What is a “conditional citizen”?
Someone whose rights and liberties are conditioned by accidents of birth, like national origin, race, class, gender. The first piece of legislation to delineate the boundaries of Americanness, which was the Immigration Act of 1790, restricted U.S. citizenship to “free white persons.” Some of the rights that flowed from this status—such as the right to vote—were further restricted to propertied white men. This meant that white male landowners had a voice in how the new nation was to be governed, while everyone else did not. Over the next couple of centuries, access to the rights and protections of citizenship was slowly expanded through the Fourteenth Amendment, the Nineteenth Amendment, the Civil Rights Act, and the Immigration Act of 1965, among others. Yet the founding limitations to citizenship still persist in different forms today.
Consider, for example, what happens when a citizen is stopped by a police officer for a minor violation. The outcome of such an encounter can range from a friendly warning to a traffic ticket to a violent death. We’ve seen this with Philando Castile in Minnesota, with Eric Garner in New York, with Sandra Bland in Texas, and with so many others. An ordinary interaction between a citizen and an agent of the state escalates and ends in violence because of the racial identity of the person involved.
Or consider a citizen’s right to be free of unreasonable searches, as guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment. A few years ago, reporters for the Associated Press revealed that the NYPD had been surveilling mosques within 100 miles of the metro area, recording the license plates of worshippers attending services, mapping neighborhoods where Muslims lived, gaining access to private homes, and placing undercover agents in Muslim student associations—all without warrant. These citizens’ rights were violated because of their religious identity.
We like to think of citizenship as a great equalizer: after all, we all carry the same passports. But our encounters with our government—whether at a police stop, a border checkpoint, in the voting booth—are still partly determined by race, class, gender, or national origin, which is to say they’re determined by accidents of birth. The rights, protections and liberties of American citizenship are not yet available equally to all; instead, a great many of us are what I would call conditional citizens, rather than equal citizens.
Is this another book about He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named?
No, we have enough of those already! In Conditional Citizens, I explore America with two lenses: the personal and the historical. I became a U.S. citizen in 2000, and I wanted to reflect about how my relationship to this big, beautiful, brutal country has changed and deepened over the years. I’m still moved by the universalist ideals that lie at the heart of the Declaration of Independence—that all men are created equal. I’ve never managed to visit the Statue of Liberty without getting a bit misty. At the same time, however, I can’t abide the lies that America too often tells itself about its past, or even its present. You often hear liberal politicians say that America is a “nation of immigrants,” but in reality a slew of laws strictly prevented the arrival or settlement of nonwhites. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Johnson Reed Act of 1924, or Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s are just three examples. It was not until 1965 that race-based quotas were eliminated and that people from all parts of the world could immigrate here. The political moment we find ourselves in right now is the consequence of forces that have been at play for decades, so in that sense this isn’t a book about the current president so much as it is a book about all of us who are caught in the consequences of the lies.
Your first four books were novels, but this one is a work of nonfiction. Why the shift?
I’ve been writing nonfiction for as long as I’ve been writing fiction. Over the last twenty years, I’ve published dozens of essays, criticism, op-eds, and columns in many different venues, both in the U.S. and abroad. These pieces were a chance for me to articulate my thoughts about a recent event, or to understand something I’d been puzzling over, or even to take a break from novel writing. Of course, there is a difference between my first four books and this new one. In my fiction, I refrain from judging my characters and try to narrate their stories with imaginative empathy. In my nonfiction, by contrast, I have the chance to provide context and to exercise judgment. My reliance on memories, personal biases, and historical tangents also made the material much more suited to nonfiction. In short, Conditional Citizens is a distillation of ideas I’ve written about in the past but never had the chance to write about at length.
Do you explore the same themes in this book as in your novels?
There is a preoccupation with ethics in all my fiction—my characters usually face moral dilemmas—and I think this is true in this book as well. But while my novels have often centered on immigrants and exiles, Conditional Citizens takes a wider look at issues of belonging and unbelonging as they relate to all who live in this country.
The book ends with a chapter called Do Not Despair of This Country. Why shouldn’t we?
I think it was James Baldwin who said that “there are no untroubled countries in this fearfully troubled world.” Whenever I feel despair, I remember that the generations that came before us were faced with injustice, too. They were faced with widespread bigotry and state violence and casual brutality. But they remained steadfast and in some cases lived long enough to see progress. We should try to meet the challenge of the present moment, too, so that we can leave the world a tiny bit better for those who will come after.