“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
― Martin Luther King Jr.
Is the American Dream attainable? My intelligently pessimistic side says no. My willingly optimistic side says yes.
The more pessimistic approach is rooted in the fact more than one American Dream exists. And they mostly wither when placed against reality.
One dream, for example, is rooted in beliefs about labor and upward mobility, the dream contained in the oft-asked survey question: Do you think the American Dream — that if you work hard you’ll get ahead — still holds true, never held true or once held true but does not anymore? The best data we have suggests that over the last 40 years upward mobility has stagnated significantly. Further, this data suggests that America fares far worse than other developed nations.
Another American Dream, rooted in beliefs about racial equality, particularly along political and economic lines, is contained in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. This too is under siege. The wealth gap between blacks and whites, which was already large, is growing. And if the homicides of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Tensha Anderson (among others), tell us anything it’s that black lives do not seem to matter as much as other lives.
Americans in general and African-Americans in particular then have a right to be pessimistic about the attainability of the dream, or dreams.
“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”
― Martin Luther King Jr.
‘He would be ashamed’ to walk MLK Blvd today’
Much progress has indeed been made. As a participant in the civil rights movement, I’m proud of that progress. But as long as there is necessity for such a legal category as hate crime, the “Dream” remains unfulfilled. As long as(“DWB (“Driving While Black”) in the presence of police remains a perilous activity for many African Americans throughout our nation, the Dream remains diluted. As long as unemployment among African Americans keeps repeating the historic ratio of double the rate of unemployment among white people, the Dream remains unfulfilled. As long as polarisation of wealth and absence of equal access to economic opportunity continue to escalate and disproportionately affect African Americans, the Dream remains unfulfilled.
These are not anomalies; they are realities in America. As such, the Dream that Martin Luther King Jr brought to us remains out of reach.
Those who argue that our election of an African American president proves that racism is a thing of the past are not looking closely at the subtleties of racism. Of course, Barack Obama is living proof that progress has been made towards respect for African Americans, but consider the hatred that bubbled up as he gained momentum in the primaries.
Even Obama’s eventual running mate, Joe Biden, was scrutinised by the media over a possibly racist comment. Among the adjectives he used to describe his then opponent, Biden offered “African American” and then the word “clean”. And while he kept backpedalling, saying he meant the phrase to invoke the idea there were no skeletons in Obama’s closet, one cannot help but wonder. Would Biden or any other public servant ever describe someone like John Kerry as “white and clean?” It is doubtful.
The post-racial America it’s been suggested we achieved by Obama’s election is nowhere in sight. The truth may be that we don’t want to admit to ourselves that an African American president does not mean a society wholly accepting of all African Americans. Indeed, racism continues to fester in every American city and town. We can safely, if sadly, say that we have not fully achieved the Dream.
Those who say otherwise simply have not taken the requisite look at the underlying political ideology that powered the philosophical engine of Martin Luther King Jr. The essence of his dream for African Americans after the March on Washington was this: a United States where every person has the equal opportunity – educationally, economically, culturally and politically – to participate in our society and develop themselves to the maximum of their abilities, irrespective of the colour of their skin or ethnicity. This concept assumes that, all other things being equal, African Americans should have access to the same opportunities as whites.
But this “all other things being equal” is the lie of race relations in America. Because our country has not levelled the playing field at all. Various civil rights bills, constitutional amendments and supreme court decisions aimed at dismantling segregation in education, transportation and rental housing, have not constituted “all other things being equal”. Ours is a capitalist society, and each individual’s market power is key to how he is treated. There remains an enormous division between the races when it comes to median income, home ownership, education, life expectancy, the incarceration rate, drug use and mortality rate.
The issue at the heart of all these problems is the idea that freedom and economic opportunity are interchangeable; that freedom is economic opportunity. This is false logic. Freedom without economic opportunity is just a variant form of oppression. Further, this thinking is dangerous because it obscures the definitive criterion necessary in evaluating the realisation of Martin’s Dream for African Americans in the 21st century and beyond: wealth.