What does it mean to be American? In this starkly illuminating and impassioned book, Pulitzer Prize–finalist Laila Lalami recounts her unlikely journey from Moroccan immigrant to U.S. citizen, using it as a starting point for her exploration of the rights, liberties, and protections that are traditionally associated with American citizenship. Tapping into history, politics, and literature, she elucidates how accidents of birth—such as national origin, race, and gender—that once determined the boundaries of Americanness still cast their shadows today.
Lalami poignantly illustrates how white supremacy survives through adaptation and legislation, with the result that a caste system is maintained that keeps the modern equivalent of white male landowners at the top of the social hierarchy. Conditional citizens, she argues, are all the people with whom America embraces with one arm and pushes away with the other.
Brilliantly argued and deeply personal, Conditional Citizens weaves together Lalami’s own experiences with explorations of the place of nonwhites in the broader American culture.
In this eloquent and troubling account, novelist and National Book Award finalist Lalami (The Other Americans) draws on her personal history as "an immigrant, a woman, an Arab, and a Muslim" to argue that becoming a U.S. citizen does not necessarily mean becoming "an equal member of the American family." Recalling that the first time a U.S. customs agent examined her American passport, he wanted to know how many camels her husband had to trade in for her, Lalami critically assesses political rhetoric from 9/11 through President Trump's border wall; skillfully unpacks charged words such as "allegiance" and "assimilation"; reflects on Christine Blasey Ford's testimony against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh through the lens of her own experience calling out workplace sexual harassment; and examines the erasure of Muslims from American history. "Conditional citizenship," she writes, "is characterized by the burden of having to educate white Americans about all the ways in which one is different from them." Lalami offers essential insights into how racism and sexism function in American society, and makes a persuasive case for preserving the "gray zones" between religious, ethnic, and national identities as a way to push back against tribalism and sectarianism. This profound inquiry into the American immigrant experience deserves to be widely read.