Citizenship Counts Naturalization Keynote Speech by Dr. Christopher Malone

June 8, 2012

It is my distinct honor to address you on this momentous and truly inspiring occasion. I am first and foremost inspired by the solemn commitment you have made by choosing to become citizens of the United States of America. It is wonderful to see here the young students from IS 218 who took part in Citizenship Counts – an incredibly important program which teaches our young people about the meaning and value of citizenship. And what could be more inspiring than those who participated in the Journey that Counts, walking and biking 3500 miles across the United States to show one’s pride in America.

For the last 16 years, I have taught political science at the college level in New York City- first at Hunter College which is part of the City University of New York, and then at Pace University downtown where I am the Chair of the Political Science Department. Each semester when I teach the Introduction to American

Government course, I have a ritual: the first assignment of the semester is to write a brief two-page essay answering two questions: HOW DID I GET TO NEW YORK? AND WHY DID I COME TO NEW YORK? I assign this for two reasons. First, I want to gauge the writing abilities of the class to detect any early problems so they can be corrected. But second, I want to get to know my class. And so, I ask them to give me a little background on how they came to this beautiful city and why.

The stories I’ve received over these 16 years have been incredible. One semester in a class of about 50 I had students who either immigrated from or had a parent or grandparent immigrate from 38 different countries. Often times I have African American students who tell how their parents or grandparents came from a southern state to escape the segregation laws which discriminated against them. One of my favorite stories was of a young woman from a South American country, who wrote about how she came as an 11 year old after her father had saved enough money to bring her and her entire family here. She explained that he first moved to California, working in kitchens washing dishes and sleeping on park benches. He saved enough money to come to New York

sleeping on a friend’s couch. And after years of doing whatever it took to scrape together enough money, he was finally able to reunite his family here. She was the first one in her family to finish high school and attend college. The gratitude and the respect she had for her father, despite the fact that she was more educated and was more fluent in English, was clear. He had sacrificed everything to give her opportunities he himself would never have.

These stories were all different, and it gave me my own little snapshot of the gorgeous mosaic that is New York City, that is America. I venture to say those stories are much like yours. Don’t worry, I am not going to ask you to write an essay for me…But there was one thing that united these stories, that united the thousands of students that have passed through my classroom, and probably unites those of you gathered here today.

It is the second part of the question, the WHY. Invariably every one of those students said they or their parents or grandparents or someone in their family came to New York IN SEARCH OF A BETTER LIFE.

IN SEARCH OF A BETTER LIFE. This is the core essential of the American Dream, isn’t it? Isn’t it why you all came here and why you have pledged your

loyalty to the Constitution of the United States? Isn’t it why my great great grandparents came from Sicily in the late 19th century? No matter where any of us came from, the fact is that we share a common destiny: we all have an abiding faith that our lives here will be better – whatever that means. And though I am keenly aware that one politician recently used this word over and over again, it is clear to me that this common destiny is rooted in HOPE.

Now, “in search of a better life” means something very different to each of you. And each of you has your individual hopes and dreams. This is incredibly important. But it is not the entire story of what makes America work. There was a sociologist named Carl Frederick who once said “To be a Frenchman is a fact, while to be an American is an ideal.” Think about that for a second. In other countries – some of which many of you might come from – your identity is rather fixed based upon language, culture, birth, or some other criteria. By contrast, the only thing which you must agree to in order to become “American” is a set of shared values and principles: a commitment to freedom, equality, to tolerance of others, to playing by the rules, to working hard and getting ahead, and so on. As

long as you are committed to these things, it doesn’t matter where you came from, what you had or didn’t have when you got here, or where you will end up.

In the United States, the ideal, in other words, is a commitment to the idea that, no matter how diverse we are, in the end we all should be treated the same. There is a famous Supreme Court case called Plessy v. Ferguson which was decided in 1896. It involved segregation in my home state Louisiana. In that case, one supreme court justice, John Marshall Harlan dissented from the decision which would eventually inscribe segregation between whites and blacks into the law. Harlan wrote this in response, “In the view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved.”

Our Constitution is colorblind. Harlan was of course talking about racial discrimination. But we should add that our Constitution is also gender-blind, religion-blind. Or rather that it SHOULD be all of these things. This is the American IDEAL Frederick talked about. That is why the image of Lady Justice, holding her scale on every court building in this country, is blindfolded.

But here is the point, ladies and gentlemen. The American Ideal doesn’t happen automatically or by magic. The American Ideal is fragile, and it must be protected. There is no government office or department dedicated to protecting the Ideal. The American Ideal is protected by US. That is what the first three words of the Constitution mean: WE THE PEOPLE.

Today, you take your rightful place as one of THE PEOPLE. And though you have all of those inalienable rights that Thomas Jefferson talked about in the Declaration of Independence, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; and those rights enshrined in the Constitution: freedom of speech, religion, assembly, press, privacy, and so on, I want to suggest to you that, as important as all these things are, the American Ideal requires more than just the exercise of those rights.

You all know John F. Kennedy’s famous inaugural address right? “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” President Kennedy was reminding Americans that they have RESPONSIBILITIES as well as rights. The responsibilities of citizenship which these young people have learned about through the Citizenship Counts program, which you learned about in preparation for this day.

This experiment in self-government, the American IDEAL will not endure unless we protect it and nurture it. As I remind my students all the time, democracy requires an informed and vigilant citizenry. Taking care of yourself and your families is obviously most important. But it also requires for its citizens to participate, and not only through things like voting or serving in the military, as important as those things are. Asking what you can do for your country can take many forms, from simply writing a letter to your local newspaper about an important issue, to attending a town hall meeting in your community, to perhaps running for political office, and yes, to even protesting in the streets as long as you do it peacefully.

All of these actions are part of the American IDEAL of responsible citizenship.

I will leave you with one last story, which you might have heard before: when the Constitutional Convention was completed in September 1787, a woman approached Benjamin Franklin outside of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. She asked simply, “Well,   Doctor,   what   have   we   got — a Republic or a Monarchy?” Franklin replied. “A  Republic,  if  you  can  keep  it.”

It is up to all of us to keep our American republic. It is up to YOU to keep the American Ideal. Today marks the beginning of that most precious obligation for all of you.

Congratulations again and thank you for your time. 

“Christopher Malone is Associate Professor and Chair of the Political Science Department at Pace University. Malone’s academic research focuses primarily on race and American political development, democracy and citizenship. He is the author of Between Freedom and Bondage: Race and Voting Rights in the Antebellum North.(Routledge Press, 2008).”  (Pace University website)

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