Photo by Alec Perkins. CC BY-SA 2.0.
During the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency, mainstream US media and many white Americans became viscerally aware of increased violence against Black, Jewish, Asian, and trans people, people simply perceived to be Muslim or Latinx, and other people who don’t fit into the mold of what the late queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz called “majoritarian belonging.”1 In the wake of the 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Americans were compelled to discuss not just racism, but whiteness in particular. Trump’s electoral defeat in 2020 should intensify, not halt, this analysis, since Joe Biden was one of the most powerful individual forces behind the construction of what scholar Beth Richie calls America’s “prison nation.”2 Three recent books by Dylan Rodriguez, Reece Jones, and Alexander Laban Hinton model the stakes of this analysis, examining the history of mass violence that constructs the social concept of whiteness. They show that Trump’s brazen racism and Biden’s liberal desire for normal governance represent two seemingly disparate but actually co-constitutive logics that perpetuate white supremacy: genocide and reform. In turn, they unearth the stakes of rhetorical and formalist interpretations of contemporary cultural production in a moment of growing unapologetic fascism and continuous liberal counterinsurgency. Only by attending to the co-constitutive nature of genocide and reform can we fully understand the arts of the present.
Charlottesville looms largest in Hinton’s It Can Happen Here: White Power and the Rising Threat of Genocide in the US. For him, white power is an extremist social movement with the potential to foment violence on the level of what the United Nations would recognize as atrocity crimes or even genocide. Focused on concrete possibilities and written in clear prose, his book is an important resource for a general audience alarmed by the visible white nationalist presence on the streets of major US cities. And it is a model for scholars, too: It Can Happen Here plays out in a series of conversations Hinton recounts and narrates from his classrooms at Rutgers University, reminding us of the community with which we spend the most time developing our ideas: our students (who are also our teachers).
Conceptually, though, there is a tension throughout the book that muddles the clarity of this argument. On one hand, Hinton asserts that analysis of racist violence must be historically situated and cannot be focused on individual hate or personal attitudes. In the US, this means refusing to see Trump, for example, as either the cause of racist violence or as an aberration, given the country’s history of mass violence against Black and Indigenous peoples. On the other hand, the book’s most persistent refrain—“What makes a man start fires?”—centers the individual perpetrator as the object of analysis. This is primarily a reflection of Hinton’s grounding in the law, which is adjudicated interpersonally in an adversarial system. At an international level, white supremacy emerges, for Hinton, as a series of international networks of individual people who hold white supremacist views. This plurality of individuals does not, in Hinton’s work, crystallize into a system or structure that we could analyze and mobilize to work against.
The networked account of white supremacy is also at play in Reece Jones’s White Borders: The History of Race and Immigration in the United States from Chinese Exclusion to the Border Wall. Like Hinton, Jones writes fresh, lucid prose. His expansive history and detailed stories track how white supremacy is enacted in legal policy and entrenched in political institutions. In doing so, he balances the story of individuals and of systems, pairing policy with lived reports of violence. For example, a table labeled “Anti-Chinese Laws in California” is accompanied by a visceral account of the Los Angeles Massacre of 1871 when white and Hispanic residents of the city killed 19 Chinese immigrants, a massacre recorded as the largest single mass lynching in the US.3 The other policies Jones explores range from the Chinese Exclusion Act to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 along with the infamous “prerequisite cases” to determine the racial categorization of immigrants to the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. All of these provide powerful context for Trump’s Muslim Ban and border wall, anti-Asian violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, the continuing racism of immigration policy under Biden (at least, in deportations of Haitians), and the obvious racism of refugee asylum policies when compared to the US and Europe’s more welcoming response to the humanitarian crisis brought about by Russian imperialist violence in Ukraine. What is common across all this history, according to Jones, is that “immigration laws are about racial exclusion” (4), and thus the US border is, itself, a racist construct.
This thread of the argument makes White Borders, for me, a widely teachable text. I can imagine pairing it with sections of Ian Haney Lopez’s classic White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race, or with Dina Gilio-Whitaker’s more recent As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock, to enrich Jones’s account of the white supremacist origins of the nature conservation movement in the US with an Indigenous account of environmental justice as anti-colonial work. These pairings would complement White Borders’s weaknesses around analyzing antiblackness and settler colonialism. For example, Jones never mentions that, as Haney Lopez details, “all but one of the fifty-two prerequisite cases turned on whether the applicant was White, when every case was litigated after 1870, the year naturalization became equally available to Blacks.” That is, in all of the debates around immigration grounded on the assumed whiteness of US citizenship, Blackness remains the unthought ground on which the figure of The (White) Citizen is erected.4 Even with these weaknesses (both of which It Can Happen Here shares to even greater degrees), Jones’s book shines by showing that immigration policies are about augmenting the capacity for borders to function as technologies of violence for white self-defense.
Compared with It Can Happen Here and Whiter Borders, Dylan Rodriguez’s White Reconstruction: Domestic Warfare and the Logics of Genocide is a more rigorous conceptual analysis of white supremacy. The most important insight White Reconstruction offers is that white supremacy coheres through two seemingly incongruent logics: the logic of genocide and the logic of reform. This is made most clear by reading the final two chapters of the book, which re-theorize the terms genocide and mass incarceration.
Chapter 4 engages with abolitionist (re)readings of the Chicago-based activist group We Charge Genocide (named after the 1951 document created by the Civil Rights Congress) and 2010-2011 prison strikes in Georgia and California in order to critique the academic field of genocide studies and to rethink the term genocide itself. In his rethinking of the conceptual framework of genocide, Rodriguez demonstrates how the mass targeted violence it denotes is not something that happened (however many times one is willing to concede) in the past, but instead is the governing logic of the centuries-long ongoing project of Civilization, which Rodriguez elaborates, in lineage with Sylvia Wynter and Cedric Robinson, as “the ongoing half-millennium of hemispheric conquest” (1). In Chapter 5, Rodriguez re-thinks the term mass incarceration. He does so primarily through a trenchant critique of “mass incarceration narrativity”: the popular circulation of “mass incarceration” discourse as a basis for so-called progressive “prison reform” thinking, expressed both in policy and in popular culture (think TV and film starring Black police officers or children’s movies that analogize policing to produce “bad apples” narratives and reduce systemic violence to prejudice).
One of White Reconstruction’s greatest gifts is its exposure of white supremacy as an ongoing global paradigm through attention to imperial violence as much as the “domestic warfare” in its subtitle. For example, Chapter 2 brilliantly ties together an examination of the Freedman’s Bureau with analysis of the US military’s use of “pacification” strategies in its conquest ventures in the Pacific, specifically the Philippines. Through this synthesis, the chapter sketches a globalized understanding of White Being as distinct from (epidermally and/or proximally) white people. White Being, for Rodriguez, is the subject position that produces and is produced by “word-deforming violence” (102) even and especially as shifts in the social realm change the parameters of which embodied subjects enter or leave its purview (i.e. people that do not have white skin can proximally inhabit White Being, and some people with white skin can inhabit White Being only precariously). Rather than extreme bad actors, it is the figure of White Being, which can capture, absorb, and be (in/voluntarily) inherited, claimed, or bloodily weaponized by even politically liberal and progressive subjects, that emerges in Rodriguez’s analysis as that force which we, if we seek liberated futures, are obligated to abolish. At the bottom of this abolitionist analysis, then, is a call for the obliteration of the force of obliteration itself. It is a call for the formation of a world in which the very conceptual figure of Whiteness, as the position secured by and through the ongoing logics of white supremacy, cannot ever cohere.
There is one point on which White Borders and It Can Happen Here are helpfully clarifying: laying out the internationally-dispersed narrative of “The Great Replacement” as a fictional fear of “White Genocide.” Both Jones and Hinton sketch the tenants of the white supremacist assertion that white people are being “replaced” by people of color in Euro-American “white” nations, with this replacement being orchestrated by Jewish people (who are often referred to, in weak code, as “globalists”) pulling strings around migration and immigration in the background. Hinton does a stronger job explaining the points of belief and Jones does a stronger job detailing the historical development of the narrative across generations through specific texts and key political figures, but together they give a concrete understanding of what can often sound overly-abstract to a reader of White Reconstruction who isn’t already familiar with Rodriguez’s archives or theoretical frameworks—namely, the characterization of White Being’s aspiration towards “securing bodily integrity.” That is, Jones tells us, exactly what borders and, more precisely in his argument, immigration policy do. The history of US immigration policy is a history of attempting to prevent the population of non-white people in the US from growing too large, an attempt to stave off The Great Replacement of The White Race—a racist indulgence in the fiction of White Genocide.
There is no basis in reality to the belief that white people are being “replaced” by people of color. Not to mention that such a fantasy is an active erasure of the reality of the genocides of settler colonialism and antiblackness. But, Hinton and Jones demonstrate, it is a fiction that propels violent action, fabricating a rhetoric of self-defense as justification for genocidal violence. And here Jones’s analysis shines, as his attention to The Great Replacement as the threat being kept at bay by US borders makes crystal clear that while the bulk of his book’s details are about immigration policy rather than literal borders, those policies are about augmenting the capacity for borders to function as technologies of violence for white self-defense. Not only is Jones’s book about white borders, but the title of his previous book, Violent Borders is echoed in his argument such that white and violent conceptually cohere in analytically generative ways.
In contrast, it is on the point about White Genocide as a fictional (non-)justification of white self-defense that It Can Happen Here is most analytically weak. In sections titled “Social Movements and Revitalization” and “Radicalizing the Flash, Line, and Hammer,” Hinton’s commitments to liberal law-and-order politics emerge to the surface as he cautions that “if some social movements seek modest, specific changes, others are more radical, even revolutionary” (174). There is a palpable fear of revolutionary political demands in It Can Happen Here’s refusal to differentiate between, for example, the false belief in White Genocide and the legitimate charge that the very existence of the United States as a settler colony is an ongoing act of violence against Indigenous peoples. Unable to distinguish between valid and invalid claims for using violence as self-defense, Hinton’s proposed solutions suggest that “the purview of existing US atrocity crimes prevention infrastructures could be expanded to include domestic threats. So, too, could the scope of the domestic agencies like the FBI and Homeland Security be broadened” (169). Without an analysis of how US Empire as it is carried out by the military-industrial complex continues logics of evisceration around the world, the suggestion to expand the purview of existing state infrastructures is a suggestion to increase the reach of white supremacy.
On a personal note, as a white Jew, my embodied positionality exists at the meeting point of the white supremacist aspiration of genocidal violence and the targeting of that violence. With my whiteness secured through the logic of genocide as it continues to destroy Black and Indigenous life in the present-tense ongoing structure of carceral settler colonialism (including, at least, as it plays out both in North America and in Palestine), and with my Jewishness targeted for evisceration by that very logic as it is enunciated by the marchers in Charlottesville and the hate mail in my inboxes when I speak out against police violence, I understand on a bodily level the need to rigorously think the problem of white supremacy not as a problem of exceptional violent extremism but as a problem of genocide’s ongoing normalcy. Analysis of white supremacy, genocide, and violence requires a radical thinking against the formations of state power that cohere this ongoing normalcy of reform as the perpetuation of logics of genocide.
At the same time that Rodriguez’s White Reconstruction shows the need for analysis beyond reform, he also suggests a method for the aesthetic thinking that must accompany and carry forward this analysis. While his chapters usually focus their interpretive methods on historical or political texts rather than self-consciously “aesthetic” ones, Rodriguez’s readings model methods that are vital for navigating an array of forms of cultural production.
In Chapter 5’s re-thinking of “mass incarceration,” for instance, Rodriguez asks us to think or write our criticism in the context of institutionalization. There, he invites us to slow down and examine how seemingly subversive rhetoric or art might be working to reconfigure without breaking open political imaginations. In this way, Rodriguez’s concise critique of Michelle Alexander’s incredibly influential The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is instructive.5 While Rodriguez offers some point-by-point critique of The New Jim Crow’s argument itself, what I found most useful was his attention to how the book as a cultural object propels the institutionalization of “mass incarceration” rhetoric to mobilize “a form of carceral statecraft that pivots on the narrative logics of White Reconstruction” (185). As a reading practice, Rodriguez’s critique of a particular book instructs us in analyzing texts as cultural objects with the potential to produce institutionalization as a tool of counterinsurgency. In other words, the absorption of subversive potential into the existing structures of reformist change stifles radical critique precisely by adopting its terms.
On the flipside of revealing a seemingly radical text as less radical than it is, Rodriguez shows how seemingly liberal demands can be seen as more radical than they first appear, if we adopt what he calls a method of “abolitionist pre-reading.” In Chapter 4, he reads the 2010 “Georgia Prison Strike Demands” and the 2011 “Pelican Bay Hunger Strike Demands” in order “to critically address the generally reductive public interpretation of the strikers’ demands as articulations of incarcerated people’s collective desire to be recognized” (161). The simplistic public reading of the demands was that incarcerated strikers were just asking for more humane treatment within the existing structures of carceral capitalism. Instead, Rodriguez looks to how “conditions of carceral repression” inflect the demands as “an obliteration of the presumed authorial position of liberal modern rights-bearing civil subjects” (161). In this light, seemingly liberal demands are re-cast as radical insurgent ruptures of citizenship and its attendant trappings within rights-based juridical conceptions of liberty.
Rodriguez’s method of abolitionist pre-reading has much to teach us in literary and aesthetic criticism. How might we re-read, for example, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric as radically insurgent? In a way not dissimilar to The New Jim Crow or The 1619 Project, Citizen has become a touchstone text among liberals and progressives for pointing the way towards reforming issues of racial inequity. This is partially because the text appears to fit neatly into liberal-progressive models of critique. A common reading of the book is that it names the racist exclusion of Black people from US citizenship, an exclusion to be rectified through a reckoning with history and the re-creation of an “America” that is representative of more than just white people. This reading attends not only to the content of Rankine’s poems, which explicitly critique both so-called “micro” and violently spectacular iterations of antiblack racism, but also to the book’s announced form as a lyric. That is, Citizen is often read, in a lineage that might include Walt Whitman’s so-called “cosmic-I” in “Song of Myself” and elsewhere, as a reshaping of America as lyric speaker into a democratically-open collective that can embrace the previously marginalized through extensive redressive work, thus opening the way to a brighter future if we but reckon honestly with our dark past.
And yet, Citizen might be able to resist New Jim Crow-style institutionalization as a vehicle for reformist logic. Although Rankine is a college professor and not someone locked in a cage under the same “conditions of carceral repression” as the striking incarcerated people who authored the lists of demands that Rodriguez analyzes, there is a way to utilize Rodriguez’s methodology to read Rankine’s book as using its form against the logic of reform. In other words, Citizen provides a formalistic critique of form itself. Consider this often-quoted poem from the volume: “…however, sometimes your historical selves, her white self and your black self, or your white self and her black self, arrive with the full force of your American positioning.”6 What happens if we extrapolate Rankine’s complex layering of and and or here, such that the repeated “I” and “you” in the text remain, throughout the book’s entirety, unable to stabilize as white or Black at any given moment? Were we to close-read multiple specific examples of the book’s use of first-person narration and second-person address as invoking the crisscrossing of historical selves, what might emerge from Citizen is a rupture of the “I” that cannot hold, that cannot be re-formed so long as America is the container.
By the end of Citizen, when the reader turns the final page of text to meet the image of J.M.W. Turner’s 19th-century painting The Slave Ship, the juridical form of the citizen, as that which could be posited as a lyric speaker for America, has been ruptured beyond reform. Something else is being demanded when the reader is face-to-face with an aesthetic rendering not of mere exclusion, but of the genocidal violence of the Middle Passage as the “final word” of Rankine’s poetry. I offer this not as a definitive reading of a single text—indeed, I am conscious that without further elaboration my reading of Citizen remains speculative—but rather as an extension of Rodriguez’s project of “abolitionist reading” into the aesthetic realm. It is an invitation to read how cultural objects like poetry, film, and visual art might be both/either institutionalized in mobilization of reformist logics and/or resist institutionalization through cracking (re-)form itself. What is at stake is how we imagine the future in the arts of the present.
In addition to the insightful editorial work of Michael Dango at ASAP/J, I’d like to thank Brent Ryan Bellamy for providing substantive feedback on earlier drafts of this essay.
- José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 27.
- Beth Richie, Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation (New York: New York University Press, 2012), 99-124.
- The Los Angeles Massacre of 1871 is a reminder that, while the majority of lynchings in the United States were committed against Black people, lynching was a tool of racist violence against other people of color as well, including Asians and Mexicans, especially in Western territories. Relatedly, the largest mass hanging in the US was a legal action: in the aftemath of the US-Dakota War of 1862, Abraham Lincoln ordered the execution of 38 Dakota people in Mankato, Minnesota.
- Ian Haney Lopez, White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race, revised and updated (New York: NYU Press, 2006), 36. My use of the word “unthought” in relation to (antiblackness) is indebted to Saidiya Hartman and Frank Wilderson, “The Position of the Unthought,” Qui Parle 13, no. 2 (2003); 183-201.
- As a critical reading of a popular text that is often framed as more radical than it might be upon further analysis, Rodriguez’s reading is a kindred spirit with Lauren Michele Jackson’s review of the book-form publication of The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story.
- Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2014), 14 (my italics).