Some years ago, Newsweek’s cover story was “How Ignorant Are We?” The article reported on results of citizenship surveys–the sorts of data I share regularly (probably too regularly) on this blog. The surveys focused on knowledge of the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and the structures of our government, basic elements of the legal environment we share.
A recent episode in Lafayette, Indiana–home of Purdue University–illustrated yet another area of civic ignorance. As reported in the local paper, a Purdue University engineering student was denied the purchase of an over-the-counter cold medicine because employees of the local CVS pharmacy “looked at his Puerto Rican driver’s license and told him he needed a valid U.S. ID, before pressing him about his immigration status.”
They didn’t know that Puerto Rico was part of the United States, and didn’t believe him when he told them he was a citizen. And it wasn’t simply one clerk. After the initial encounter (during which he showed her his passport!), the young man left; he came back later to see whether a shift supervisor or manager could help, but he received the same line about corporate policy and his “immigration status.”
The student’s mother posted about the incident, attributing the question and the disbelief to racism.
What caused this employee to ask him for his visa?” Payano Burgos wrote in a Facebook post that was still gathering steam this weekend in West Lafayette and Purdue circles. “Was it his accent? Was it his skin color? Was it the Puerto Rican flag on the license? Whatever triggered her to discriminate against my son embodies exactly what is wrong in the United States of America today.”
I’m unwilling to entirely discount racism, but I think the more likely explanation is–again–civic ignorance. There have been reported incidents in which people have assumed that New Mexico is a foreign country, or a part of Mexico. (And as we know, the President was building his wall on the border between Colorado and New Mexico…)
In a recent speech to Indiana’s Library Federation, I shared the following statistics:
In 2014 only 36% of the American public could name the three branches of government. In 2017, only 24% could. Surveys have found that fewer than half of 12th graders are able to describe the meaning of federalism and that only 35% of teenagers can correctly identify “We the People” as the first three words of the Constitution. In a survey by the Carnegie Foundation, just over a third of Americans thought that, while the Founding Fathers gave each branch of government significant power, they gave the president “the final say,” and just under half (47%) knew that a 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court carries the same legal weight as a 9-0 ruling. Almost a third mistakenly believed that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling could be appealed, and one in four believed that when the Supreme Court divides 5-4, the decision is referred to Congress for resolution. (Sixteen percent thought it needed to be sent back to the lower courts.)
We can add to that enumeration the widespread (if not statistically determined) lack of knowledge about American geography.
I guess the answer to Newsweek’s question is: very.