What do you hear when someone brings up the American Dream? “I don’t hear anything,” acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates told OZY Editor-in-Chief Carlos Watson for “Real Talk, Real Change,” a special edition of The Carlos Watson Show that airs today. Indeed, the nebulous promise has not been equally shared. But there is something special about America’s desire for each generation to reach for a better life. Today, we see what new dreamers are saying about the American Dream, the history of how we got here and what can be done to make it a reality tomorrow.
The 26-year-old son of Mexican immigrants who originally arrived in California as farm laborers, López couldn’t sleep near the windows of his East Palo Alto home in the ’90s because of gunshots. Now the region is a standard-bearer of income inequality, with tech giants forcing rents ever higher. To help address those issues, López, a Marshall scholar and the winner of a 2019 poetry prize for his debut collection, Gentefication, decided to run for office and was elected in November to the East Palo Alto City Council by 68 votes. It doesn’t look like it will be his last stop.
The MacArthur “genius grant” winner is the author of the best-seller Grit:The Power of Passion and Perseverance — in which the University of Pennsylvania psychologist argues there’s reason to believe that hard work does pay off, based not on a myopic or nostalgic view of history but because of how modern communities have evolved. “It’s not just about being an individual optimist. It’s about structures in society that enable you to think rationally that the future can be better than what we have today,” Duckworth says on “Real Talk, Real Change.” Her central claims? That grit predicts success more reliably than talent or IQ and that anyone can acquire it.
The American playwright and film director helmed Netflix’s adaptation of the beloved play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, introducing the work of August Wilson to a new digital audience. The film, debuting Dec. 18, was also the last role for the celebrated Chadwick Boseman, who died in August. Wolfe channels the wit of Wilson — dubbed the “theater’s poet of Black America” — onto the television screen. He understands as Wilson did, according to the New York Times, that the American Dream “is not, and could never be, the dream of Black Americans, each generation of whom lives with the injuries this country has dealt them.”
The scholar and activist is a critic of “dream” rhetoric, calling it an illusion that wrongly protects American innocence: “It’s the cover that allows us to be willfully ignorant about what is happening,” Glaude says on “Real Talk, Real Change.” Glaude remembers when his father, one of the first African American men to work at a post office in Mississippi, moved the family to the middle-class home of American Dream lore — and immediately faced racist backlash from police officers and neighbors. “We have to grow up as a country,” says the 52-year-old chair of Princeton’s Center for African American Studies.
You can’t redefine the American Dream without seeing the past for what it is. And that’s where Cantave, a Black activist from New York, comes in. His educational advocacy group and app, Movers and Shakers, is rewriting Black and brown narratives in U.S. history … and using augmented reality to do it. He’s creating a catalog of “heroes you never learn about in school,” featuring women, people of color, members of the queer community and others lost in the whitewashed annals of history.
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With the large majority of Americans one medical emergency away from being broke, that’s a tenuous dream. Amid reports of surprise emergency room and other medical bills in the tens of thousands of dollars, cost transparency from hospitals is an obvious place for reform — and it is one with rare bipartisan support: Seven Republicans in the U.S. Senate (including Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who’s locked in a high-profile runoff) co-sponsored such a bill as recently as August. Given how Americans of color suffer from disproportionately poor health care outcomes and services, transparency would be a step toward spreading the dream more equitably.
2. High-Speed Internet for All
One of the toughest decisions for rural Americans is whether to stay in their home communities or head to urban areas where career opportunities are more plentiful. But it’s a false choice in an age when some 40 percent of jobs can be done from home — at least, if the internet is good enough. In many parts of America, though, access to high-speed broadband internet is limited or nonexistent. Local governments have tried to offer faster services, only to be sued by private internet companies that accuse the government of tilting the marketplace even as they refuse to offer better services in places where profits are slim. At a time of pandemic-forced remote learning, broadband is a critical need.
If Bill Gates and Warren Buffett were Black, would the American Dream look different? This summer, Forbes identified 614 billionaires in the U.S., only six of whom are Black. Maximizing intergenerational wealth transfer for Black families at the high end, through efforts like eliminating their estate tax, could help. One underrated tactic? Cultivating Black entrepreneurs to head up seven-figure businesses whose aging, often white, owners are looking to move on, but have no biological heirs to their legacies — a strategy that has helped even the playing field in Cincinnati, among other places.
4. End School Funding Through Local Property Taxes
Uneven school funding ensures that those already more likely to achieve the American Dream will have more resources to pull it off. But if property taxation and school funding were done at the state level, rather than through local districts, it could allow funds to be more equitably distributed. Yet this method is not a cure-all: Michigan has funded schools mostly at the state level since 1994 and its socioeconomic achievement gap persists.
Christina Greer, author of Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream, writes that the U.S. is fast approaching its “anagnorisis” — the moment in a play or novel when a principal character discovers the true nature of their own circumstances. Yes, America was founded on principles of liberty, democracy and freedom. But it was also rooted in white supremacy, Greer argues. With the George Floyd protests this summer, America is poised for another reckoning. Can the country reset itself? To do so, it will have to move past empathy rhetoric to embrace policies that “actually cost the nation something,” as the New York Times’ Charles M. Blow has written: things like equal access to health care, education and even something that’s as taken for granted as safety.
Despite the record wage and economic growth of the mid-20th century, the latter part of the century saw marginal gains for the average American. Workers now have roughly the same purchasing power they did in 1978 when adjusted for inflation. A stronger safety net and more direct distribution of wealth earned by workers would go a long way toward ending the disparities that keep so many from making the dream of economic security a reality.
the dream deferred
1. Perception Meets Reality
Americans today are less likely to believe their hard work will get them anywhere, and poor Americans have good reason to be skeptical: While 90 percent of children born in the 1940s ended up with higher incomes than their parents, only 40 percent of those born in 1980 have done so. Wages stalled and living costs rose, but if GDP gains had been distributed as equitably in the last four decades as they had been previously, then $50 trillion more would be in their hands — enough to pay every single working American an additional $1,144 a month.
The hopelessness and despair of those who feel the American Dream doesn’t apply to them is often tied to areas where poverty and drugs go hand in hand. Former NBA star Jalen Rose recalls on “Real Talk, Real Change” how selling drugs or playing basketball were the only ways out of inner-city Detroit. “And I was too scared to sell drugs, so I decided to work on my crooked jump shot,” Rose says. It’s a sentiment shared by comedian Aida Rodriguez, who had a tumultuous childhood of her own: “I’m 8 years old, people showing me how to make crack, telling me you're going to have to learn how to figure something out because these are the options for you.”
There have been movements to require rich Americans to release their tax records publicly, a change that would potentially add transparency to the accounting and self-dealing schemes that allow the wealthy to keep a larger share of the economic pie. But then again, they say that comparison is the thief of joy — or, as the philosopher René Girard argued, that most of our misery comes from a desire to mimic. We see what others have, and wanting to have what they have puts us right in the crosshairs of all kinds of discontent. Perhaps, then, the American Dream is broken because we simply know more — and to dream requires a blissful ignorance that’s near impossible in the internet age.
Ever wonder why the stock market is booming while small businesses are shuttering? Welcome to the K-shaped recovery in which the top thrives even as the lower rungs remain mired in the mud. Consider this: Billionaires saw their net worth increase by half a trillion dollars during the pandemic, even amid economic shutdowns.
A federal judge on Friday forced the Trump administration to continue to accept applications for the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to shield from deportation certain immigrants who were brought illegally to the U.S. as children. These are the so-called Dreamers, a group that symbolizes a broken Washington: Dreamers were essentially created as the most sympathetic possible category of undocumented immigrant, but a bill to rescue them became trapped in larger congressional immigration politics. President Barack Obama made a legally questionable decision to block their deportations, a move the Trump administration failed to undo because it didn’t follow the proper judicial protocol.
6. Still a Beacon
The immigration debate in the U.S. has hit a fever pitch in recent years. And yet, America persists as a magnet for global migration. There are more than 50 million foreign-born residents in the U.S., according to the U.N. In second place is Germany, with 13 million. Immigrants continue to be drawn to the U.S. for world-class education and the opportunity to build the next great company: As of 2018, 55 percent of America’s billion-dollar startups were founded by immigrants.
Before the expression became affixed to everything from megamalls to stump speeches, the lofty ideal was held by many Americans, though not sloganized until the historian James Truslow Adams referred, in his Epic of America in 1931, to “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” The romantic conceit spread like wildfire, flourishing with the unprecedented economic growth and social change of the mid-20th century. However, it would soon face obstacles posed by a changing America.
In 1950, nearly 90 percent of Americans were white. By 2010, that number had dropped to 72 percent — and the 2020 census is expected to show continued decline. Which is why it may make sense that the “American Dream” once carried the image of the all-white nuclear family in picket-fenced suburban homes (separate from the urbanized, and Blacker, cities). The dream is rightly being reassessed and scrutinized as demographic change creates a new face for the American populace.
3. The Changing Dream
What’s more, it’s not clear that Americans even want the dream of their predecessors. After the real estate crisis and Great Recession of 2008, many millennial and Gen Zers prefer the nomadic promise of tiny homes and intermittent roaming over buying property and staying put. More adults are putting off marriage and children to focus instead on their careers, a move partly motivated by their decreasing prosperity and increasing debt burden. For many in these pandemic-scrambled times, the American Dream could now mean living overseas. And yet, this all holds true with James Truslow Adams’ 1931 vision of “opportunity.” The dream has always changed with the times, and it will live on.