Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America

by Laila Lalami
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When she was settling in Los Angeles to teach foreign languages at the University of Southern California, Lalami rented an apartment and dealt with the inconveniences often encountered, one being that the place was infested with fleas. She adjusted gradually to the Los Angeles area, noting landmarks and reflecting that a year and a half earlier, much of the city had been affected by the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which arose in the wake of the court decision on Rodney King’s attackers. 

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Lalami’s less-than-adequate financial situation was tempered by her assumption that because she was then a graduate student, things would get better when she began earning a full-time salary. 

This memory makes her reflect on the various forms that poverty takes and how people deal with it. Poverty, Lalami says, “is often associated with parasites.” In the United States, politicians such as Ronald Reagan built their campaigns on pledges to stop people from supposedly using the system unfairly in order to get government benefits, the implication being that such people are parasitical and are getting help they don’t really need. During Reagan’s terms as governor of California, a series of measures tightening the rules for welfare recipients began to be enacted. Additional measures were introduced during Pete Wilson’s term in the 1990s to fingerprint welfare applicants, as is done to crime suspects. Though the measures taken against those on welfare didn’t touch her directly, Lalami wonders about the feelings of her former neighbors who were on public assistance. As Wilson’s terms in office continued, additional restrictive measures were enacted that attempted to deny education and healthcare access to undocumented immigrants. 

Attitudes about the poor go back to the founding of the United States, when voting was a privilege restricted to propertied white men. When the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 expanded this to include Black men, the Southern states immediately enacted laws, which were part of the post-civil war Jim Crow system, to deny those voting rights to Blacks, as well as to segregate them from white society. These included poll tax laws, which also affected poor whites to some extent, though the leadership of the Southern states considered this small number of whites expendable. Race-based discriminatory laws on voting were passed in the Northern states as well, restricting Black and foreign-born men’s ability to vote. Women were finally granted the vote in 1920, but Black women continued to be restricted by the overall racial regulations of the time, which were often disguised as class restrictions. 

Though poll taxes were eventually eliminated, the United States voting system still retains aspects of the original intent to suppress the votes of the poor and of racial minorities. Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission have declared “associations,” such as corporations, as entitled to free speech as individuals, which has meant that their financial spending on political campaigns is unrestricted. This was rationalized by the notion that labor unions are advantaged by it as well as corporations, but unions have been continuously weakened over the decades. And because elections are not publically funded, it is impossible for people without very sizable incomes or funding sources to run for office.

In America, Lalami asserts, there is a widespread implicit belief that poor people are somehow poor through choice—not through circumstance or forces beyond their control. She contrasts the situation with her native Morocco. Lalami points out that Morocco also has significant disparities between rich and poor citizens, but the causes and implications of poverty are perceived differently there.

In looking back at the earthquake that hit Los...

(The entire section contains 1349 words.)

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