Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America

by Laila Lalami

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Conditional Citizens Summary

Conditional Citizens by Laila Lalami is a 2020 nonfiction book about how American society withholds true citizenship to many of its people, despite its ideal of perfect equality.

  • Lalami discusses her own experiences as an American woman from Morocco with a Muslim background. Her optimism upon being naturalized in 2000 has since been diminished by great evidence of intolerance.
  • Lalami draws on recent American history to show how certain forms of intolerance are allowed to thrive in American society in ways that are both explicit and subtle. She addresses intolerance towards religious and racial minorities, women, and the poor.

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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

Conditional Citizens deals with the subject of how certain people and groups are marginalized or not given the full rights and entitlements of others in the United States. The book also contains a more general commentary on how this phenomenon persists in the world as a whole, but the author primarily focuses on American society.

The chapter titles indicate elements of this “conditionality” of citizenship: Allegiance, Faith, Borders, Assimilation, Tribe, Caste, and Inheritance. Each of these topics relates to characteristics that seem, Lalami asserts, to be required of citizens in the United States in order for their citizenship to be complete and unconditional. From her personal perspective, Lalami finds that all of these categories create an exclusivity, a denial of complete or unqualified citizenship to many people, including herself.

Lalami came to the United States from her native Morocco in the early 1990s to attend graduate school in California, and she eventually became a professor of foreign languages. The book opens with the naturalization ceremony in the summer of 2000, the moment she became a US citizen. Subsequent events, however, have shown her that her citizenship is a conditional one: Ethnicity, race, religion, gender, and other factors restrict her from a complete acceptance into American culture. The September 11 attacks, for instance, resulted in an anti-Muslim mood in the country. As a Muslim herself, though a basically secular and nonobservant one, Lalami has sensed great judgement directed against her. She has felt, too, that she cannot question the American response to the attacks—the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq—without being harshly criticized by others. A more recent and related phenomenon is the “birther movement,” in which, for no reason apart from his color, Barack Obama’s American birth and Christian faith were called into question. Lalami notes that even when Obama was defended by his opponent John McCain, McCain did so for the wrong reasons, declaring Obama a good family man but not saying that even if Obama were a Muslim, it should make no difference.

Lalami finds herself stereotyped even by apparently well-meaning people in the United States, who seem to think that simply because she is of Muslim background, she should be explaining “terrorism” at a book reading, even when her book has nothing to do with that subject. Though the United States has had decades of involvement in military and political events in Muslim countries, Lalami indicates that the US public is generally ignorant about Islam, associating it almost exclusively with terrorism and the negative portrayals of Arabs and Muslims in the media.

A related subject is the concept of borders and the way in which the United States has extended both the physical barriers between itself and Mexico and has increased internal policing of people who are deemed “foreign.” Lalami’s observation is that borders have taken on a racialized meaning for Americans.

Lalami asserts that the demand in American society that newcomers commit themselves to assimilation is, to some extent, the result of the same type of racial and prejudicial thinking. Assimilation is usually required because the “other” culture is subjected to a value judgment and deemed inferior to American or European-based culture. The United States still unknowingly maintains a tribal orientation in the way it views diversity in its population. Though whiteness is not considered an identity with specific characteristics, nonwhite people are scrutinized and stigmatized in various ways, she says. The Trump administration has clearly used race as a means of dividing people, whether to keep Mexicans out of the United States or to maintain an inherent power dynamic of white over nonwhite people. Yet Lalami...

(This entire section contains 999 words.)

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finds that the coarse manner in which people of Arab descent, such as herself, are identified racially is just one piece of evidence that the whole concept of race is unscientific and fictional.

Caste is a concept which most Americans would consider alien and outdated, but it persists in the fact that poverty is stigmatized and poor people are marginalized and blamed for their lack of wealth. This is a peculiarly American way of viewing things, Lalami notes. Although in her native Morocco and most countries throughout the world, there is a gap between rich and poor, her opinion is that in such places poverty tends to be seen more as a result of chance and circumstance than of personal failure. In the United States, the poor are usually considered at fault for their lack of financial success and prosperity, while the rich are applauded for being rich and are considered better than others because of it.

The concept of inheritance, as Lalami deals with it, involves gender issues and, as she notes, is not a specifically American affair. She recounts the Brett Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas hearings and the inherent prejudice against giving credibility to the women who testified, Christine Blasey Ford and Anita Hill. In general, a set of standards exists for women, who are judged separately from men and expected to behave in circumscribed and special ways. Instances of sexual harassment, which Lalami herself has experienced, are usually not talked about by the victims because of retaliation in the workplace, the potential for embarassament and shame, and the likelihood of being disbelieved by the male establishment.

All of these subjects are tied together in the final chapter, “Do not Despair of This Country.” As a corrective to the negative phenomena addressed throughout the book, Lalami lays out the specific things that need to happen in order to end conditional citizenship and give everyone equal rights. The primary elements she identifies are voting rights, social rights, ownership of one’s body, freedom from harassment and discrimination, and the choice to practice any religion—or no religion—without being judged or stigmatized.

In all, Lalami's book is a summary of the core issues that, in her view, make America a deeply flawed country. But it’s also a book that expresses her love for her adopted land and her wish to improve it and perfect it.


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