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. 

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 Angeles in...

(This entire section contains 1349 words.)

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January, 1994, Lalami recounts that the event caused people to bond with each other and created an enhanced sense of community where she lived. Around this time, she met her future husband. After moving in together, they found that even with their combined incomes they could barely make ends meet; recalling this, Lalami notes how “expensive it is to be poor.” When Lalami moved out of her old apartment, she was struck for the first time that there were no Black tenants in the building. She wonders whether the absence of Black tenants could have been the result of direct discrimination or prohibitory costs. She concludes that race, class, and even gender inevitably intersect in such situations.

Wealth is unevenly distributed in the United States by race and gender, with whites making more money on average than Blacks and men more than women. Legislations to alleviate poverty, including even Social Security when it was first enacted, often have racial dimensions, such as denying benefits to a category of workers who are likely to be disproportionately of a minority race. Because of these intersections involving race, class, and gender, it’s often difficult to isolate the reasons for discrimination as a specific element among these disparities. During the Great Migration after World War II, Lalami indicates, when many Black people moved from the South to northern cities, attempts were made to stigmatize Black families as dysfunctional and to claim that large numbers of them were therefore a drain on the system. This is despite the fact that the majority of welfare recipients in the United States have always been white. Because white people in poverty often live in communities where everyone is white, it’s difficult for them to see that whites in general are more likely than Blacks to receive loan approvals and other benefits. Lalami observes that rich white liberals often have a demeaning attitude toward working-class whites and that this has resulted in racial solidarity overriding class solidarity, a phenomenon exploited by politicians seeking the vote along racial lines. Programs supporting the poor are perceived differently when whites are benefited by them, and even liberal politicians such as Bill Clinton have appealed to voters based on racial differences, Lalami says. 

Welfare programs are widely popular in the United States, though the word welfare has acquired a stigma. The mechanism of welfare benefits often has to be camouflaged by euphemistic language, such as describing benefits paid for by payroll taxes as “entitlements.” Yet no special language has been devised to describe the situation in which a handful of multibillionaires such as Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates have more wealth than half the population of the United States. Lalami suggests that the solution to the “conditional citizenship” of the poor should begin with the use of different language to describe the situation. This, she says, “is not a particularly radical thing to imagine.” 


Lalami focuses here on the way poverty and economic status are perceived and dealt with in the United States. Not only is there a peculiarly American pattern of judging the poor, poverty tends to intersect with race and gender in ways that conceal the realities at hand. The result is a dysfunctional system in which many people are marginalized and their citizenship status is conditional.

Most of the American public is unaware, or at least not objectively aware, of these facts, Lalami says. In general today, most white people tend to believe that discrimination and racial oppression are a thing of the past. This is part of the reason that such problems persist. There have indeed been positive changes, such as the elimination of the poll tax and the enfranchisement of women. But there have also been new regressive measures, including court decisions such as Citizens United. Social transformation often results in reactions that push back against progress, and politicians often appeal to reactionary sentiment with coded language that stirs people’s racial biases. Though things change, the essential push-and-pull between progress and conservative reaction is constant.

Behind all of this lies the judgmental attitude many Americans typically hold towards the poor. There is a tendency to blame the poor for their economic lot rather than consider it the outcome of chance or circumstance. A great irony, which is hinted at by Lalami’s analysis, is that Americans often identify the United States as a Christian nation, and yet Christianity holds that the poor deserve empathy and help, not judgment.


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