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Radical History Review 89 (2004) 115-134

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Whose "America"?

The Politics of Rhetoric and Space in the Formation of U.S. Nationalism

In New York City, two more officers were arraigned today in the alleged police brutality case that's quickly become a citywide scandal. Officer T. W. and T. B. pleaded not guilty to charges they assaulted Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant. . . . The superseding indictment handed up late yesterday added a new charge against all four arrested officers—aggravated harassment—meaning the officers allegedly assaulted Louima because of his race.
All Things Considered, August 22, 1997

A few years ago, the narrative of Abner Louima's abuse arose as a disturbing blip on the liberal screen of the U.S. national imaginary. The scandalous abuse Louima endured at the hands of the New York Police Department (NYPD), which has since been celebrated as a national hero in the wake of September 11, 2001, served as a brief rallying point for activists within and outside of academia seeking to mark the unrestrained and institutionally sanctioned violence that arises within the interface between the state's protection of citizens and the deeply embedded racist and imperialistic assumptions that undergird U.S. citizenship. The bodily form of Louima's abuse—particularly the queering of the police force that his sodomization represents—ruptures white Western codes of civility so essential to the hegemony of [End Page 115] whiteness.1 In such moments, the brutality of white hegemony leaks, and the humanitarian basis of white supremacy, on which the U.S. national body is founded, is momentarily called into question.2 The contradictions that erupt in such cases are contained through a surgical removal of the cancerous cells, so that the larger white body politic may remain intact. The ongoing abuse of black and brown bodies is the unspoken subtext of this white body politic—a set of discursive and material practices designed to keep us in our place: a largely indentured population whose labor sustains the nation, but whose voices, needs, and basic human rights must be subordinated to the needs of U.S. capitalism.

The dismissal of such overt reassertions of the white nation as the inexplicable acts of sick individuals localizes systematic violence in order to submerge the contradiction of unfreedom in the land of the free—how painfully ironic that we forget the NYPD as sodomizers only to recast them as national heroes. Such acts, far from uncommon,3 should be understood as the material manifestations, embodied consequences, and, indeed, defining moments within a particular spatial arrangement of the U.S. nation. I situate this argument within the broader discursive formation of the contemporary U.S. context that has been called "white victimage."4 White victimage thrives through the cultural production of white anxiety at the perceived dissolution of historically centered white identity, now dislocated by the shifting racial and national configuration of its population. White victimage discourse assumes whiteness as the necessary foundation of national civility, now under siege by foreign bodies. This argument predates and justifies the logic through which the second President George Bush has so successfully launched his campaign of terror both within the national body and around the globe.5 Through the logics of white victimization, regressive politics are legitimized through the assumption of a level playing field ("we are all victims now"), which undermines claims to inclusion by systematically excluded groups.

Within such a regressive historical context of U.S. nationalism, how do we begin to imagine radical visions of inclusion for a transformative (trans)nationalism that, over a century ago, Cuban American organizer and visionary José Martí pronounced as "Our America"? In his work, Martí was highly critical of Latin American countries modeling their nationalisms on European or U.S. American national forms, insisting that the former should emerge out of the experiences and knowledge bases of the indigenous, colored, classed, and most disenfranchised populations from within the national space. His vision was as grassroots as it was transnational. He was an astute...


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pp. 115-134
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