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Performative Citizenship in the Civil Rights and Immigrant Rights Movements

24 Pages Posted: 17 Mar 2014  

Kathryn R. Abrams

University of California, Berkeley - School of Law

Date Written: March 16, 2014


This paper examines the legacy of the Civil Rights Act, by revisiting the social movement that produced it and comparing that movement to a contemporary successor, the movement for immigrant rights. This movement has not simply used the storied tactics of the civil rights movement, it has modified them in ways that render them more performative: undocumented activists implement the familiar tactics in that enact – in daring and surprising ways – the public belonging to which they aspire. This performative dimension would seem to distinguish the immigrant rights movement, at the level of organizational strategy, from its civil rights counterpart, whose participants were constitutionally acknowledged as citizens. However, if we focus instead on the legal consciousness and self-conception of individual activists, we can glimpse greater similarities between participants in the two movements. As the individual narratives elicited by sociologists and historians of the civil rights movement demonstrate, participants in many civil rights campaigns were asserting a citizenship in which they did not feel secure, notwithstanding its formal legal status. In this respect, participants in both movements claimed rights which were emergent or precarious as a means of securing their formal recognition.

Keywords: civil rights, immigration, citizenship, performativity

Suggested Citation

Abrams, Kathryn R., Performative Citizenship in the Civil Rights and Immigrant Rights Movements (March 16, 2014). UC Berkeley Public Law Research Paper No. 2409971. Available at SSRN: or

Kathryn R. Abrams (Contact Author)

University of California, Berkeley - School of Law ( email )

Boalt Hall
333 North Addition
Berkeley, CA 94720-7200
United States
510-643-6355 (Phone)

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