Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America

by Laila Lalami

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"Do Not Despair of This Country" Summary and Analysis

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Do not Despair of this Country

Lalami introduces the final chapter of her book by quoting Thomas Jefferson’s iconic words that “all men are created equal.” Yet this statement was based on a contradiction, she notes. As Lalami has argued throughout her book, the status of one’s citizenship is conditional—that is, based on one’s race, gender, religion, and national origin, as well as sexual orientation and other factors. As a result, America is not a society where everyone is treated or regarded equally. 

What, Lalami asks, would a society look like in which everyone is truly equal? She enumerates the features such a hypothetical society must have in order for citizenship to be equal for everyone and not merely based on conditions. 

First, there must be the right to vote, without restrictions that “target classes of individuals based on race, class, gender, or other markers of identity.” The right to vote must be perennial, meaning that people who are incarcerated must retain this right and this ability. 

Second, there are basic social rights that must be guaranteed to all, such as the rights to healthcare, education, clean air, and adequate wages. Social rights are what enable basic civil rights to be exercised. Without social equality, people cannot be truly equal before the state and before the law.

Lalami insists that people must have ownership over their own bodies. This relates to reproductive rights and the right to an abortion, which conservative groups in the United States have consistently attempted to deny, diminish, or hamper.

Freedom from harassment and discrimination is also necessary in a society where citizenship is to be equal and unconditional. If such freedom is violated, citizens must have legal recourse by which to redress the violation. 

Citizens must be free to practice any religion—or no religion—without fear of discrimination or unequal treatment, as has occurred recently in the bans on Muslims and the instances of harassment against them. Freedom of movement is also essential. Citizens must be able to travel and work anywhere they wish without being profiled or surveilled. 

Lalami indicates that the mere fact of her stating these basic rights has caused her to feel fear. “Despair,” she says, “is seductive.” It’s easy simply to accept the status quo rather than expressing concern and striving to deal with these issues. After the 2016 election, there was a widespread reluctance to act, as well as a disbelief that change was possible or that these injustices could be corrected. Yet even if the election result had been different, the entrenched system by which injustices continue to exist would not have been eliminated. Elections, Lalami asserts, are not enough. In order to make a difference, there needs to be a more basic level of activism and activity, including reaching out to others through individual initiative. A quotation from Thomas Jefferson is a touchstone for her in this regard: “Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.” It is just that type of progress that is needed, Lalami states, to ensure that Jefferson’s most famous words are amended to “all people are created equal.” 

Analysis

The final chapter is in some sense a culmination of the information and observations presented in the book so far, as well as an answer to the issues raised. Much of Conditional Citizens has been a critique not only of American society but of world culture. Lalami has focused on the United States because it is her adopted country, but the topics she addresses through the first seven chapters involve problems—problems of class, race, religion, and...

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race—that have existed, in some form, throughout history. In this chapter, Lalami presents a positive corrective to those problems. If she has shown what is wrong with America and the world, now she is offering a prescription for how to solve those problems.

Much of what she enumerates is to be viewed as an ideal. As such, the power of her writing is that it forces readers to observe just how far our societies still are from achieving that ideal. Some readers might react by saying that Lalami is merely stating the obvious. But if so, the blatant and repeated instances of injustice and wrong detailed throughout her book would likely never have taken place. She identifies despair as the emotion that has too many times stopped people from taking any action when they see that a wrong is occurring. One might add that complacency is a corollary of what she describes. In the face of negative social and political outcomes, many give up, questioning why they should bother to strive for change. Lalami’s remarks in this final chapter—and in Conditional Citizens as a whole—are a cogent and effective answer to that question.

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