Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1398
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.
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, such as...
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the men of color who were arrested for “waiting too long” at a Starbucks in Philadelphia. These actions often occur in what are considered “elite” public spaces, where white presence is considered “normal” and expected but the presence of nonwhites is not. People who speak a language other than English in public are often looked at with suspicion and hostility. Though public space belongs to everybody, “conditional citizens” are made to feel uncomfortable and insecure there.
Though Trump’s presidential victory has been attributed by some not to racism but to economic grievances among working-class whites, this is not borne out by the evidence, Lalami says. It is true that upward mobility in the working class is becoming rarer in the United States than it once was, and this exacerbates the problem of understanding the motivations of voters. Yet working-class Black and Latino Americans voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Given this, it is unsustainable to claim that economic or class-based concerns were the source of Trump’s appeal, Lalami concludes.
Whiteness has, throughout United States history, escaped being considered a distinct racial identity. Yet if it were so considered, then each time a mass shooting perpetrated by a white person occurred, pundits would have to regard it as having been caused by the shooter’s white identity, similar to how each time a Muslim commits an act of violence, it’s reflexively identified as Muslim terrorism. The opioid crisis only began to be mentioned in clinical terms as a mental health problem when it began to affect large numbers of white people, specifically in suburban and rural areas. By contrast, the crack-cocaine epidemic that began in the 1980s was conceptualized as a kind of crime wave because it chiefly affected Black communities in urban environments.
“Race is a fiction,” Lalami says. At different times in history, the notion of who is “white” has changed. In the 1920s, people of Mediterranean and Eastern European ancestry were considered “insufficiently white,” as evidenced by the immigration standards of the time. Arabs, such as Lalami herself, are, she says, considered white by the Census Bureau, but they are not so treated in encounters with “the state or its agents.” Historically, Arabs appear to have been granted the status of white because most of the earlier Arab immigrants to the United States were Christian. Various legal cases have altered the racial perception of Arabs by the American establishment. Lalami concludes that now, though Arabs are legally considered white, they are in practice considered nonwhite. The election of Donald Trump prompts the fears of Lalami’s daughter and causes her to ask, “He can’t make us leave, right?” Though Lalami quiets her fears, telling her that he cannot, because they are citizens, she admits to the reader that she is not completely certain of this herself.
In “Tribe,” Lalami looks into the concept of identity and the changing and unequal ways in which the concept is applied to different people and groups. The implications of her analysis are that tribal and racial labels are not based on reality but are invented constructs.
In reality, the concepts of whiteness and nonwhiteness are bound up with the efforts of groups to assert power and control over others. Those who do leverage such racial concepts, however, generally deny that race is the issue. Lalami focuses on the election of Donald Trump as the most relevant recent example of this trend. Though his success was attributed by many to economic grievances by the working class, the real reason for his success was that Trump presented himself, in a barely disguised fashion, as a white supremacist. His characterizations of Mexicans as “bad hombres,” “rapists,” and criminals—which have no basis in fact—are clearly racist, as Lalami points out. Her perspective as an Arab American grants Lalami the ability to analyze the Trump phenomenon in an especially cogent way. This may be because people of Arab descent seem to have an ambiguous status with regard to their racial classification in American culture.
But race itself is, as Lalami asserts, a fictional concept. Perhaps the most interesting part of this chapter is the discussion of which box to check on government forms asking about race. Are people of Arab descent white? Officially they are considered so, but in practice they are not treated as white, and many—if not most—Americans would not regard them as white. There are also intersections between race and religion. In the United States, Christians from the Arab states are more likely to be considered “white” than are Muslims from the same region. The concepts of color and race are constructs; in truth, humanity consists of an unbroken continuum of skin shades.