    I enjoyed this comparison very much because of its originality. I agree that exclusion creates scarcity of a good. Without exclusion, citizenship’s value would be greatly diminished. However, with the case of the Japanese, the US forcefully excluded them from society and their citizenship as standing. To tie it back to your comparison, the US acted like a sort of bully by using force to make sure their inner circle remained exclusive.

    As far as the illegal immigrant case, I believe exclusion from citizenship is for different reasons. I believe that many simply do not want to be part of the “cool” group. I believe many that immigrate to our country come to earn for their family back home, and are proud to be citizens of their home country. Keeping in line with your analogy, they could be the nerds who see how dumb the “cool” kids are and are content with their status as part of the nerds, band, or art crowd.

  15. brbarlog says:

    I think this post does a good job trying to articulate the relationship between exclusion and the value of citizenship. It tries to show how exclusion augments the value of citizenship in a way that tells people whether or not they are “in” or “out.” However, I tend to agree with an earlier reply: I do not agree that the only value of citizenship is that it is exclusive. Indeed, when people are excluded, they receive a greater impression on the power of citizenship and its privileges attached with the title (voting, service, owning property, etc…). Yet, I think the post needs to go a step further to offer examples of how exclusion is not the only form of value. It states, “America has always excluded some group in society as a way to give American citizenship value.” I would contend “what else?” Surely we cannot just say that value from citizenship comes from exclusion. What about those who are citizens? Where do they find their inherent “value?”
    A soldier may believe it is the duty to his country that improves his vision of citizenship or the devoted rights activist that believes unequivocally in the Constitution. It would be remiss that these individuals would compare themselves to illegal immigrants to argue their true identity as citizens comes from the distinction between the two.
    Surely it could also be argued that a “good” citizen of a country would want to try to expand the polity in a nation; after all, if you believe in a democratic government, would not you want to bring in people from oppressed dictatorships?
    It is not “us and them” rather it ought to be “us with them”…Naturally Shklar would disagree with this

  16. brbarlog says:

    I think this post does a good job trying to articulate the relationship between exclusion and the value of citizenship. It tries to show how exclusion augments the value of citizenship in a way that tells people whether or not they are “in” or “out.” However, I tend to agree with an earlier reply: I do not agree that the only value of citizenship is that it is exclusive. Indeed, when people are excluded, they receive a greater impression on the power of citizenship and its privileges attached with the title (voting, service, owning property, etc…). Yet, I think the post needs to go a step further to offer examples of how exclusion is not the only form of value. Surely we cannot just say that value from citizenship comes from exclusion. What about those who are citizens? Where do they find their inherent “value?”
    A soldier may believe it is the duty to his country that improves his vision of citizenship or the devoted rights activist that believes unequivocally in the Constitution. It would be remiss that these individuals would compare themselves to illegal immigrants to argue their true identity as citizens comes from the distinction between the two.
    Surely it could also be argued that a “good” citizen of a country would want to try to expand the polity in a nation; after all, if you believe in a democratic government, would not you want to bring in people from oppressed dictatorships?
    It is not “us and them” rather it ought to be “us with them”…Naturally Shklar would disagree with this

  17. lauramc93 says:

    I wonder if one can lose standing, and therefore citizenship, can it ever truly be gained back. The Japanese-American who were interned during WWII had to wait until 1976 for an apology from President Ford, who said that the internment was “wrong,” and 1988 for the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which granted $20,000 to the surviving detainees as per the recommendations of the Congressional Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians’s Personal Justice Denied report of 1983. Even though the detainees eventually received reparations for their internment, they had to wait nearly 40 years for this small measure of justice.
    The plight of the detainees makes me agree with Shklar’s proposition that standing is an integral part of citizenship. The Japanese-Americans lost their standing, and were unable to earn at the same time, so they could not be fully considered citizens. But, what Shklar does not address is whether one can regain citizenship if it has been lost. I think that citizenship once lost, is lost forever. Though the interred seemingly regained their citizenship once they were out of the camps, the loss of standing stayed with them forever. The people who were detained had to wait over 20 years for an apology, which shows that the government didn’t consider the Japanese-Americans who were detained important enough to apologize to. Even following the apology of 1976, it took 12 years to receive reparations for the internment.

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