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Social Text 20.3 (2002) 101-115
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Racial Violence the Day after September 11
It would be naive to ignore how severely the systematic attacks of the Right since September 11 have stalled the critical project of the Left in deconstructing the current political moment. With much of the Left having abandoned its principled commitments and lined up, flags waving, in full support of the Bush administration's prosecution of the war, a reconstructive project has yet to begin. The decampment of the Left is so dire that the Nation recently proclaimed, without apology, the opinionating of fictional character Huey Freeman in the comic The Boondocks to be "the most biting and consistent critique of the war and its discontents in the nation's mass media." 1 For months we have been bracing ourselves for sthe next degradation; "things will get worse before they get better" seemed to be the mantra of despair. This may still be so: With Bush's threatened expansion of the war beyond Afghanistan, U.S. antipathy toward the Geneva Conventions, and the continuing detention of Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians, the crisis shows no signs of abating. But it is in exactly this moment of nationalist, nativist, and militaristic excess that we might develop greater acuity not only in our critique of prevailing politics, but in the imagined alternatives. Decentering of September 11, as Judith Butler suggests, 2 is important to understand the meaning and import of the terrorist attacks. But decentering requires not only that we expand our frame of reference to include the world before September 11, we must envision a desired world after September 11 as well.
Among the enormous violence done by the United States since the tragedies suffered on September 11 has been an unrelenting, multivalent assault on the bodies, psyches, and rights of Arab, Muslim, and South Asian immigrants. Restrictions on immigration of young men from Muslim countries, racial profiling and detention of "Muslim-looking" individuals, and an epidemic of hate violence against Arab, Muslim, and South Asian communities in the wake of September 11 recall the long history of racialized U.S. immigration and immigrant policy, such as the Asian exclusion laws 3 and Japanese American internment. They also recall the more recent national heritage of racialized infringements on citizenship and belonging, most notably racial profiling of African Americans and Latinas/os. The contemporary convergence of these two narratives—of exclusion and detention on the one hand and racial profiling on the other—highlights [End Page 101] the extent to which immigration, naturalization, and citizenship have long been bound within a framework of subordination. 4 By examining the recent phenomenon of hate violence and racial profiling aimed at Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians, I seek here to situate our current moment of crisis within the multiple histories of racial oppression in the United States. But I also seek to envision what immigration, naturalization, and citizenship in the United States might look like outside a framework of subordination, and how communities of color might strive toward this imagined homeland. 5
In an essay several years ago, Toni Morrison argued that the immigrant to the United States is not made fully American until she or he has learned and exercised racism toward African Americans. 6 Morrison's observation suggests the nonjuridical dimensions of naturalization that govern the admission and assimilation of immigrants into the United States, and their relationships with white and black Americans. In its most fundamental form, her argument is that the subordination of African Americans is inherent to being, and therefore becoming, an American. The social and cultural inroads made by multiculturalism in the past few decades notwithstanding, what we could consider naturalization law and tradition have remained largely impervious to such incursions. U.S. naturalization policy reflects an unreconstructed commitment to an assimilationist project, demanding the acquisition of majority-culture moral, civil, and political values, at the expense of homeland commitments. The inscription of racism toward African Americans in the historical and contemporary American polity determines that immigrants profess loyalty not merely to...