One 50-minute class period

Race, Democracy, and Citizenship: The American Ideal

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • create working definitions of "human", "equality", and "race"
  • examine historical origins of stereotypes and prejudice in the United States
  • discuss legacies of 18th century attitudes on race and equality for contemporary society


Since the birth of the United States as a republic, ideas of citizenship have been tied closely to misconceptions about race and identity. This lesson uses resources from Race and Membership in American History as well as various documentary videos to explore this complicated relationship.


Many of the ideas and beliefs about race and democracy in the United States that we discuss today developed during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The intellectual movement known as the "Enlightenment" encouraged the belief in the inherent equality of all humans, while at the same time supporting distinctions and inequality among "races". This lesson considers the tension between these notions as well as the consequences of that tension.



  1. Ask students to define these terms in their own words: American, citizen, equal. Share with a partner and compare definitions-which terms are similar? Ask them to try to develop consensus definitions, incorporating as much of each other's ideas as possible. Pairs will then share definitions with the class and create working definitions for the class as a whole. Display definitions somewhere prominent for students to refer back as lesson continues.

  2. Show segment 3 from Toward a More Perfect Union, and have students respond to these questions:


    • What are the speakers saying about what it means to be an American?
    • What are they saying about equality in American society?
    • Which statements do you agree with? Disagree with? Why?
  3. After students have had a chance to discuss their responses (in small groups or in the class as a whole), ask them to think about where our ideas about being American come from. How have we, throughout our history, thought about who is considered American, and who is not? Introduce the readings "Who is Human?" and "Who is Equal" from chapter 2 of Race and Membership, and give students time to read both. Have students respond in their journal, then think/pair/share, using these questions as a guide (can also use other Connections questions from these readings):

    • What does the idea of equality mean to you? To what extent have Americans achieved equality, in your opinion? (from Connections, p. 37)
    • How is race defined in the second reading? How do dictionaries define the term? What do you think it means to people in the United States today? (from Connections, p. 41)
    • Bring the discussion back to the class as a whole with Julian Bond quote from p. 42.
    • How do you reconcile Jefferson's differing statements on equality, slavery and race? How has our society tried to reconcile what seem like contradictions?
  4. End with Racial Tracking (from 60 Minutes). Show this segment, then give students a chance to respond in writing, using the following as a prompt:

    • Thinking about the questions and issues raised by the previous readings, what are the similarities in ideas and attitudes you hear in this film clip? What are the differences?
    • What does this story say to you about the legacies of Enlightenment ideas of race and equality?


Research the creation of the Declaration of Independence-why was the phrase "all men are created equal" included? What did it mean for the framers at the time? A well-researched response would include the following:

  • Information about framers' discussions on slavery; particularly, whether references to slavery should be included in the Declaration.
  • Specific connections between the Enlightenment ideas they learned in this lesson and the context for the creation of the Declaration.
  • Discussion of the impact of the Declaration, and its influence on the formation of the new nation: what ideas help shape the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution? What ideas seem to be left out, or changed?

Research inequalities in your own community-are different groups treated differently? Have students focus on an area such as access to educational or health services. If there are differences in treatment, what seem to be reasons for the differences? Are there community groups that are trying to address the inequalities?


  1. Have students read Is Race "Skin Deep"? in chapter 9 of Race and Membership in American History, responding to the connections questions on p. 301.

  2. Show Jefferson's Blood (in whole or in part) to help students examine the history of racial ideas in America and the legacies of that history. One segment of the film to focus on is the story of the Cooper family, descendants of Sally Hemings who have lived as white and are just now confronting their mixed racial heritage. Questions for discussion could include:


    • Shelby Steele asks at one point in the film, "What makes us confront someone over a 200-year-old racial wound, or defend a great ancestor that even our grandparents didn't know?" What do you think about how he answers his own question? How would you answer that question, based on your own experiences?
    • What are the personal consequences of this particular history? How do large ideas about race affect individuals and families?
    • If race "doesn't matter", then why does it matter for these families? Why does it continue to matter to many Americans?

    For more information on this film, visit Jefferson's Blood.

  3. For another example of racial identity and citizenship in the United States, show Becoming American: The Chinese Experience. The teacher guide for this film is also available from Facing History and Ourselves.


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