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The citizenship test — hint: It’s about a lot more than just voting

An American flag waved in the wind at a Hy-Vee grocery store in Marion, Iowa, on Nov. 8.Nick Rohlman/Associated Press

It’s the ongoing dynamic of membership and participation

I commend Jeff Jacoby and thank him for his Nov. 23 Opinion column, “What makes a good citizen?” We may disagree on some details, but we both understand that citizenship is more complex than simply casting a vote.

At the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, our reflection years ago on the Dred Scott decision led us to understand citizenship as the ongoing dynamic of membership and participation.

As a Black man who appreciates the sacrifices of so many who fought to realize the constitutional guarantee of the 15th Amendment, I also realize that measuring citizenship — whether “good” or ordinary — by voting is, for those long denied both membership and participation, cynical bordering on cruel. Indeed, in a society in which rights of citizenship seem to accrue to corporations, it is reasonable to understand participation can take many forms, including protest and dissent. Demanding full membership by these means is a form of participation in civic life.

This is forever evolving, from the first experiment in representative democracy on July 30, 1619, with an election by white, propertied men — excluding women, anyone who did not own property, native people, and Africans who did not arrive until what’s often recorded only as “sometime in August 1619.”


Jacoby’s formulation limits membership to those who claim to be citizens, thus denying the participation and contributions of those worthy residents who do not have such status. In this sense, I prefer to think of “community members” rather than citizens. But by whatever name, being a full member of society includes so much more than voting.

David J. Harris

West Medford

The writer is retired managing director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice.

A good citizen is one who is informed

Kofi Annan, then UN secretary general, once observed: “No one is born a good citizen; no nation is born a democracy. Rather, both are processes that continue to evolve over a lifetime.” Sadly, too many Americans, as Jeff Jacoby notes in his column on a recent Pew Research Center survey, think that voting makes you a good citizen. While voting is an essential characteristic of a good citizenry that helps ensure a vibrant democracy, citizenship requires much more. Primary among these requirements is being informed about this nation’s history and core ideals.


We seem destined to repeat our mistakes because too many Americans don’t know basic US history or civil education. The Constitution requires every immigrant to this country to pass a civics test to become a naturalized citizen. If that could only be standard for all citizens. A good citizen is an informed citizen, ready to engage and take a stand on the issues that matter most.

Julian Kenneth Braxton