To listen to most politicians and pundits these days is to believe that the American dream – if not dead already – its certainly facing imminent demise. Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the presidency by saying, “The fact is, the American Dream is dead…” Liberal web sites provide data and charts documenting that it is gone. A recent documentary that is a compilation of interviews with Noam Chomsky is titled: Requiem for the American Dream. In other words, in a country defined by political polarization, this seems to be the one thing that both conservatives and liberals agree on.
I’m not sure that I know exactly what it is we mean when we talk about the American dream. If it refers to the size and trajectory of the middle class, the data and charts I linked to up above certainly point to a demise. But at the beginning of that documentary, Chomsky suggests that we have seen similar trajectories in American history (i.e., just prior to the Great Depression), but that what distinguishes then from now is the loss of hope we are witnessing today. To the extent that optimism is the primary characteristic of a “dream,” that is a crucial part of the equation.
It might be true that large swaths of the American people have given up on the dream. But it is interesting to note who hasn’t. Last week Pew Research released some new data from their 2015 National Survey of Latinos in an article titled: Latinos Increasingly Confident in Personal Finances, See Better Economic Times Ahead. Despite lagging the U.S. public in general on measures of income and wealth, 81% of Latinos expect their family’s financial situation to improve over the next year. If the definition of the American dream is the belief that your children will be better off financially that you are now, that dream is still alive for 72% of Latinos.
That kind of optimism is not unique to Latinos. A recent survey by the Atlantic found the same results from African Americans and Asian Americans. It is interesting to note that author Ellis Cose went from writing The Rage of a Privileged Class: Why Are Middle-Class Blacks Angry? Why Should America Care? in 1994 to The End of Anger: A New Generation’s Take on Race and Rage in 2012. In commenting on the latter book, Cose notes statistics similar to the one’s I’ve cited above and says this:
Over the past few years, pollsters repeatedly have corroborated the phenomenon. Whereas whites are glum, blacks are upbeat—which is remarkable since the economic crisis has hit African-Americans with particularly brutal force. Employment among black men, for instance, has dropped to an all-time low. When I asked Harvard Business School professor David Thomas about the CNN poll, he laughed. “It’s irrational exuberance,” he said.
Certainly, the Obama presidency has fueled euphoria in black circles. But even before Obama came on the scene, optimism was building—most notably among a new generation of black achievers who refused to believe they would be stymied by the bigotry that bedeviled their parents.
Some might argue that the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement signals a return to the days of anger and rage. There might be some truth to that. But it is also a sign that young African Americans aren’t going to put up with the kind of police abuses that have been going on for decades. It is their hope that they can finally change this phenomenon that fuels their anger.
This optimism among people of color is something that should ignite the curiosity of the political class. Just as we’ve been fascinated by the anger (and sometimes despair) coming from the white working/middle class, it would behoove us to learn more about the optimism being expressed by people of color. Far be it from me to attempt an exhaustive explanation. I’d simply note something James Baldwin said during a debate with William F. Buckley at Cambridge in 1965 on the question: “is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?”
Until the moment comes when we the Americans, we the American people, are able to accept the fact that my ancestors are both black and white, that on that continent we are trying to forge a new identity for which we need each other, and that I am not a ward of America, I am not an object of missionary charity, I am one of the people who built the country—until this moment, there is scarcely any hope for the American dream.
That’s why Matt Thompson is on to something important when he writes this:
The eternal story of the dream’s decline reflects a profound nostalgia. To believe the dream is dying, you have to believe it once flourished. But there’s an alternate story of the dream, in which the dream is an ideal that remains unobtained. It is not dead, so much as it is unborn. When the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. articulated his own dream, deeply rooted in the American dream, he wasn’t talking about a desiccated remnant of an idealized past, because to him, no version of that past could be ideal. He was, instead, imagining a better future.
For people of color, the American dream happens only when this country come to grips with the “we” that includes them. That is why, on the occasion of his death, President Obama highlighted these words from Muhammed Ali:
“I am America,” he once declared. “I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me – black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own. Get used to me.”
Apparently that American dream is still very much alive for people of color. Think about that the next time a politician or pundit tells you that this election is all about the anger and discontent of American voters – who assume that the dream is dead or dying. If we’re talking about a dream that flourished in our past, they’re right…that one is going, going, gone. But perhaps there is another one that is in the process of being born.