Countering Racial Enthymemes: What We Can Learn About Race from Donald J. Trump

Danny Rodriguez, Texas Christian University

November, 2020


“As a result of decontextualized and simplistic conversations about race, great schisms in communicative and interpretive practices occur and dialogue shuts down. The schisms, I argue, necessitate the continuation of taboo-laden race discussions” 

—Iris D. Ruiz, Decolonizing Rhetoric and Composition Studies (4)

As a Mexican-American in a historically white field, I have observed discussions and even scholarly presentations relating to race that represent convoluted concepts such as racism, and even whiteness, as stagnant definitions ostensibly as a result of public knowledge. Race appears without qualifiers in the titles of conference presentations, journal articles, and books, implying that as a concept race is inherently unambiguous. Despite the scholarship that focuses on race and the racial blind spots in that research, a major problem in our approach to race—particularly grounded in cultural contexts—is the enduring assumption that we all interpret race in the same way at all times. In terms of my own positionality, I did not always prioritize a definition of race. Potentially similar to others, I expected academics and even students to either share or be familiar with my interpretation of race. To me, race is a social construct, but it is also a metaphor that has real effects and a fluid base. As I.A. Richards contends, all language is metaphorical (92-99). While my DNA may be similar to other Mexican-Americans, our experiences and spaces of theorizing vary. Because of these differences, our definitions evolve and may clash at times. However, I am content with this realization because I can only then hope that we complicate every definition to ensure that our conversations about race never become static. As I will discuss in this essay, we are not always cognizant of competing definitions of race as we attempt to differentiate between and discern overt and subtle racialization. To convey the significance of explicit and implicit definitions concerning race, I turn to the severity of racial enthymemes.

As some scholars have argued, we can make hidden claims about race visible by rhetorically analyzing enthymemes. In her contribution to Race, Rhetoric, and Composition two decades ago, Meta G. Carstarphen called attention to the implications of a racial enthymeme by analyzing this statement of a journalist, Carl Rowan: “Bigotry, ethnic and racial hatreds, the dark side of man’s nature, can never be expunged from human life. It can only be controlled” (26; emphasis in original). According to Carstarphen, Rowan’s statement becomes the following enthymeme: the major premise is “Bigotry and ethnic and racial hatreds (A) are the dark side of human nature (B),” the minor premise is “Every man (C) has a dark side to his nature because he is human (B),” and the conclusion is inevitably “Every man (C) has bigotry and ethnic and racial hatred in him (A)” (28). Carstarphen criticizes this enthymeme because Rowan represents implicit arguments as truths: Rowan asserts that hatred has a relation to darkness, and he subtly claims that hatred is dark, and the opposite of hate, love, is lighter (i.e., love is white); furthermore, universal definitions of terms such as “racial hatreds” exist, and racism is inexorable (28). Carstarphen reveals that without even using the term race, authors can make racialized claims about particular identities. If an audience fails to detect an enthymeme or elects not to parse the implications of the enthymeme, an author’s assertions about race will remain invisible and naturalized. Although the field has not adequately developed Carstarphen’s research, I draw our attention to contemporary racial enthymemes within political, pedagogical, and academic contexts to highlight the need for solutions in our present moment. 

Matthew Jackson postulates that an understanding of how enthymemes operate within racial discourse provides white people with the rhetorical ability and space to confront their own racism. By examining racial enthymemes in relation to whiteness, he argues, “Racist enthymemes can function to support arguments for white supremacy inconspicuously and indirectly” (606). According to Jackson, these racial enthymemes construct “an enthymematic relationship” between “the hegemonic premises and claims of white supremacy” and white people (607-08). Jackson does partially recognize his own accountability by reiterating that the silence of whites means that they are complicit in upholding white supremacy (626). However, to truly “learn how to identify whiteness . . . and to work against it,” we, as a field, have to propose practical resolutions because, as Krista Ratcliffe suggests, simply identifying racially coded enthymemes to recognize whiteness or racism does not solve the issue (629). While Ratcliffe calls attention to Jackson’s white guilt and blame (287), she also discusses how “the pedagogical challenge remains to make whiteness visible and to help others . . . articulate how we are all personally implicated . . . in systemic whiteness” (288). To answer Ratcliffe’s call to make whiteness evident, I develop Jackson’s research concerning the racial enthymeme from my standpoint of a person of color and offer a potential solution during these particular times. 

I argue that expressing a working definition of race in our own research will mitigate or minimize (un)intentional racial enthymemes. I also argue that we have to remain rhetorically sensitive to our working definitions even when we examine the racial enthymemes of others. To emphasize its intricacies, I first provide an overview of the enthymeme. Second, to illustrate the overwhelming prevalence of contemporary enthymemes and the importance of definitions, I analyze racialized comments of Donald Trump as ready examples of how whiteness unapologetically operates in officially sanctioned, public spaces. Third, I discuss the consequences of absent definitions of race and the unintentional enthymeme by examining the arguments of two scholars, Jennifer Clary-Lemon and Amy Goodburn, who contribute to our conversations about race but do not offer their own definitions of it. As exemplary models of research that focus on race, these scholarly works allow me to illustrate how we can take substantial contributions even further by stimulating racial awareness at the levels of definition and positionality. Finally, I call for an academic obligation among scholars to define race particularly when we utilize the concept in our scholarship. Consequently, we may become more aware of racial enthymemes and our own positionality.  

Figure 1: "Donald Trump head as a doll"
Figure 1: “Donald Trump head as a doll”
Racial Enthymeming and Donald J. Trump

Since Aristotle stated that “the enthymeme is a kind of syllogism” and “for [in rhetoric] the conclusion should not be drawn from far back, nor is it necessary to include everything” (168-69), scholars have expounded the meaning and functions of an enthymeme (e.g., Burnyeat, Dyck, Raymond, and Walton). In his attempt to characterize the enthymeme, Lloyd Bitzer claims that audience determines the effectiveness of an enthymeme as he argues, “The enthymeme succeeds as an instrument of rational persuasion because its premises are always drawn from the audience” (408). As Jackson[1]
has noted, Bitzer’s view of an audience is problematic in regard to enthymemes because we cannot ignore the position and responsibility of an audience. Since—as Grimaldi expresses—probabilities and signs[2] are “the sources for argument by” rhetorical enthymemes (115), unstated premises should warrant critical observation since they do not have to be “universally true” to persuade (Corbett 64). If we accept the syllogistic nature of an enthymeme, an audience ought to object to any controversial implied premises, but such a call-to-action becomes complicated as we reflect on the basic structure of an enthymeme. 

As recent as 2018, James Fredal problematizes our interpretations of the enthymeme by arguing for a more accurate reading of Aristotle: “To create an enthymeme, you don’t write a syllogism and elide a premise; you tell a story and highlight a significant fact” (37). According to Fredal, an enthymeme “asserts and invites the audience to attend to . . . a stated and accepted fact,” “places the fact in a narrative context,” “helps frame and answer the legal question at issue,” and “inverts the opponent’s argument” (34).[3] An audience comprehends an enthymeme of a rhetor because it likely already accepts a position as factual. The rhetorical choices of a rhetor, such as providing a narrative context, then, remind an audience of a shared truth. Fredal’s definition advances our understanding of the enthymeme while uncovering a significant and yet troubling detail. On one hand, a traditional perception of the enthymeme undervalues its rhetorical potential by limiting it to a syllogistic structure; consequently, we, as rhetorical critics, should not restrict an enthymeme to a rigid configuration. On the other hand, Fredal’s reinterpretation of the enthymeme in practice would appear as fact-based; in other words, an audience understands an enthymeme because the enthymeme is or appears truthful. Although Fredal qualifies his definition and states that an enthymeme is irrefutable because an “opponent cannot easily refute” it or an audience would likely recognize the conclusion of an enthymeme as “unavoidable” (39-40). While what an enthymeme is remains imperative for this discussion, what an enthymeme offers can have racial implications. Rhetorical awareness of how an enthymeme operates in other areas, such as the teaching of writing (see Green; Gage; Emmel), intertextuality (see Scenters-Zapico), embodied rhetorics (see Prenosil), and visual rhetoric (see Finnegan), encourages us to assess how it influences everyday lives.

Before I discuss the importance of them in defining race, I consider how enthymemes can be racially coded by analyzing only a few of the many illustrative enthymemes that Donald J. Trump has constructed in his interviews, speeches, and Tweets. As Jennifer R. Mercieca states in her contribution to Faking the News: What Rhetoric Can Teach Us About Donald J. Trump, “Donald Trump’s 2016 election to the presidency of the United States was a political rupture—it represented a break with traditional presidential campaign rhetoric as well as a break with a traditional presidency” (174). While I apply a racial lens to this rupture, we cannot completely decipher Trump’s rhetorical practices and the effects of his practices without considering his presidency in relation to women, immigrants, the LGBTQIA+ community, Muslims, and every other group of people that Trump has further marginalized. As Patricia Roberts-Miller states, “If we are intent on preventing another Hitler, as scholars of rhetoric should be, we should not just focus strictly on Hitler or his rhetorical strategies. Rather, we should ask what made his demagoguery powerful at some times and not powerful other times—why did the same rhetoric sometimes gain compliance and sometimes not?” (234-35). As upcoming sections will reveal, the lack of a foundational definition for race has made Trump’s demagoguery powerful and unchecked. 

In “Donald Trump’s Racism: The Definitive List,” David Leonhardt and Ian Prasad Philbrick—journalists for The New York Times—compile a plethora of examples of Trump’s racist rhetoric. Without offering definitions of race and racism while labeling Trump’s rhetoric as racist (which it is from my position), they have to operate with ambiguous and unsaid, but present, working definitions for race, racism, and racialization to even reach this conclusion. Frankie Condon and Vershawn Ashanti Young, by contrast, present a clear working definition of racism as “racial prejudice coextensive with the unequal distribution of power within communities, instructions, and/or systems. In other words, or framed as an equation: race prejudice + power = racism” (14). In order to define racism, though, we would need more: we would also have to establish a definition for racial prejudice[4]
, and this construction would be based on our definition of race.[5] The racial enthymemes from Trump that I consider here do more than suggest that he is racist; they emphasize the need for us to vocalize, with clarity and detail, our working definitions for race and related concepts.

Figure 2: "Protest Signs"
Figure 2: ARABIC 2 “Protest Signs”

To investigate the everyday effects of widely broadcasted and circulated enthymemes, I turn to some examples relating to Trump. While these enthymemes, unfortunately, are not necessarily unique, they represent what many of us can overlook if we do not uphold and apply a constant rhetorical lens to his rhetoric. Decades before Trump became U.S. President, his racial unawareness should have been obvious: “In 1989, on NBC, Trump said: ‘I think sometimes a black may think they don’t have an advantage or this and that. I’ve said on one occasion, even about myself, if I were starting off today, I would love to be a well-educated black because I really believe they do have an actual advantage” (qtd. in Leonhardt). Trump’s troubling message that “they do have an actual advantage” points to an unsaid and ambiguous reference: it “functions as an enthymeme because the audience can think of possible ways to complete it by supplying the missing premises and conclusions based on shared assumptions and values” (Jackson 617). According to Trump’s message, a missing premise could be that blacks who are not well educated do not have an advantage. The obvious conclusion would, then, be that blacks need to be well educated. Unfortunately, this conclusion is dangerous since Trump seems to only want to trade his whiteness for blackness if he were “a well-educated black,” thereby arguing that whiteness is always advantageous regardless of what it means to be well educated. By using racial enthymemes, a person can reinforce systemic racism by openly admitting one’s white privilege while attempting to appear as racially aware when making racist remarks. 

During Trump’s presidential campaign, his early remarks about undocumented Mexicans induced many of his audience members to identify[6]with him as a result of his employment of enthymemes. Trump expressed, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems . . . They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people” (qtd. in Leonhardt). His oratory contains not one but two enthymemes about the dichotomy of so-called Americans and Mexicans. These enthymemes can have the following forms:

First Enthymeme:

Undocumented Mexicans are not ideal citizens
Undocumented Mexicans are not like “Americans” (i.e., Trump’s audience members)

The missing premise is “Americans are ideal citizens.” 

Second Enthymeme:

Many undocumented Mexicans are criminals; therefore, they do not belong in the U.S.
The missing premise is “Americans are not criminals.”

As recent as 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 60.4% of the U.S. population, which lives on Indigenous land, is classified as “white alone” (i.e., “not Hispanic or Latino”), and a nationality is always already racialized due to its racial and ethnic demographics (“QuickFacts”). Critics of the two enthymemes in the examples above have likely ascertained the racial coding of his message. The utilization of nationalities, as Victor Villanueva argues in “Blind,” prompt the erasure of race. Therefore, those who accept the enthymeming of Trump would likely support nominalism[7]
 but it is difficult to even presume Trump’s definition of race in this particular context. However, together, these enthymemes are effective if Trump’s target audience agrees with the linkages that they create. According to Jeffery Walker, beyond a “quasi-syllogistic structure of claim-because-premise,” an enthymeme draws “from what Perelman has called a ‘web’ or a network of oppositions and . . . liaisons” to engage the audience and to “foreground stance and motivate identification with that stance” (56). Enthymemes, then, “set up” the liaisons and oppositions (56) that contribute to our cultural networks of people and associations. As someone who is not part of this cultural network of Trump supporters, my scholarly and personal commitment to anti-racism motivate me to identify potential implications of his enthymemes. His enthymemes do not reinforce my cultural network; however, reinforcing my cultural network, or embracing anti-racism, does not appear to be his goal. In other words, an enthymeme is not simply a rhetorical syllogism but also a cultural practice that reaffirms or challenges the networks and associations that cultures develop.

Trump has even defended himself against the label of racist as he explained, “I’m not a racist. I am the least racist person you have ever interviewed, that I can tell you” (qtd. in Shear). Regardless of intent, he constructs an enthymeme that reveals a grave contradiction:

Another racial enthymeme:

I am not a racist because I am the least racist person you have conversed with in your life.

The troubling implied premise would then be, “The least racist person is not really racist.” 

Racism existing in a spectrum does not mitigate racial tensions or the effects of racism but rather exacerbates these tensions and effects. The troubling implication of this enthymeme is that a U.S. president has a particular definition of racism that allows him to justify the intent and consequences of his rhetoric. Furthermore, Trump is able to communicate this implied premise to an audience that can, in turn, weaponize it. In “Trump, the KKK, and the Versatility of White Supremacy Rhetoric,” James Chase Sanchez posits that Trump “uses language in ambiguous ways that might imply a specific meaning to one group and something else to a different group” (49). Trump denying that he is racist constructs an implied premise that (un)intentionally authorizes a white supremacist attitude: as long as a person is not the most racist person, a moderately or even severely racist person can overlook his or her own racial unawareness. This white supremacist attitude remains since definitions of concepts like racism remain unexpressed and, therefore, ambiguous. 

In response to the riots that occurred due to the murder of George Floyd, Trump threatened to use the U.S. military to silence angry and hurt voices expressing themselves in various forms of protesting. Despite the graphic footage of the death of George Floyd, Trump explains: 

A police precinct has been overrun here in the nation’s Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial and the World War II Memorial have been vandalized. One of our most historic churches was set ablaze. A federal officer in California, an African American enforcement hero was shot and killed. These are not acts of peaceful protests, these are acts of domestic terror. The destruction of innocent life and the spilling of innocent blood is an offense to humanity and a crime against God. (Gregorian “Trump says he will deploy military”)

Racial Enthymemes Regarding George Floyd: 
Overrunning a police precinct, vandalizing a memorial, burning a church, and killing law enforcement are acts of domestic terror, offenses to humanity, and crimes against God.

A dangerous implied premise is, “The death of George Floyd is not an act of domestic terror, offense to humanity, or a crime against God.” 

Trump clearly equates land, property, and the police to innocent life and innocent blood. Additionally, he equates protestors to vandals and domestic terrorists. Despite all the troubling enthymemes within this section of his speech, a crucial missing premise involves Trump’s perception of George Floyd. Since Trump does not explicitly mention George Floyd, Trump suggests that the murder of George Floyd was not “an offense to humanity and a crime against God.” These enthymemes are racial since they have racial implications. For an audience that is more concerned about various forms of protesting, this audience will likely continue to disregard George Floyd, or the racism which caused these protests. In regard to an audience that seeks racial justice, we will recognize Trump’s inability to confront systemic racism. In the following section, I will continue to focus on the truncated syllogism to demonstrate the consequences of unapparent definitions.

Unstated Definitions and Unintentional Racial Enthymemes

In addition to the presence of enthymemes in our media and classrooms, enthymemes exist in our own scholarly research. As rhetoricians, we possess the positionality and necessary tools to minimize such enthymemes. To understand the function of racial enthymemes in our own field, we have to reconsider the importance of definitions by reviewing our own scholarly standards. Since definitional differences obstruct dialogue, rhetorical critics, to discover the cause of such differences, should begin with focusing on foundational concerns not expressed in usage. In Defining Reality: Definitions and the Politics of Meaning, Edward Schiappa postulates, “Definitions typically are treated as reporting one of two kinds of fact . . . a fact of essence” or “a fact of usage” (6-7). As fact of essence considers what “X really or truly is” while a fact of usage acknowledges how people employ terms in their daily conversations (6-7). In other words, people can dispute whether or not a definition is accurate or if a person correctly utilizes a term based on the standards of its definition. Differences can result from either “a definitional gap” or “a definitional rupture” (8). According to Schiappa, a definitional gap occurs when a person does not understand a word and resorts to finding a definition (8), whereas a definitional rupture transpires when a person encounters discourse that employs words which contradict recognized definitions of such words (e.g., “‘That song is really bad’” offers conflicting connotations and denotations with how many define and elect to use and perceive “bad”) (8-9). To state pointedly, if a person is unfamiliar with a term and seeks an immediate or working definition, the situation creates a definitional gap. If a person questions the usage of a word because he or she does not believe the word applies to the context, this situation establishes a definitional rupture. When we acknowledge the concept of race, a definitional gap or rupture (or both) is possible because race does not have a single definition. Identifying those gaps and ruptures in our scholarly works may be especially important for productive discussions of race. 

Choosing to use a certain word or phrase in a specific way is rhetorical, of course, and ignoring the possible ruptures of such usage discloses an absence of awareness. Schiappa argues that “definitions are always political. . . . definitions always serve interests and advance values, and they always require the exercise of power to be efficacious” (177). When it comes to scholarly argument, in particular, definitions directly affect the power and benefits granted to a scholar, and too often, not specifying definitions can be convenient or even advantageous. For example, a scholar who does not state his or her conception of race can succeed in advancing a conversation without accepting the responsibility, and avoid the risk of working through the process of constructing or realizing a definition. Neglecting this responsibility forestalls a process that could otherwise force a scholar to revise the definition or possibly acknowledge any complicating issues with his or her positionality. Additionally, without a clear definition from the outset, the author neglects the responsibility for rectifying definitional gaps and ruptures—or to raise awareness of them, especially when they concern language that has real consequences. 

Figure 3: "It's A Privilege To Educate Yourself About Racism"
Figure 3: “It’s A Privilege To Educate Yourself About Racism”

We need to consider some fundamental issues concerning what we mean by race and what race may mean to each particular individual.  In “The Language of Narratives,” Sheila L. Carter-Tod states that a racial identity contains seven components[8]
(136), and with so many factors in a racial identity, our approaches to race should be nuanced and unique. In addition to nominalism, Linda Martín Alcoff defines two other central positions on race. She labels the second view as “essentialism” since this position views race as “an elemental category of identity,” suggesting that “racial groups share a set of characteristics, a set of political interests, and a historical destiny” (182). This position also becomes problematic if we consider the potential dangers of assuming that people of any color have innate qualities and predictable behavior; yet again, we have to acknowledge that this essentialist view endures. Lastly, she claims that “contextualism” endorses race as a social construction. This construction is, then, “historically malleable, culturally contextual, and reproduced through learned perceptual practices” (182). In this well-established framework, even though we may define race as a social construction, our approaches to it can also embrace nominalism or even essentialism—or prioritize specific identity components, highlighting the significance of explicit definitions. In the discussion that follows, I analyze one example that represents the absence of a definition of race and another example that contains a racial enthymeme due to an unarticulated definition, both of which show that whatever frameworks are in play, definitional clarity is a must.

In her examination of how scholars discussed race over a sixteen-year time period, Jennifer Clary-Lemon offers several significant insights about the ambiguity of race in College Composition and Communication (“The Racialization of Composition Studies”). As her data conveys, scholars defined race as a “social construction” or explained race through language that related to the concepts of “diversity” and marginalization (6). She asks academics to acknowledge “that we encode race” and that this encoding has effects (14). I would add, importantly, that we also implicitly or explicitly encode race through how we choose to define, or not define, race. Despite Clary-Lemon’s conclusions about encoding concepts, she does not supply her own definition of the concept. She cites Henry Louis Gates, who suggests race is simply a social construction, mentions how “social constructionists” perceive “race” as an “arbitrary and ideological categorization,” and discusses how Keith Gilyard implies that “race” is “multidimensional” (3-4). She works with others’ definitions of race, however, without providing her own. 

I am not critiquing Clary-Lemon’s overall argument. In fact, I agree with her stance. However, her own failure to define race leaves readers with no other choice than to accept that they should share the same definitional framework of race, to ignore the various ways we all can explain race, or to speculate about what race is to Clary-Lemon. For example, she problematizes “terms like ‘difference’” and even states, “Thus both publicly and professionally, race and the use of language have been intertwined, evident from the early 1970s until the end of 1990s” (10-11). Even with the best intentions, theorizing about race without constructing a statement that discloses a definition of race indicates the scholar as occupying a place of privilege: producing research about race without the uneasy task of creating or finding a definition of race and then analyzing all the implications of choosing that tentative definition. While this type of privilege does not necessarily efface an author’s positionality, such absences dilute authorial positionality because it signals an absence of awareness—or at least an assumption that the audience shares the same racialized worldview. I am not arguing that any scholars are fully aware of all their privileges, but the assumption that a personal authorial definition of race is unnecessary contaminates positionality with privilege and can unknowingly produce racial enthymemes. 

Succinct reflection and thorough analysis may not expedite or simplify the process of concocting a definition for race. In “Racing (Erasing) White Privilege in Teacher/Research Writing About Race,” for example, Amy Goodburn exposes her own privilege and racialized experiences. Based on an ethnographic study of “a class of eighteen students,” “ten men (eight white, one African American, and one African American/Native American); eight women (six white and two African American); and a white teacher,” Goodburn “as a participant-observer” presents her field notes about a student discussion (73-75).  She also analyzes her field notes, such as the complications of selecting “social descriptors” for students who did not self-identify themselves racially (75-79), and how the job market prompted certain epiphanies, such as why Goodburn unknowingly paired student stories together based on race, through a racial lens (80-83). In essence, she displays racial awareness of being a white academic, which requires a level of metacognition. Goodburn concludes, “Understanding racist relations of dominance and my privileges of whiteness as a white woman professor within these relations is much messier, an ongoing project in which I must always work to uncover and struggle against the invisible norms of power that my culture affords me” (83). Goodburn performs a task, filled with tension and discomfort, that does not make whiteness fully visible because her own interpretations of whiteness and race are indiscernible. 

She expresses, like scholars of color have also argued, that her understanding of white privilege and race is an ongoing process that requires both revision and reflection. Consequently, conversations and thinking about race and white privilege will never end. Additionally, her experiences enlighten her theories about race, thereby disseminating her positionality—she is reflecting on and processing both her successes and failures. Despite her insights, however, she does not provide a definition of race. Based on her conclusion, she subtly equates “my culture” with “whiteness.” Therefore, “culture” and “whiteness” likely function as a metaphor for race because they become substitutions for a term that she is implicitly referencing. In effect, her employment of metaphors for race conceal the complexities of whiteness, or specifically how she defines whiteness, and a self-serving form of white privilege: discussing race without defining it.

In her reflection about her classroom discussions, she makes the following statements: 1) “It’s also important to question why I focused on issues of race only in the classroom populated with students of color” and 2) “And because the white students generally did not view themselves as even having a race, there was definitely a lesser degree of tension in discussing racial issues” (77-78). This enthymeme for race could be described as: “I focused on race differently with my students of color than I did with my white students; therefore, student demographics affected my teaching.” Unfortunately, the unexpressed premise is that student demographics then define race, which ultimately means that race is simply an optic test. Again, this is not the author’s central definition for race. Rather, I am highlighting the consequences of expecting an audience to complete an author’s unclear conception of race and why we should continue to take a critical look at scholarship about race.  

An Academic Solution to the Racial Enthymeme 

When spaces of theorizing and experiencing intersect, transparency with clarity is a rhetorical imperative. Moving forward, a commitment to transparency in our research warrants attentiveness and the explicit communication of our own working definitions, which may relate to theory, experience, or both. While theory is essential to literature studies, in “Working Definitions: Race, Ethnic Studies, and Early American Literature,” Joanna Brooks discusses how our experiences inform our motivations for our research and teaching. Brooks does not begin her analysis of early American texts, specifically those of African-American and Native American voices, until she expresses her own working definition of race: “First, a few working definitions: race, as I understand it, is an effect of racism. The idea of race came into being as a means of organizing social relations in order to establish and maintain political and economic domination” (313). As a person of color, I do not pause to deconstruct or praise Brooks’s perspective on race. Instead, her argument, and more importantly, her positionality become evident. She not only offers her interpretation of race, but she also elects to open her argument with a working definition. In addition to Brooks’s candor, her research also evinces two different spaces that inform racial scholarship: people of color experience race in one space and “European and Euro-American intellectuals” typically theorize about race in another (316). Brooks theorizes about race, and she is transparent about working from a space of theory, not experience. Her positionality is then lucid because Brooks does not burden her readers with the responsibility of deducing her definitional space. Though theorizing and experiencing about race may seem like a dichotomy, these intersecting spaces can function as a bridge for productive discussions of race in academia. 

More recently, in Counterstory: The Rhetoric and Writing of Critical Race Theory, in addition to offering both a “methodology and method” that relates to the importance of racial theory to our field (21), Aja Y. Martinez provides one of her syllabi.  Because her course focuses on “Race Critical Theories,” Martinez’s course description includes her definition of race: “‘Race’ in the United States is defined by societal structure, human representation, and cultural representation to form a ‘common sense’ regarding racial order, meanings, and identity” (147). From an educator’s point of view, expressing our own understanding of race conveys the complexities, and, therefore, significance of race, to our students. As Martinez’s course description suggests, defining race gives us the opportunity to explain (1) what we mean by race and (2) how race also operates. In other words, without explicitly expressing our working definitions, it is unlikely that we can have productive and clear conversations about how to address racism. 

Whether we are fond of academic conventions or not, genre conventions do exist. As teachers, we may encourage our students to perform some of these conventions, and as researchers, we may even prove we are aware of these conventions, thus reaffirming their importance. Of course, one long standing academic convention is to define concepts before deploying them. For example, if I am using Burke’s concept of “recalcitrance” (Permanence and Change), I will likely provide a definition for potential readers. Since race will not disappear and our conversations about race will only continue and “the processes of defining race and racism must themselves be ongoing and incomplete” (Gutiérrez-Jones 27), I propose a new academic convention as an obligation. If writing about race, academics have to provide some type of authorial definition, whether rooted in theory and/or in experience. I call for more scholarship that documents the results and processes for defining race and other related terms (e.g., racial, racialization, and racism). 

Works Cited

Alcoff, Linda Martín. Visible Identities: Race, Gender, and the Self. Oxford University Press, 2006.

Aristotle, On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse, Translated by George A. Kennedy, 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 2007. 

Banks, Clay. “Protest signs posted on the gate surrounding the White House.”, n.d., Accessed 9 Oct. 2020. 

Bitzer, Lloyd F. “Aristotle’s Enthymeme Revisited.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 45, no. 4, 1959, pp. 399-408.

Brooks, Joanna. “Working Definitions: Race, Ethnic Studies, and Early American Literature.” Early American Literature, vol. 41, no. 2, 2006, pp. 313-20.

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. University of California Press, 1969.

—. Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose, 3rd ed., University of California Press, 1984.

Burnyeat, M.F. “Enthymeme: Aristotle on the Logic of Persuasion.” Aristotle’s Rhetoric: Philosophical Essays, edited by David J. Furley and Alexander Nehamas, Princeton University Press, 1994, pp. 3-55. 

Carstarphen, Meta G. “News-Surfing the Race Question: Of Bell Curves, Words, and Rhetorical Metaphors.” Race, Rhetoric, and Composition, edited by Keith Gilyard, Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1999, pp. 17-30.

Carter-Tod, Sheila L. “The Language of Narratives: Racial Identity Development and the Implications for Writing Classrooms.” Narrative Acts: Rhetoric, Race and Identity, Knowledge, edited by Debra Journet, Beth A. Boehm, and Cynthia E. Britt, Hampton Press, Inc., pp. 129-44.

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[1] Jackson argues, “Bitzer’s definition of the enthymeme has been criticized because it places the completion of the enthymeme in the complicit moment of agreement or understanding” (612). Agreement and understanding suggest that an audience may not want to openly disagree or demand for clarifications from a rhetor (615-16).

[2] “Aristotle distinguished two kinds of signs that figure in an enthymeme—infallible and fallible. An infallible sign is that which invariably accompanies something else. . . . If a sign does not invariably and exclusively accompany something else, it is fallible—that is, any conclusion drawn from a sign of this kind will always be open to refutation” (Corbett 63). 

[3] Fredal explains, “Not every enthymeme achieves all four goals, but the closer it comes, the more enthymematic it is” (34). 

[4] Condon and Young define racial prejudice as “dislike, distrust, or fear of others based on perceived racial differences. Individual racial prejudice is learned and, at the early stages or antiracist awareness, is often unconscious” (13). 

[5]  According to Condon and Young, race is “a social construct. A historical concept rather than a set of ‘natural’ categories that orients around the classification and ordering of human beings in service of domination. While race is an imaginary, the idea of race continues to have material consequences and to condition the lived experiences of both whites and people of color” (13). 

[6]  I use identification as Burke explains it: “You persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his” (A Rhetoric of Motives 55).

[7] As Linda Martín Alcoff argues in Visible Identities, three distinct views about race dominate our conversations about the subject.  She claims that “nominalism” is a view which posits “race is not real . . . because recent science has invalidated race as a salient or even meaningful biological category” (182). If an individual endorses such a definition, this individual may also perceive racialization and racism as invalid. However, nominalism does represent one definition of race.

[8] These components include “cultural attachment,” “early experience and socialization,” “political awareness and orientation,” “spirituality,” “social and historical contexts,” “physical appearance,” “racial ancestry,” and the “other social identities” category (136). 

About the Author

Danny Rodriguez is a doctoral candidate at Texas Christian University. He specializes in cultural rhetorics, specifically critical race theory and the rhetorics of Hip-Hop culture. His most recent research, “Racial and Reconnective Literacies: Malcolm X and a Literacy Event,” appears in Critical Insights: Malcolm X. His upcoming article, “Reclaiming Malcolm X: Epideictic Discourse and African-American Rhetoric,” will appear in Rhetoric Review.

About the Mentor

Megan Schoen is an associate professor in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at Oakland University, where she serves as the director of first-year writing. Her articles have appeared in Rhetoric Review, WPA: Writing Program Administration, and The WAC Journal. She is a co-founder and co-managing editor of Present Tense: A Journal of Rhetoric in Society.

Production Credits:

Copyeditor: Mitch Carr

Editorial Assistant(s): Catheryn Jennings

Reviewers: Cruz Medina, Raul Sanchez, Megan Schoen

Never Forget: Ground Zero, Park51, and Constitutive Rhetorics

Tamara Issak, St. John’s University

November 2020


It was the summer of 2010 when the story of Park51 exploded in the news. Day after day, media coverage focused on the proposal to create a center for Muslim and interfaith worship and recreational activities in Lower Manhattan. The space envisioned for Park51 was a vacant department store which was damaged on September 11, 2001. Eventually, it was sold to Sharif El-Gamal, a Manhattan realtor and developer, in July of 2009. El-Gamal intended to use this space to build a community center open to the general public, which would feature a performing arts center, swimming pool, fitness center, basketball court, an auditorium, a childcare center, and many other amenities along with a Muslim prayer space/mosque. Despite the approval for construction by a Manhattan community board, the site became a battleground and the project was hotly debated. It has been about ten years since the uproar over Park51, and it is important to revisit the event as it has continued significance and impact today.

A white man wearing a white T-shirt holds a sign on the left that states in all capital letters, “No mosque in the Ground Zero Area! Preserve the dignity of our loved ones killed here on 9/11!” Nearby, another white woman wearing a necklace with an image of a white man hanging on her chest holds a sign written in all capital letters that states, “What would make terrorist #1 Osama bin Laden more happy, than a mosque dominating over the ashes of his victims—our fallen Americans?” Surrounding these two individuals holding signs is a large crowd of white people protesting in the middle of a New York City street.
Fig. 1: Image of Park51 protestors holding signs (Shankbone)

The main argument against the construction of the community center and mosque was its proximity to Ground Zero. Opponents to Park51 argued that the construction of a mosque so close to Ground Zero was offensive and insensitive because the 9/11 attackers were associated with Islam (see fig. 1). One of the most vocal opponents to Park51 featured in the national news media was Pamela Geller who is listed as an extremist and the “anti-Muslim movement’s most visible and flamboyant figurehead,” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Geller and allies in the Islamophobia industry galvanized racists across the country to protest against Park51 and block mosque construction projects everywhere (Ali et al). The Park51 uproar had a ripple effect on Muslim communities throughout America with reports of arson, vandalism, and violence at mosques. The shutdown of Park51 was another reminder that the constitutional right to practice religion freely and build houses of worship does not apply to Muslims.

Supporters of Park51 argued that mosques and Muslim prayer spaces have existed near or at the World Trade Center for many years, and they objected to the notion that Muslims as an entire community bear responsibility for 9/11. Instead, they affirmed that Park51 would bring a much-needed community center to Lower Manhattan, and it would bring together people from diverse backgrounds to challenge misconceptions about Muslims and Islam. Supporters argued that Park51 was not located at Ground Zero as protesters claimed and that it was several blocks away in an area near coffee shops, office buildings, bars, and restaurants. As the map in Figure 2 illustrates, Park51 is a few blocks north of the former Twin Towers and the World Trade Center.

A color map of the blocks surrounding Ground Zero (a large green square) and the Park51 site as marked by a a red pin.
Fig. 2: A map of sites in relation to Ground Zero. Park51 is the red pin in the image. As shown, the large section colored in green a few blocks south of Park51 is the site of Ground Zero. (Blurpeace)

In the debates about Park51, two different stories of America—Ground Zero and Park51—came into conflict. Ground Zero and Park51 create constellated and overlapping stories—one speaks over another because of the way power and identity are infused. To date, this aspect of the debate has yet to be analyzed. While scholarship has attended to the Park51 debate and Ground Zero (Donofrio, Earle, Ivanova, Pierce), my work uses constitutive rhetorical theory to uncover how American identity is constructed at Ground Zero and to illustrate the tensions between the spaces of Ground Zero and Park51.

In this article, I argue that constellating the constitutive rhetoric of Ground Zero with the constitutive invitation of Park51 allows us to understand the exclusion of Muslims in the nation’s imagined community. Constellations are a “visual metaphor” for the relationality between “places, spaces, events, people, and communities” (Powell et al). Constellating the constitutive story of Ground Zero with the constitutive invitation of Park51 illustrates how these spaces exist alongside one another, in relation to one another, on the same ground and it also allows us to see how one constitutive story silences the Other, does violence to the Other, and attempts to erase the Other. Since constitutive rhetoric is about community building, and the exclusion of Muslims (approximately 3.45 million people) from the nation does the opposite, this exclusion does not bode well for Muslims specifically, but also for marginalized communities everywhere. In the following sections, I discuss Ground Zero as a rhetorical landscape that constructs American identity as white, Christian, nationalistic, patriotic, and native[1] and which also is defined in relation to what it is not—Muslim, Arab, foreign, Other.

Ground Zero as a Rhetorical Landscape              

Constitutive rhetorical theory provides insights into how national identity is constructed.  Constitutive rhetoric provides a way to understand how individuals become “the people” (McGee 236). In turn, “the people” can form a nation which is “an imagined political community—and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign” (Anderson 6). The large work of forming a nation begins when individuals identify with one another and are persuaded by various rhetorical means to see themselves as a distinct group. This transformation of individuals into subjects is called “interpellation,” and it “occurs at the very moment one enters into a rhetorical situation, that is, as soon as an individual recognizes and acknowledges being addressed” (Charland 138). More concisely, constitutive rhetoric is rhetoric that “calls its audience into being” (134). Charland argues that constitutive rhetoric can change the material world: “What is significant in constitutive rhetoric is that it positions the reader towards political, social, and economic action in the material world and it is in this positioning that its ideological character becomes significant” (141). Constitutive rhetoric explains how rhetoric creates identification and identity and, in turn, exclusive communities, whether or not they are nations. More simply, constitutive rhetoric is about community building through various rhetorical means.

Constitutive rhetorical theory is often used to examine language and discourse, but it can also be used to study spaces and places, including those relevant to national identity. In Rhetorical Landscapes in America: Variations on a Theme from Kenneth Burke, Gregory Clark examines the constitutive function of spaces and places. Clark applies Burke’s rhetoric of identification to “trace the rhetorical work” of “American tourist experiences from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” (4). He argues that national identity is constructed through tourism at public places such as the Grand Canyon, Shaker villages, New York City, Yellowstone National Park, and the Lincoln Highway. He elaborates that, “the rhetorical power of a national culture is wielded not only by public discourse, but also by public experiences” (4). Clark argues that Americans tour these places which he calls rhetorical landscapes to feel a sense of “communion and community,” in Burke’s terms.

Rhetorical landscapes impact visitors in subtle ways, and they inspire within visitors a sense of connection to a shared history. L. J. Nicoletti explains that paying attention to the symbolism, setting, audience, scale, permanence, and inscriptions in museums, memorials, and monuments of national sites is important for understanding the meanings of rhetorical landscapes which Nicoletti calls memoryscapes (55-6). Nicoletti explains the significance of monuments found at such national sites this way: “Monuments mediate our memory of history and direct our experience through their design and the rhetoric surrounding them” (54).[2] Memoryscapes and rhetorical landscapes teach us how to understand history and teach us about who we are as a people. Much can be gleaned from constellating the overlapping stories in rhetorical landscapes and memoryscapes about who belongs and who is unwelcome.

Both Ground Zero and the yet-to-be-Park51 became rhetorical landscapes. In this article, I focus on the collectivization of Americans at Ground Zero with a focus on the national, racial, ethnic, religious, and political dimensions. I illustrate how the constitutive stories at Ground Zero and Park51 are constellated and overlapping in the same city at the same time. I offer examples of constitutive rhetoric in my analysis.[3]

Creating Community at Ground Zero: Identification and Exclusion

Ground Zero is a national memorial site, or a rhetorical landscape, that creates a sense of shared American identity among visitors in several ways. Upon visiting Ground Zero, tourists “experience privately a powerful sense of public identity” (Clark 25). The rhetorical landscape triggers powerful emotions of grief, sadness and empathy as visitors remember the estimated 3,000 victims who died on September 11. Such feelings of empathy and loss evoke a sense of kinship to the families of those lost and a deep connection to Ground Zero. When grief is experienced in community at Ground Zero, a sense of nationalism also emerges while a particular American national identity is shaped. Judith Butler explains, “Many people think that grief is privatizing, that it returns us to a solitary situation and is, in that sense depoliticizing. But … it furnishes a sense of political community of a complex order” (12). At Ground Zero, collective grieving is an especially powerful way to recreate and reinforce a political community centered on notions of American identity.

Rhetorical landscapes such as Ground Zero are also created by the lived experiences of those excluded from this imagined community. The rhetorical landscape is made by active exclusion of those who are imagined as Other. While Ground Zero helps unify and build a sense of community and American identity, it, like many rhetorical landscapes, simultaneously separates people (Clark 4). Constellating the stories of those excluded with those who are included teaches us a deeper sense of the rhetorical reality on the ground (Powell et al).  The constitutive exclusion of Muslims at Ground Zero is very apparent upon close examination. I will detail two stories of Muslims at Ground Zero who challenge the official narrative of the rhetorical landscape.

New York Police Department Muslim Chaplain, Khalid Latif, describes his visit to Ground Zero on the tenth anniversary of 9/11:

This past September, I stood with the families of individuals who had passed away on 9/11 some ten years ago now. I have been doing this in my role as a NYC police department chaplain since I started working with the NYPD…And so this past September when I’m standing with these families, I was approached by three individuals who were wearing suits who asked me to show them my police credentials to just ensure that I actually worked for the NYPD. They said that Secret Service spotted you from the top of a building and they asked us to come and ask you just in case. Just in case. And I said to him, ‘Just in case, what?’ And the one guy said, ‘I’m really sorry that we’re doing this to you.’ And I said to him, ‘Then why are you doing it?’ (Latif)

In Latif’s story, he visits Ground Zero to mourn the loss of those who died on September 11, but his presence is questioned. His appearance as a Muslim—brown, bearded, and wearing a kufi—at Ground Zero is seen as a security threat, even though he is wearing a police officer’s uniform with a badge (see fig. 3). His identity is questioned, and he is viewed as an intruder. Latif’s example shows how the rhetorical landscape of Ground Zero—a place where American national identity can be defined—is also a place where American national identity is policed. Constitutive rhetorics draw the very real boundaries many American Muslims feel and experience. His belonging is questioned at the rhetorical landscape of Ground Zero.

If his identity is questioned, then his grief, by extension, is also questioned. At Ground Zero, collective grieving unites a community, and from this outpouring of emotion, we can recognize which people are grievable (Butler). From Latif’s example, we learn who is allowed to grieve. Latif and his emotions are rendered illegible because of his racial, religious, and ethnic identities. Again, rhetorical landscapes both create community and mark those outside that community. Many people, just like Latif, are deemed to be outsiders at Ground Zero and this affirms the exclusivity of the rhetorical landscape.

Black and white photo of NYPD Chaplain Khalid Latif. Multiple people are walking around behind him while he stands still in uniform speaking on a cell phone.
Fig. 3: NYPD Muslim Chaplain Khalid Latif in uniform wearing a kufi to cover his head. (Derballa)

There is much to learn from another story of a Muslim at Ground Zero, Mohammad Salman Hamdani, an American Muslim of Pakistani descent (see fig. 4). The constitutive exclusion of Muslims in the rhetoric of Ground Zero is evidenced in the placement of Hamdani’s name in the 9/11 Memorial. Hamdani was one of the first responders from New York City who rushed to Ground Zero to rescue the injured on September 11. We learn about his story from his parents, Talat Hamdani and Mohammad Saleem Hamdani. An aspiring doctor, Hamdani worked at Rockefeller University in Manhattan, and he also was an emergency medical technician and police cadet. On September 11, EMTs from across the area were called to assist in the rescue efforts. After several days passed, Hamdani’s parents registered him as missing. His mother explains, “We put down his name as Sal Hamdani. My brother did not put down his name, the first name, Mohammad, for certain reasons” (Goodman and Kamat). Hamdani’s family knew that he might be singled out because of his religion so they used a common Italian American nickname to prevent any potential issues.

About a month later, a New York Post headline entitled, “Missing or Hiding? Mystery of the NYPD Cadet from Pakistan,” appeared and soon reporters were at the Hamdani home questioning the family about their son’s involvement in the attacks. The New York Post article states:

The NYPD is hunting for one of its former cadets, initially reported missing in the Twin   Towers attack, issuing an urgent “hold and detain” order for the Pakistani native…Hamdani was last seen, Koran in hand, leaving his Bayside, Queens home for his job as a research assistant at Rockefeller University, but he never made it to work…[I]nvestigators for the FBI and NYPD have since questioned the family about  which Internet chat rooms he visited and if he was political…Police sources said he  hadn’t been to work at the NYPD since April, but he still carried official identification. One source told : ‘That tells me they’re not looking for this guy at the bottom of the rubble. The thing that bothers me is, if he is up to some tricks, he can walk past anybody [using the ID card].’… [S]ources close to the investigation say the hunt is still on – cops at the Midtown Tunnel reported spotting someone who looked like Hamdani yesterday morning. (Gorta)

In this report, Hamdani is framed as suspect from the outset. The word, “hunt,” was used even though the authorities did not know if he was missing through no fault of his own. Talat Hamdani explains that at this same time that the New York Post article appeared, she received a call from Congressman Ackerman’s office:

[W]e were interrogated by Congressman Ackerman about his [Salman’s] faith and about us and everything. And he led us to believe that maybe he was detained by INS, by the ICE. And I said, ‘He’s an American citizen.’ But he said, ‘Well, he wasn’t born here.’ (Goodman and Kamat)

It did not matter to Ackerman that Hamdani was an American citizen. His birthplace, Pakistan, made his American citizenship irrelevant.

Six months after September 11, Mohammad Salman Hamdani’s body was found at Ground Zero. For six whole months, Hamdani’s death was not deemed “grievable” (Butler). For six whole months, as the Hamdani family was grieving the loss of their beloved son and the horrors of 9/11, they were not given the space or time to heal as other families of victims of 9/11 were. Instead, they were bombarded with unfounded accusations, false news reports, and interrogations.

Image of Mohammad Salman Hamdani wearing a blue dress shirt and tie, smiling at the camera.
Fig. 4 Mohammad Salman Hamdani (Otterman)

When Hamdani’s body was found and his name was cleared, his funeral was held at a mosque on East 96th Street in Manhattan. Mayor Bloomberg, Congressman Ackerman, and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly even spoke at his funeral. In recent years, however, when the September 11 Memorial opened, Mohammad Salman Hamdani’s name was “positioned in a separate section of the memorial, among those considered loosely connected to the World Trade Center” instead of among the police cadets and “first responders who lost their lives trying to help others” (Candiotti). Talat Hamdani believes that her son was not included in the list of first responders and instead “grouped among the miscellaneous victims” because of discrimination based on his Muslim faith (Hamdani). The way in which even Hamdani’s name was physically placed away from the group highlights how rhetorical landscapes maintain a powerful message about who belongs and who does not belong based on the imagined ethnicity and race and also the imagined faith of those who can belong.

The story of Mohammad Salman Hamdani is one of presumed guilt. His background as a Pakistani Muslim caused him to be a suspect irrespective of his professional experience as an NYPD cadet and as an EMT. Furthermore, in Hamdani’s story, we see how even his designation in the memorial is incorrect, and he is excluded from the list of people who sacrificed their own lives to save others. Hamdani’s story demonstrates that rhetorical landscapes such as Ground Zero and the memorial of September 11 are often structured in ways that exclude certain identities because those spaces’ imagined communities are definitively not Muslim.

As stated earlier, rhetorical landscapes both create community and mark those outside that community. Constellating the stories of those excluded with those who are included teaches us a deeper sense of the rhetorical reality on the ground. Latif and Hamdani’s stories push back against official narratives about 9/11. They do not fit stereotypes about Muslims. Most significantly, their stories illustrate the insidious power of these rhetorical landscapes to erase the Other and overwrite the Other’s legal and political rights.

Creating Community at Ground Zero: Religious Symbols and the Religious Subject

Ground Zero, as a rhetorical landscape, also creates a sense of shared community through the deployment of religious symbols and encouragement of ritual practice. Ground Zero can be seen as a pilgrimage site or as “a religious journey to a sacred site” which “implies personal transformation” (Sturken 11). There, one can witness or participate in rituals such as lighting candles, reading holy texts, singing religious songs, and praying. These rituals not only help to further “define the sacred meaning of the site” (Kilde 301) but also build a shared sense of community.

There are many who believe that Ground Zero is a site of martyrdom and the discovery of Christian crosses in the wreckage was interpreted as a miracle and a sign of God. This discovery is the subject of the popular documentary, The Cross and The Towers. In particular, one prominent cross that was discovered in the wreckage was used as a gathering place for prayer at Ground Zero and is now a main feature in the 9/11 Memorial and Museum (Jenkins). These crosses at Ground Zero help to construct a sense of American identity and community among visitors. The cross is the most powerful symbol of Christianity, and its prominence at Ground Zero calls a Christian audience into being. Furthermore, the cross is the foundational symbol to the nation and therefore affirms the rhetorical landscape of Ground Zero.

The presence of Christian symbols at Ground Zero highlights the absence of other religious symbols. Park51, often called a “Victory Mosque” by opponents, would have been a place where Muslims and people of other faiths prayed. Park51 and Muslim prayer in geographic proximity to Ground Zero was deemed offensive and as a defilement of the sanctity of Ground Zero. In a statement made by former Republican Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, he argues that the placement of the mosque/Park51 is offensive in its proximity to the sacred space of Ground Zero. Pawlenty states:

I’m strongly opposed to the idea of putting a mosque anywhere near Ground Zero—I think it’s inappropriate…I believe that 3,000 of our fellow innocent citizens were killed in that area, and some ways from a patriotic standpoint, it’s hallowed ground, it’s sacred ground, and we should respect that. We shouldn’t have images or activities that degrade [or] disrespect that in any way. (Conroy)

Here, in referring to the tragic death of 3,000 citizens, the governor’s narrative erases the presence of Muslims who died on 9/11. He uses the pronoun “we” to argue that anyone who is American and anyone who is patriotic would never degrade or disrespect the sacredness of the site. This “we” excludes Muslims in its assumption that the two identities—Muslim and American—could never co-exist. George Cheney’s rearticulation of Kenneth Burke’s rhetoric of identification is useful in naming the various rhetorical strategies at work in Pawlenty’s comments. One rhetorical strategy Pawlenty uses is the transcendent “we” in which the “pronoun ‘we’ (along with surrogate forms) often goes unnoticed as an appeal to identification between parties who may have little in common” (Cheney 148-9). Such an appeal often sets up a we vs. they framing in which identification and disidentification are simultaneously at work. As a Republican from Minnesota, audiences of various political persuasions may not identify with Pawlenty, but when he uses the transcendent “we,” he collectivizes patriotic Americans against a common “they” (148). In the rhetorical landscape of Ground Zero, “they” are foreign and suspect. Furthermore, he uses the phrase “our fellow innocent citizens” to describe the victims of the September 11 attacks. Such use of a collective “our” not only excludes Muslims as victims but also as part of the broader American community grieving after the tragedy of September 11.

Contrasting this view of Park51 with the wide acceptance of crosses and Christian prayer at the site helps to further illustrate the constitutive rhetoric of Ground Zero. In In Place/Out of Place: Geography, Ideology, and Transgression, Tim Cresswell explains that we can learn about a society or culture’s values and ideologies by analyzing moments of geographical transgression. He explains that challenging the norms of a place can reveal much about what those norms are. The Park51 proposal and backlash illustrates what does and does not belong at Ground Zero and highlights how American identity is constituted in that space.

Creating Community at Ground Zero: Political Speeches and the Political Subject

The constitutive rhetoric in politicians’ speeches about Ground Zero and Park51 also illustrates an imagined community separate from Muslims. In one statement, former Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin tweeted: “Peaceful New Yorkers, pls refute the Ground Zero mosque plan if you believe catastrophic pain caused @ Twin Towers site is too raw, too real.” Here, Palin addresses New Yorkers and reminds them of the September 11 tragedy in order to organize them against Park51. She uses the pronoun, “you,” to summon a collective body of “peaceful” New Yorkers who felt and experienced the catastrophe. She attempts to identify with the audience through antithesis in which one group unites “against a common ‘enemy,’” (Cheney 148). In this case, Palin calls upon peaceful New Yorkers to unite against the organizers of Park51 based on their shared pain, and she groups herself with New Yorkers even though she is from Alaska. Anderson’s theorization of imagined communities explains Palin’s notion that she is in communion with New Yorkers. Anderson writes, “[T]he members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (6). This sense that all Americans are one community who feel pain collectively is a rhetorical construction. Palin’s “you” excludes Muslims from the collective group of New Yorkers who also experienced pain and loss on September 11.

Constitutive rhetoric that distinguishes Muslims from Americans is even evident in the speeches of Park51’s supporters. These examples are, in fact, more egregious than the overt statements of Pawlenty and Palin. For example, consider the speeches of former Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg and President Barack Obama, who offered powerful speeches in support of Park51. On August 3, 2010 in New York City, Mayor Bloomberg gave a tearful speech:

The World Trade Center Site will forever hold a special place in our City, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves—and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans—if we said ‘no’ to a mosque in Lower Manhattan…Of course, it is fair to ask the organizers of the mosque to show some special sensitivity to the situation—and in fact, their plan envisions reaching beyond their walls and building an interfaith  community. (Bloomberg; emphasis added)

Even though Bloomberg strongly supported the Park51 project, his speech was contradictory in its support. In Bloomberg’s speech, the organizers of the mosque/Muslims are still positioned in opposition to New Yorkers and Americans, more generally. He does say, for instance, that “we” should support religious liberty and not say “no” to Park51, but he also says that “we” can “ask” the Muslims “to show some sensitivity.” His message, although supportive, tells the audience that “they” are different than “us” in two ways. First, if one acknowledges that not all Muslims are responsible for September 11 and if one is not scapegoating an entire population, this discussion of the relationship between the place of Park51 and the place of Ground Zero would not even be a consideration. Second, what should the organizers of the mosque show sensitivity about? If we accept Muslims as Americans, and we understand that Muslims were as aggrieved as any other community on September 11, then we would not single them out and ask them to be sensitive about how they live and where they worship in America. Despite Bloomberg’s use of “us,” his overall message is that Muslims are Other.

Such contradictions are also evident in the rhetoric of President Obama, who gave a powerful speech in support of Park51 on August 14, 2010 at a White House hosted Ramadan celebration:

Recently, attention has been focused on the construction of mosques in certain communities—particularly New York. Now, we must all recognize and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of Lower Manhattan. The 9/11 attacks were a deeply traumatic event for our country. And the pain and the experience of suffering by those who lost loved ones is just unimaginable. So I understand the emotions that this issue engenders. And Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground. As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. (Obama)

After this initial statement of support was given, President Obama followed up a day later stating, “I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there” (Tumulty and Shear; emphasis added). In President Obama’s speech, he notes “the pain and the experience of suffering by those who lost loved ones is just unimaginable.” In such a claim, there is a subtle message that the “those” in “those who lost loved ones” does not include Muslims who lost loved ones. Why would Muslims who lost loved ones on September 11 find Park51/a Muslim prayer space hurtful or offensive to the memory of the victims? This speech, like Bloomberg’s, demonstrates a strong stand for Park51, but it also sends mixed messages. President Obama reminds the American people of the religious freedom granted by the Constitution, yet in doing so, he separates out the Muslim community as somehow needing to be sensitive or wise about their decisions. This statement implies that Muslims bear responsibility for September 11 and suggests that Muslims ought to be sensitive about practicing their religion so as not to offend people. In addition, President Obama’s speech, like Bloomberg’s, constructs Muslims as one homogenous entity and Islam as a monolithic structure, which neglects the reality that the 1.4 billion Muslims in the world are as varied as any other religious group in their identities, beliefs, and practices.

As these speeches demonstrate, political discourse about Park51 is strongly influenced by the constitutive rhetoric of Ground Zero. By focusing the debate on the proximity of Park51 to Ground Zero, whether or not one supports the construction of Park51, Muslims are scapegoated. In this way, public discourse communicates a powerful message to Muslims: you do not belong, and to everyone else, they do not belong. Such rhetoric leaves little opportunity for Muslims to intervene because they are already excluded from the outset. As I demonstrate in the next section, Park51 in its original conception, was meant to be an inclusive space for all people, but it was a failed project before it even started. This is because Ground Zero’s rhetorical landscape has constellating narratives—political, religious, nationalist, racial—which are premised on creating a community by exclusion. Ground Zero’s imagined white, patriotic, nationalistic, Christian, native community is defined in opposition to its enemy—Islam, Muslim, Arab, Other. The former relies on the latter’s erasure.

Creating Community at Ground Zero: Exclusion and Excommunication

Sharif El-Gamal, the main organizer of Park51, made extra efforts to make the space inclusive and to appeal to all Americans. Although, Park51 was meant to be a center open to all for worship, entertainment, recreation, and art, and although the Muslim leading its development identified as a liberal and a Sufi, the center and its Muslim congregants were grouped as a monolithic “Other,” and El-Gamal was scrutinized and demonized endlessly in media reports. The proximity of Park51 to Ground Zero made it impossible to recognize the diversity of Muslim identity from common stereotypes about Muslims. El-Gamal, in various attempts, worked within and against such rhetorics, and he employed numerous rhetorical strategies to appeal to the public for support.

Rather than market Park51 as a mosque, he called it a community center and reiterated that Park51 was meant to be an “institution for all of us” (Hernandez). In this use of the common ground technique, El-Gamal sought to create a link between him and “others in an overt manner” (Cheney 148). This institution would be for “all of us,” and we would enjoy its facilities together, El-Gamal explained. To amplify this appeal, El-Gamal incorporated features in the Park51 proposal such as a performing arts center, swimming pool, fitness center, auditorium, and a childcare center. These all serve as attractive features for supporting the project and the addition of this space to the neighborhood.

El-Gamal not only referred to Park51 as a community center but also a Prayer Space instead of a mosque. In doing so, El-Gamal made special efforts to distinguish between the kind of Islam he practices and the kind of Islam other Muslims practice. El-Gamal emphasized, for instance, that he is a “moderate Muslim” and that just because there is a prayer space and a Muslim character to some of the spaces, it is in no way related to the kind of Islam that Americans envision (Hernandez). Mahmoud Mamdani, in Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, provides a useful explanation of such need to distinguish oneself from “bad” Muslims. In response to President Bush’s speeches after September 11, and his repeated distinction between good and bad Muslims, Mamdani writes:

‘Bad Muslims’ were clearly responsible for terrorism. At the same time, the president seemed to assure Americans that ‘good Muslims’ were anxious to clear their names and consciences of this horrible crime and would undoubtedly support ‘us’ in a war against  ‘them.’ But this could not hide the central message of such discourse: unless proved to be ‘good,’ every Muslim was presumed to be ‘bad.’ All Muslims were now under obligation  to prove their credentials by joining in a war against ‘bad Muslims.’ (15)

In order to align himself with the “good Muslim,” El-Gamal also repeatedly proclaimed his allegiance to America in his defense of Park51. In addition, he repeatedly exclaims, “I am American!” and argues that Muslims are actually good for America in that Muslims enrich American culture and contribute to society. Nevertheless, the distinctions El-Gamal makes between himself and bad Muslims earn him no credit. Despite the fact that he claims to be American, he will never be American. Good and bad Muslims are Muslims either way and therefore not American; they are pitted against each other, but they are outside the circle of legibility. El-Gamal does not fit in and the project that he is sponsoring does not fit the rhetorical landscape.

In adopting such rhetorical strategies in his defense of Park51, El-Gamal demonstrates the role that rhetorical landscapes play in the process of solidifying narrow and exclusionary views and the difficulties of challenging them. El-Gamal practically bent over backwards in order to appease critics, but it was to no avail. Park51, as originally envisioned, never came to fruition. Unfortunately, the constitutive rhetoric of Ground Zero and the grouping of Muslims as one monolith overwhelmed and erased the diverse representation of Muslims presented by Park51. There was much potential for Park51 to be a space that added dimension through identity, community, and memory being constructed differently. Instead, the space of Park51 was defined by Islamophobia—a “victory” of Other against “nation.” It is no wonder, then, that this project was impossible from the outset. The relationship between the rhetorical landscape of Ground Zero and Park51 has to be a relationship of hostility because the premise is Islamophobia. The relationship shows us who belongs and who is legible and those who do not belong and are questioned.


Working in Manhattan during the frightful protests against Park51 in 2010, I was startled by the vehemence of the protestors and the wave of anti-Muslim violence reported across the country. In 2010, I had flashbacks to the days immediately following September 11, 2001. In the years since, I have struggled to understand what the Park51 uproar was really about. Various analyses and commentary did not seem to explain the fury and rage I witnessed in response to Park51.

It was not until I began to study the constitutive rhetoric of Ground Zero, the ways in which this space calls people to its conception of American identity that I was able to understand the debate better. Constitutive rhetorical theory illustrates how we are guided and shaped by our experiences in spaces. Recognizing Ground Zero as a rhetorical landscape, a space where visitors experience communion and community, and, in turn, develop a deeper sense of American identity is crucial for understanding the Park51 debate. The rhetoric of Ground Zero is created by a particular cultural community and is aimed at a particular imagined community. Through the discursive evidence in varied texts discussed in this article, it is clear that the constitutive rhetoric of Ground Zero is directed at a white, Christian, patriotic, nationalistic community—an imagined community that defines itself in direct contrast to what it is not—Muslim, Arab, foreign. Identity is enmeshed on imagined relations and layered with religious, political, racial, and cultural associations. Cultural rhetorics scholarship calls us to question the cultural constructions and official narratives of spaces that so often silence, exclude, and erase Others. Constellating stories allows us to see clearly how power is imbalanced and allows us to hear voices we could not hear otherwise.

Works Cited

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[1] The construct of American identity at Ground Zero as native is, of course, a myth. Native Americans are the only people native to these lands. However, the myth is one that animates the anger and violence against anyone who is deemed Other, immigrant, foreign.

[2] Nicoletti uses monuments and memorials interchangeably because monuments are always memorials but memorials can be any range of things.

[3] A comprehensive analysis of all of the constitutive rhetoric at Ground Zero and Park51 is beyond the scope of this article.


I would like to thank Rasha Diab and Tim Dougherty who provided critical feedback and support at different stages of development. Thank you to Lois Agnew, Patrick Berry, Steve Parks, Rose Ernst, and Sophie Bell who all read drafts and spent time talking with me about these ideas. Thank you to the anonymous reviewers and constellations editors who encouraged me to keep writing. Many thanks to my mother and husband for their constant support.

About the Author

Tamara Issak is Assistant Professor in the Institute for Core Studies at St. John’s University in New York City. She is a graduate of Syracuse University’s Composition and Cultural Rhetoric Ph.D. program. Her current research focuses on religious rhetorics, Islamophobic rhetoric, and Arab and Muslim identity construction in America.

About the Mentor

Tim Dougherty is an associate professor of English at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. He has published on decolonial rhetorical historiography (Enculturation), the constitutive rhetoric of Irish nationalism (Rhetoric Society Quarterly), and antiracist and contemplative writing pedagogies. He is currently working with a community group in his SE Pennsylvania town to reenvision a Civil War Centennial memorial that is steeped in Lost Cause imagery. He and his collaborators are interested in the intergenerational healing potential of decolonial and antiracist public memory.

Production Credits:

Copyeditor(s): Jennifer Bell

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