Privilege and the Pledge of Allegiance

Written by Love Isn’t Enough Guest Contributor Jennifer Holladay; Originally published at Jennifer Holladay.

Each day in schools across the country, students rise, turn their bodies toward the U.S. flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. It’s a daily exercise in civic education, one that promotes patriotism. I watched this tradition unfold at my daughter’s school last week and also discovered they add an extra sentence at the end of their rendering: “We are proud to be Americans!” Some children even thrust their little fists up in the air for emphasis.

The mission to celebrate patriotism: accomplished.

And yet as I looked around the room, I wondered what messages this ritual might convey to children who are not “Americans” in the official, “I-am-a-U.S.-citizen” way. The recital of the Pledge surely seeks to bond these children to the United States; to build a sense of pride in their nation of residence; to instill gratitude for the liberties this nation affords; and to create a sense of mutual belonging and unity among all of the children in the classroom, regardless of their citizenship status.

And yet, I wonder if there is potential for harm in encouraging these children to love a country that may not love them back.

Some non-citizen children are part of immigrant families who possess “papers,” i.e. documentation of lawful admittance as permanent residents. For these children, citizenship is an option they can pursue as adults, should they chose to do so. Many immigrant families lack such documents, however, and therefore are barred from pathways to citizenship. Students who are undocumented can matriculate through the K-12 system — even becoming among the brightest of students — only to find the doors of colleges and universities firmly slammed in their faces. Their futures are then limited to the shadow economy in the U.S., to the spaces and places where compensation is handled furtively, options for advancement are limited, and worker exploitation is the expectation, rather than the exception.

Yet these students rise, day in and day out, alongside their privileged-by-citizenship peers, place their hands over their hearts and make an oath of loyalty to the United States. It seems almost cruel.

And still, over time, daily recitation of the Pledge promotes reflection about our commitments to this country (“I pledge allegiance”) and also about the promises our nation makes to those so aligned with her (“with liberty and justice for all.”) Patriotism, fundamentally, is about fidelity both to a nation and its ideals. This is where one of the greatest civics lessons resides.

The struggles of groups who have been excluded from participation in our democracy at various junctures — women, African Americans, Native Americans — have continually deepened the shared meaning of our nation’s ideals and promises. In President Obama’s words, each generation has risen up, “willing to do what was risky and what was hard and put their shoulders to the wheel of history, and turn it towards opportunity and equality and justice for all.”

As the Iowa Supreme Court noted in Varnum v. Brien: “Times can blind us to certain truths, and later generations can see that laws once thought necessary and proper in fact serve only to oppress. … As our Constitution endures, persons in every generation can invoke its principles in their own search for greater freedom and equality.”

Perhaps my daughter’s generation will come to see that restrictive, often punitive, immigration laws “serve only to oppress.” Perhaps they will remember that those so oppressed include former classmates who stood, hand over heart, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Perhaps they will do what adults today seem unable or unwilling to do. Perhaps they will muster the wisdom and fortitude to broaden the pathways to citizenship, and, in doing so, extend the promise of “liberty and justice for all.”

 ***

To learn more about the realities facing undocumented students after high school graduation, visit: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/24/magazine/24DreamTeam-t.html

To learn more about worker exploitation, visit http://splcenter.org/get-informed/publications/under-siege-life-for-low-income-latinos-in-the-south

To learn more about immigration reform, visit: http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2009/12/immigration_principles.html

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