Review of 'Conditional Citizens' on 'Goodreads'

5 stars

From the Pulitzer-shortlisted author of the imagined history of America's first Arab and first Muslim explorer, the Moor's Account, now comes a deeply personal and emotionally powerful account of Professor [a:Laila Lalami|81319|Laila Lalami|]'s own immigration to America from her home in Morocco. [b:Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America|52366322|Conditional Citizens On Belonging in America|Laila Lalami||72398925] opens and closes on notes of hope, beginning with Lalami's joy on the day of her citizenship ceremony, but it is also a story of an abiding love of her country that is not quite requited.

The arc of the story, Lalami's first non-fiction work, portrays vividly a life of both love and alienation arising from being set apart from the presumptive norm of citizenship defined by white male property owners: the legal requirement of full citizenship at the founding of the Republic whose shadow lingers over us to this day. As an immigrant, as a woman, as a Muslim, and as a member of the working class who established herself through education in classic Horatio Alger fashion, Lalami has fully embraced life in America, suffering all of the pain of leaving her family and former life behind, yet she frequently finds her self subtly set apart.

"White privilege" is a term much bandied about in today's America, and it is both frequently maligned and little understood. With her customary razor sharp analysis, Lalami cuts right to the heart of the matter:

A white high school dropout in a derelict mill town might look around and ask in bewilderment, What privilege do I have? Others, like white immigrants, make the case that they have derived no generational advantage from race, given their recent arrival in the United States. But white privilege does not mean that white people have easy lives — it simply means that whiteness does not make their lives harder. Blackness, by contrast, has a statistically measurable and negative effect on the outcome of individual efforts in employment, housing, and education.

Conditional Citizens at 100. The sharp divide in discrimination between black and white is complicated by the constantly shifting definition of Arabs and Muslims as white or not depending on how the political winds are blowing, and Lalami deftly illustrates her point not only through conflicting decisions by United States District Courts but also through the ambiguity of racial categories on the Census.

Lalami's understanding of discrimination is not based only on dry statistical analysis but also arises from deeply personal experience: from the sobbing of her daughter, who was born here, after the 2016 election out of fear that she would be deported, to her daughter's early lesson in kindergarten that it was not acceptable to speak Arabic, to the stark contrast between the far-ranging power of the Border Patrol on our fortified Southern Border to the free and welcoming greeting Americans have received (pre-pandemic) on our Northern one, regardless of drug smuggling and illegal immigration from Canada, which, after all, has a far more open and porous border.

Most searing of all, however is Lalami's personal experience of sexual harassment and her perspective on the manner in which Americans exculpate themselves for the inequality and harassment of women because it is worse "over there." Lalami has herself felt the pressure put on women to keep silent amidst a lack of meaningful recourse and societal skepticism. Once again, she cuts to the heart of the matter when she write, "What I want is freedom, not better conditions of subjugation." Id. at 159.

In fact, if there is any criticism I have of the book, it is that despite the vivid narration of her personal experience, her analysis of the brutality of America's treatment of women and people of color across its history is understated. She lets the country off to lightly. For example, she keenly analyzes historical legal obstacles to voting such as the poll tax and literacy test, but she glosses over the century of brutal white terrorism — in which, for example, black men were castrated, burned, and hanged at family picnics — debt slavery based on requirements that black people work off fines in coal mines and chain gangs, and forced segregation based on deliberate federal, state, and local law.

This is clearly not an omission out of ignorance, but perhaps the medicine is already strong enough that white America will have trouble absorbing it. However, this book is exactly the prescription that our country needs if we are ever going to live up to our often stated aspiration to have "liberty and justice for all."