Who Are We, and Who Belongs Here?

I have been pondering a question provoked by a recent Reflections and Explorations commentary by Sarah Lyon-Hill entitled, “How Do We Move Beyond Rhetoric?” How do we generate public rhetoric about the questions that matter? I want to suggest we need more rhetoric, but of a different sort, about questions that have no perfect answers; in fact, I want to advocate for answers likely to be “good enough.” My logic is, by asking better questions and acknowledging at the outset that proposed solutions are likely to be only “good enough,” perhaps our popular rhetoric can shift from how the solution to any given public concern fails as a political strategy to why it falls short of representing what we think it means to be an American. Without public discussions, arguments, and agreements about who we collectively believe ourselves to be, we continually risk settling on answers that may not even be “good enough.”

Put differently, I mean to suggest that by skipping the discussion of “what does this mean as an American,” we subtly redefine our national identity by omission.  For example, in the 2008-2010 health care debate, no meaningful public rhetoric addressed what rights and responsibilities the United States has to the health of its populace.  Instead, we debated and passed a law framed primarily as a means to pay for treatment of sickness. As a result, experts contend we missed opportunities to incentivize healthy living, which would increase Americans’ quality of life while helping to control escalating costs. Still, perhaps the outcome we achieved was “good enough.” Alternatively, in the recent ‘sequester’ controversy no one asked how our national sense-of-self was reflected in a fiscal policy choice widely acknowledged to be a “self-inflicted wound” (Grier 2013) that imposes avoidable suffering on the American people. Though some analysts have predicted the ‘sequester’ will be negotiated into submission in coming months, I wonder if that outcome is “good enough”?

As individuals with limited time and resources, we make “good enough” choices all the time. Our daily decisions inherently question and contest who we believe ourselves to be.  In the now ubiquitous musical, Les Miserables, Jean Valjean asks in song,  “Who am I?” reflecting his internal deliberation about saving a condemned man. Valjean knows that assisting the man will lead to the unenviable choice of returning to prison or to life on the run to save his daughter (spoiler alert: he runs). Like Valjean’s, our individual identity is regularly adjudicated by the daily choices we make from a slate of less than optimal possibilities.  Do I accept a demeaning job offer or risk continued unemployment?  Do I attend my child’s school ceremony or stay at work to meet tomorrow’s deadline? Do I keep my job, risking the security of my undocumented parent, or do I pack up my life and start over in another state? Each decision [re]defines who we are in the face of who we believe ourselves to be.  Sometimes, as in the last case, we also define who we are as citizens.

The 2012 presidential election thrust the issue of national immigration policy reform onto the political stage, as the immigrant body became a new power broker in national politics. However, I was struck that this supposed argument took for granted the answer to the question, who are we as a nation. For Democrats and Republicans alike the issue was, rather, how we should reconcile that past with current immigration challenges. Nonetheless, the mythology of the United States as a “nation of immigrants” was publicly dissimilated by state-initiated “reforms” when several states asked, “who am I?” and answered with very different definitions of “who belongs here.” Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Indiana, and Utah have now very clearly asked and legally answered, who does and does not belong in their states, and in so doing, distinguished state “citizenship” as something separate from United States “citizenship.” The consequence? If we do not soon engage in a national conversation concerning what it means to be an American citizen, these states will do it for us willy-nilly. Is such an outcome good enough?

Alabama offers a particular cautionary tale. In 2011, that state passed what is widely regarded as the most restrictive, some say “mean-spirited,” and detailed immigration law in the United States, and Alabama continues to battle in court to secure its full implementation. Essentially, the state’s  immigration law has one goal: to make life within its bounds completely untenable for a person living there illegally. And it has one sub-goal, to make it likewise impossible for a legal citizen or permanent resident to support an undocumented immigrant. A critical intention of the law was to change the conditions of residence for undocumented people while also redefining the responsibilities and duties of Alabama’s citizens.  Virtually no aspects of community life were left untouched by the statute, and for an immigrant or anyone who looks like an immigrant  (i.e., citizen, legal resident, or not), the policy created a new, visual burden of proof for belonging.

The state’s law constructs an idea of what it means to be a citizen with characteristics distinct from those of how being American has been defined, thereby queering the understanding of citizenship. Martin Parker has defined queering as “an attitude of unceasing disruptiveness” (2002, 148).  The Alabama legislature queered the definition of “citizen” literally and physically through its intentional, continual disruption of the term’s function. In Alabama, the public rhetoric, if not the language of the relevant law, makes clear that the targeted immigrant body is Latino/a, and the statute enables other “citizens” to see who belongs through an implicit criterion of whiteness. In effect, this law creates two dichotomous categories of meaning: “illegal immigrant” and “Alabama citizen.” Each requires visible recognition, and with that standing now negatively equated with the Latino/a body; this is the body that does not belong, regardless of “legal” status. The citizenry and the immigrant body is a discursive text upon which power is inscribed through law enforcement; a Foucauldian disciplining of the communal body (1977). “Citizens” not recognizable as Alabamians (using the assumed criteria of whiteness) risk being targeted for punitive action by police and other citizens alike. The body of the “Latino/a other” is the notion against which state citizenship is now framed. Recognition, the Latino/a body as a discursive text, is a queered feature of the new Alabama citizen.

With the mandate of citizenry enforcement, Alabama has been transformed into a contemporary version of Bentham’s “Panopticon,” where surveillance is unseen yet constant and constitutes an “all-seeing” omnipresence in daily life (Clegg, Courpasson, and Phillips 2006, 44).   The law requires racial profiling of all citizens, by all citizens, through recognition of those who do not belong. This queering of citizenship, the transference of policing from the state to citizen, is a unique feature of Alabama’s law. However, it is a direct result of a legislative discussion about who belongs here (in Alabama), during a time of no counter rhetoric exploring who belongs here (in the United States).

The cautionary tale of this turn for national immigration reform is this: Some states have already redefined citizenship in ways that imperil the immigrant body regardless of legal notions of “belonging.” In this context, what does it mean to be an American citizen?  It strikes me that this is a question that matters, and we need a national conversation and rhetoric that considers an answer that is “good enough.”  If we do not develop that response, other states will, as Alabama has already done, redefine citizenship across the nation, on a state-by-state basis. Is this “good enough” for an issue so fundamental to national identity? More deeply, do we wish to define that character around fear and exclusion as Alabama has done? If not, how do we have a national immigration reform discussion in “the land of immigrants” without simultaneous public rhetoric about what being a citizen of the United States means?

I am very sorry to say that I am afraid we are about to find out.


Clegg, S., D. Courpasson, and N. Phillips. 2006. Power and organizations: Sage Publications Ltd.

Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline & punish: the birth of the prison: Random House of Canada.

Grier, Peter. 2013. “After the ‘sequester,’ now what?” The Christian Science Monitor.

Parker, M. 2002. Against management: Organization in the age of managerialism: Polity Press.


Eli JamisonEli is a Ph.D. student in Virginia Tech’s ASPECT (Alliance for Social, Political, Cultural and Ethical Thought) program and serves as a history instructor and graduate teaching assistant.  She is also earning the Women and Gender Studies Graduate Certificate.   She is currently a Virginia Tech Graduate Humanities Fellow for Spring 2013 and a member of the Community Voices Team. Many moons ago, she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Cultural Anthropology from James Madison University, and a Master of Business Administration from Vanderbilt University’s Owen School of Management with a dual concentration in Human Resource Management and Organizational Behavior.

Prior to returning as a full-time student, she spent 17 years working in the public and private sectors consulting in the areas of leadership development, training and development, organizational development, and strategic  management, and most recently she was as an instructor and administrator in higher education.  She continues to be an active community volunteer, private consultant, wife, and mother. She returned for her Ph.D. in search of ways to teach and “do” business differently. Her current research is considers the conditions under which businesses might become actors for social justice using the lens of state-based immigration law.

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