Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America

by Laila Lalami
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"Tribe" Summary and Analysis

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Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and the racial dynamic depicted in it serve as a starting point for Lalami’s discussion of identity. White identity still, nearly two hundred years after Mark Twain’s story takes place, asserts its power over Black identity. It’s significant, she says, that whiteness is not even generally thought of in the United States culture as a specific identity but rather as a kind of absence of one, a neutral, default characteristic which therefore escapes evaluation and criticism. 

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But the election of Donald Trump, Lalami asserts, interrupted this usual silence about whiteness, because Trump deliberately presented himself as a candidate who would appeal to whites about their fears of ceding their cultural dominance to other groups. Ronald Reagan did the same thing forty years earlier when he talked about “welfare queens” and the need to stop such people from presumably manipulating the system and getting benefits—benefits which, although Reagan didn’t say so explicitly—were assumed to be given unfairly to nonwhite people. Trump, Lalami indicates, is part of a long tradition, but he is new in that he has built his political identity on his involvement with the “birther” accusations about Barack Obama. Trump is also different from previous politicians in that he is blunt and vulgar. He openly makes assertions—in obvious and crude language—that his predecessors talked about in veiled or euphemistic terms. In Lalami’s view, Trump deliberately exploits the anxieties many whites have that they will eventually become a demographic minority in the United States.

Expressions such as “white pride” and “white heritage,” which began to be used by white supremacists in the 1980s, are ironic echoes or inversions of terminology used by Black activists during the civil rights movement, Lalami says. White supremacists resent programs such as affirmative action, but there is evidence that anti-discrimination legislation has not succeeded in creating an equal playing field for Americans of color. She points out that although working-class and poorly educated white people often do not see themselves as advantaged in any way, the mere fact that they are white indicates there is no color burden already in place against them, as there is for Black citizens and other citizens of color. 

Forms asking about race—on which Lalami personally checks both the “white” and “black” boxes—seem “invasive and unnecessary” to her, but Lalami realizes that they are being used to track “all kinds of interactions between the state and its citizens.” When she first became a citizen, she naively thought she would be treated just like anyone else, but she received negative and even hateful responses after writing a piece on “white identity” for the New York Times. She has been told, like others, to “go back to your country”; this statement has an obvious racial bias behind it, because it assumes that in order to be truly American or British one has to be white. Before the Civil War and the Fourteenth Amendment, nonwhites were explicitly excluded from American citizenship. Even since the passage of the Amendment in 1868, the extension of citizenship to nonwhites has been questioned again and again. Even when it has been accepted as legal, there have been “incremental” restrictions of it, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act. Lalami states that the “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” that Donald Trump promised is another version of this attempt at exclusion, since people from the Arab and Muslim countries are considered “nonwhite” or “insufficiently white.”

Various incidents continue to occur in which people who are only regarded as “conditional citizens” are singled out, berated, and even arrested,...

(The entire section contains 1398 words.)

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