Who Does the United States Belong to?: A Conversation with Laila Lalami

February 17, 2021   •   By Abbie Reese

LAILA LALAMI’S 2020 BOOK Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America yields a compelling history of the United States and our founding myth of equality. In a generous interview soon after the insurrection at the US Capitol, Lalami offered insight into the origins of this Republic, where white men agreed at the outset that they would be governed by consent, everyone else by force. 

The right to vote, restricted to white men who owned property, steadily opened up over the generations, notably with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed poll taxes and literacy tests. But the Roberts Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder halted progress and dismantled protections for African Americans. Polling stations have closed. “What we need,” Lalami says, “is a sustained effort to protect citizenship rights and to sever them from any connection to race or gender or any other accidents of birth. You can’t sever that connection as long as you’re taking one step forward and then another step back.”

Lalami arrived in the United States as a graduate student 30 years ago. Now a citizen, she encourages a critical lens. “Being critical is how the US is able to change and get better. It doesn’t get better by the people being silent,” she says.

Laila Lalami will speak on a panel with Mike Davis at the 44th annual UCR Writers Week at 5:30 p.m. PT on Thursday, February 18, 2021. Register here. See the full schedule of free events at https://writersweek.ucr.edu/schedule. 

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ABBIE REESE: I saw the story of your mother-in-law as sort of parable about consent and memory and acquiescing to authority.

LAILA LALAMI: I think in some ways my relationship with my mother-in-law mirrors my relationship with America. She’s somebody that I cared about very much. I got along very well with her and cared a great deal about her. And it was very painful to watch her go through Alzheimer’s and to watch her lose her memory. The difference is that the loss of memory in the United States is willful, while in the case of my mother-in-law it was obviously not willful. But an erasure of memory is part of how the United States constructs its national identity. It’s by erasing these little portions of its history that are shameful or distasteful or disturbing that American mythology is created. Think about the myth of “a nation of immigrants,” made up of many different races, and how that erases indigenous dispossession, slavery, or segregation. It’s through erasure that you can have situations where new citizens are being sworn in at the site of previous internment of Japanese Americans, as I was in Pomona in 2000. America is where we can erect a parking lot over the site of Japanese relocation and forget about the episode and use the space to swear in new immigrants. I think that erasure is very much a part of how America constructs its national identity.

The dichotomies or the pairings that you present — of allegiance and silence, of consent and memory — are really important and thoughtful.

The connection between allegiance and silence is a long-standing feature of American national mythmaking, and you can see it at play almost constantly. The one that’s on my mind this morning, because of the situation in Washington, DC, is how Ilhan Omar, the representative for Minnesota’s 5th district, gets treated whenever she criticizes the United States: out come the racist cartoons, with her being portrayed as a terrorist sympathizer, if not an outright terrorist. Or accusations that she wants to turn the US into Somalia, which is where she was born. Her criticism of US government policy is perceived as a criticism of America itself, despite the fact that she is actually quite careful when she talks about the US to signal her gratitude for having been welcomed here as a refugee and growing up in Minneapolis and, in a wonderful arc, becoming her district’s congressional representative. Her gratitude doesn’t protect her from these accusations. I think that’s because, for people like her, and I think you can see this very clearly with Muslims, there’s this idea that you show — you demonstrate — your allegiance by being either silent or by being vocal about your gratitude. But any other kind of position — any position in which you are critical — is perceived as a sign of a betrayal, as a sign of ingratitude. Silence is the price that you have to pay to show your allegiance. That has always struck me as strange.

Now, the other thing I will say — the flip side of what I was talking about with Ilhan Omar — is what happened this week, where a crowd of “pro-Trump extremists,” as NPR calls them, who are basically insurrectionists, stormed the Capitol. That’s the opposite of allegiance. They’ve stormed the Capitol and carried Confederate flags and caused all this mayhem. Several people have died. But look at how they’re being defended, to this day, by people like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley. All of these senators are basically saying that the onus is on us who are sitting in our homes minding our business to listen to them — the insurrectionists — and to listen to their concerns. These senators denounced the violence, but they’re also saying that the election was fraudulent and that we have to listen to the concerns of these insurrectionists.

When you compare these two behaviors — you have a representative from Minnesota who is being critical of policies that she wants to change, and you have citizens who are taking action by storming the Capitol and acting like a mob and threatening to kill the vice president — it’s clear that the range of discourse that’s allowed, the margins of what’s allowed, are not the same. The margin of discourse that Ilhan Omar is permitted is far narrower than what those people were permitted to do. Some citizens are allowed to be critical to the point of violence toward their government, and others are not. And there is absolutely a connection between political affiliation, race, gender, and this right to speak critically.

No kidding. It’s wild, the hypocrisy with Representative Omar, as well as Colin Kaepernick taking a knee, a silent demonstration that was completely unacceptable to so many people.

To many Republicans, particularly Trump Republicans, Kaepernick was behaving like a traitor when he kneeled for the national anthem, but the fact that they’re storming — storming — the Capitol and carrying Confederate flags is simply the expression of their political views, protected by the First Amendment. I think it speaks to deep-seated ideas about who belongs in America and who doesn’t.

One of the things that struck me very much when I was watching the videos of the storming of the Capitol — which even as I say it, seems strange to say — but one of the things that struck me, because I heard it more than once in different videos, was that these Trump supporters, many of them white men and women, were saying, “This is our house,” meaning the Capitol is the people’s house and people have a right to disagree with their government and all that. But I thought it was interesting that, to them, this is our house means the physical takeover of that Capitol — bringing weapons and threatening representatives who are not doing what they want them to do. This really fundamentally goes back to the question of who does the United States belong to? Does it belong to all its citizens equally, meaning that a majority voted for Biden, so he gets to be president? Or does that mean that votes in certain states they don’t like don’t count? They seem to think that only some votes — theirs, of course — count. They’re saying that it belongs to these Trump supporters. That’s what they believe.

I guess the question is how to convince Trump supporters that there are inequities in society and that these problems should be rectified. Is there any hope? Or does the focus really have to be more on policy moves and shifts?

When you look at the massive problems that the United States is facing right now, I think it’s not an exaggeration to say that the country is on the verge of being ungovernable. You have the storming of the Capitol last Wednesday and here we are on a Monday with a few dozen arrests among the insurrectionists. But the actual leaders — Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, Paul Gosar, some of the people that were encouraging the crowd — have suffered no consequences. There’s complete impunity for anybody but the people who broke into the Capitol. And, of course, you can imagine if it was Ilhan Omar who was telling her supporters to go into the Capitol and do this, she would have been forced to resign from Congress.

One thing that I do know for sure — and I’m convinced of this — is that, unless there are serious consequences for what happened at the Capitol, we’re going to be right back here in a few months, maybe at the midterms or the next presidential election. Why wouldn’t this happen again if there are no consequences for the people who are stirring the pot? We saw this after the Iraq War, the biggest foreign policy disaster in the last half-century. After Obama came to power, he made a decision not to prosecute anybody that was involved with war crimes and torture. And of course, that kind of impunity led us to this moment that we’re in. So, if we let this go, this is going to continue. I fear that we haven’t yet hit the part where people are going to finally start saying, “Okay, there have to be consequences.” Because, so far, I’m not seeing that.

Yeah, and the fact that people were allowed to fly home. I mean, to be able to even leave the Capitol and not be arrested —

But they documented everything that they did on social media, and that tells you how confident they were, that what they were doing had the approval at the highest levels of government, beginning with the president. They left a trail of evidence, so the FBI is starting to make these arrests. I think they’re up to 70 arrests right now. There are going to be more. And by the way, I want to say that one of the things I truly resent is how people always talk about these supporters just being from the white working class, when everybody that I’ve seen so far that has been arrested has been middle and upper class. They’ve had a retired Air Force vet. They’ve had a business owner from San Diego. They’ve had a woman who flew on her private jet. If you’re hurting economically, you don’t have the money to fly all the way to DC, book a hotel for a week to go do this. This is not a protest of the working class. These are people who can afford to do this sort of thing.

I think it’s gracious and astute in the book that you comment on the imperfections of your birth country — Morocco — at the same time that you comment on the imperfections and flaws of the United States.

One of the things that I can tell you about that is whenever I criticize Morocco in print — when I would write about issues relating to freedom of speech for journalists — I would unfailingly, every time, get emails from Americans telling me how brave I was and that I was speaking truth to power. The flip side of that is that, when I would write articles that are critical of the United States, I would get emails from Americans calling me a traitor and saying how I should go back to where I came from. I’m the same person applying what I hope are the same standards of observation and critical analysis! But how it’s perceived is very different when the gaze is pointed outward versus when it’s pointed inward. And there is nothing unique about Americans, by the way. When I criticize the US, Moroccans don’t mind, but when I criticize Morocco, they mind it very much! I think that just comes with the territory, if you’re writing critically about politics.

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Abbie Reese, a dual citizen of the United States and Luxembourg, is writing a book about reclaiming her great-great-great grandfather’s Luxembourgish nationality. She is a creative nonfiction candidate in the MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts program at the University of California, Riverside.

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Banner image: "DC Capitol Storming IMG 7986" by TapTheForwardAssist is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Image had been darkened.