Laila Lalami’s new book, “Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America,” is an argument for active, equal United States citizenship. In order to forward her conception of equality, Lalami must first present its counter construct: conditional membership in the body politic. Drawing on her considerable talents and abundant intelligence — she’s been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize (“The Moor’s Account,” 2014), the National Book Award (“The Other Americans,” 2019), and the NBCC Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing — Lalami attempts to account for the ways that powerful American forces use class status, religion, border policing, national origin, non-whiteness, and gender to diminish and deactivate full citizenship.
Framing her treatise as “a story about love and country,” Lalami examines the fictions, histories, policies, and political practices that marginalize so many Americans in secondary or tertiary classes of citizenship. “Conditional Citizens” is an extended essay divided into seven sections: “Allegiance,” “Faith,” “Borders,” “Assimilation,” “Tribe,” “Caste,” and “Inheritance.” Lalami initiates and sustains her case through memoir. Raised in Rabat, Morocco, Lalami moved to Los Angeles in the early 1990s to complete a doctorate in psycholinguistics at the University of Southern California. Subsequently, she married and, in 2000, became a US citizen. For 20 years now, as she’s fashioned a literary career, Lalami has noted her creeping awareness of her conditional status:
“Being a citizen of the United States, I had thought, meant being an equal member of the American family,” she writes. “As time went by, however, the contradictions between doctrine and reality were hard to ignore. While my life in this country is in most ways happy and fulfilling, it has never been entirely secure or comfortable. Certain facts regularly stand in the way, facts that make of me a conditional citizen. By this I mean that my relationship to the state . . . is affected in all sorts of ways by my being an immigrant, a woman, an Arab, and a Muslim.”
Often immigrant citizens and citizens of color are asked to relinquish memories of their origins, their histories, in order to demonstrate their allegiance to the state and acceptance of the political status quo, which likely includes their marginalization, if not their dehumanization. “Nothing [is] more American than forgetting the past,” writes Lalami. “It is through the obliteration of memory, an obliteration perpetrated with great deliberation by the state upon the citizenry, that American identity is fashioned. But conditional citizens will insist on remembering.”
Lalami’s “remembering” carries “the burden of having to educate white Americans about all the ways in which one is different from them.” She writes of being publicly challenged for her multilingual abilities. Frequently, at book events, she must explain her Africaness, her Moroccan-Muslim lineage, and even Islamic terrorist organizations, rather than fielding questions about literary art. On one hand, the burden allows Lalami to diminish stereotypes about Muslims. On the other hand, the burden forces her to explain geopolitical complexities: “it is impossible to tell the story of ISIS without reference to Arab dictators or American presidents,” or, more significantly, ordinary citizens in the US, Iraq, or Syria.
Asserting that even ordinary Americans are implicated in international conflicts, Lalami argues, helps illustrate the artificiality of border walls and the racist fears coded therein. When the US federal government doesn’t erect a wall at the border with Canada, but insists upon one at the Mexican border, the southern wall must be understood as “a racialized structure.” Those who trumpet border walls yearn for simplicity in spaces where hybrid cultural identities and political complexities are the rule. Worse yet, border walls “do not simply keep others out; they also keep us in.”
The “us”/"them" binary central to border talk is “the power dynamic that underlies demands for assimilation.” But the demand that some white Americans make for assimilation into a monolingual, monocultural, “simplified” version of the national life is the expression of manifold anxieties, including an “awareness . . . that they will become a demographic minority in this country within a generation”; a fear of losing the advantages “that other races simply don’t have”; and a worry that collective recognition of systemic racism will require accountability, recompense. However, eradicating racism isn’t about blaming or shaming white people, it’s “about ensuring that everyone is treated equally, which is a basic duty of a democratic government toward its citizens.”
As Lalami explains in “Inheritance,” the system of conditionality she’s been describing is founded on a patriarchal order that silences women and endangers them physically. This is the hub of conditional citizenship in the American context. When Lalami explains to some US-born friends that she has “not felt fully free or fully equal” in Morocco or the US, they claim that she ought to feel lucky because American gender arrangements are much better than those on the African continent. What Lalami wants, however, “is freedom, not better conditions of subjugation.” Though Lalami’s interrogation of patriarchy is the most important critique in this very strong book, strangely, “Inheritance” isn’t as well-executed as the earlier parts.
The epilogue’s title, “Do Not Despair the Country,” comes from a line in Frederick Douglass’s famous speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Lalami’s allusion provides powerful context for her definition of active, equal citizenship — it begins with the universal right to vote and no restrictions on suffrage “based on race, class, gender, region, or other markers of identity,” and ends with “freedom of movement” for all citizens and protection of their right to live free of “harassment and discrimination, whether by the state or private entities, and, if those freedoms are breached, they can seek redress through state institutions.” For citizens planning to exercise the franchise this fall, “Conditional Citizens” clarifies the stakes of the most crucial American election season of the 21st century thus far.
CONDITIONAL CITIZENS: On Belonging in America
By Laila Lalami
Pantheon, 208 pp., $25.95
An essayist and critic, Walton Muyumba is also the author of “The Shadow and the Act: Black Intellectual Practice, Jazz Improvisation, and Philosophical Pragmatism.”