By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Senior Contributing Writer
When you add carbon into iron, you get steel, a material which is less brittle, lighter and more durable. It’s pretty important around these parts. On our good days, the story that Americans like to tell ourselves is that the heart of the American experience is like the alchemy of steel: the nation folds in new generations of immigrants to become a stronger nation.
Politicians reach for that melting pot image on the stump constantly. Then there are the times when it is expedient to spin the tale the other way — when immigrants and immigration can be used to create a cleaving point in the social fabric. Entire campaigns and political careers have been built on the belief that immigrants are dangerous, a drain on our resources, and even bring disease or a virus.
People of color, people for whom English is not their first language, and those who don’t adopt western styles of dress are all easy marks. The questions creep out of the shadows and corners about what it means to be a citizen and how we make those assessments in live time, in the blink of an eye: who is a real American? And who gets to do the judging?
Laila Lalami, author of four previous novels, a Pulitzer prize finalist and professor of creative writing at UC Riverside, has written a book that is part history, part data driven investigation and part memoir, which interrogates all of our assumptions and conceptions in Conditional Citizens: On Belonging In America (Pantheon Books, 2020.)
“[I]f you are a non-white citizen, because of the history that connects citizenship to race in the United States, if something happens — like a pandemic or terrorist attack or some large disturbing event — then you start to see accusations against that community. Accusations of being different, being traitorous, being spies, all of that,” Lalami told the Current via telephone, noting America’s long history of colonialism, xenophobia and racism.
“There’s always the chance, when an event like this happens, that you’ll be told that it is your fault, or go back to your country, or you did this.”
Just last week, outside the Aldi’s in Forest Hills, a white woman was caught on videotape calling Pennsylvania’s second Lady, Gisele Fetterman, a noxious racial slur. The implication was clear: you are not a real American and you don’t count.
There can be other consequences in the form of hate crimes and harassment by the state. Bureaucracies and systems are built to make it hard for certain people to engage in civic life, like draconian voter ID laws and inaccessible polling places. Lalami also writes about the obstacle course that American capitalism sets up to punish and essentially criminalize being poor.
“We have a lot of communities that are heavily policed, heavily surveilled — populations around the border, populations around the inner cities, by race. There are all kinds of situations in which citizens are essentially surveilled, policed and harassed by their government, even as they believe that they live in the land of the free,” she said.
Lalami herself is a naturalized citizen. She grew up in Morocco, an almost entirely Muslim nation and she was already living in the US when the 9/11 attacks happened. She’s now had twenty years to reflect on the backlash against Muslims and people from the Middle East that happened in response. Personally, she had all kinds of interactions with people that were hurtful or racist or unpleasant, but there were much more violent and invasive actions.
“That includes not just the spike in hate crimes, but all sorts of other things,” Lalami recalled. “People who were immigrants from Arab and Muslim countries (I think the list was 26 countries) — had to register with INS. It was called a special registration program. That was for men. Then there was the spying by the NYPD on pretty much every Muslim in the New York area and that lasted several years. These are actions by the government, not just by random people throwing a brick in a Mosque. It was a combination of personal experiences and hate crimes, but also government sanctioned discriminatory practices.”
We are living in a time when young children are separated from their parents at the border and kept in cages. We are also living in a time, she points out, when Chinese Americans and Asian Americans are targets because of the coronavirus.
“It reminds me of the days after 9/11,” Lalami said. “People have reported being spat on, being accused of spreading Covid.”
Lalami writes about assimilation with real nuance and understanding. She was quick to point out the ugly history of assimilation here because of what happened with indigenous people. But even when assimilation is not forced, when people arrive and want to engage in American civic life, some aspects of culture are lost in the process.
We’ve all seen assimilation used a political hatchet brandished to gin up xenophobia, fear and hate. Those immigrants aren’t assimilated enough. They aren’t assimilating fast enough or even trying to assimilate.
“Basically, assimilation is something that is wielded as a cudgel and it is used as an accusation against people. You never hear about it when everything is going fine. Whenever there is a newer group that arrives, then suddenly there are questions about assimilation,” she said.
Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures is hosting a virtual event with Laila Lalami on Monday, October 26th.