June 27, 2012

The great myth

The latest issue of Time magazine examines the “History of the American Dream.” It’s an interesting read and relevant on national, local and personal levels.

While the idea of the American Dream may have always existed in the national ether, columnist Jon Meacham recounts that the actual term was coined by historian James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book, “The Epic of America.” We all know the basic premise of the Dream. Quoting Meacham, it is the “perennial conviction that those who work hard and play by the rules will be rewarded with a more comfortable present and a stronger future for their children …”

Unfortunately, this idea “faces assault from just about every direction. That great enemy of democratic capitalism, economic inequality, is real and growing. The unemployment rate is dispiritingly high. The nation’s long-term fiscal health is at risk, and the American political system, the engine of what Thomas Jefferson called ‘the world’s best hope,’ shows no sign of reaching solutions commensurate with the problems of the day.” This is not an overstatement. In fact, it doesn’t go far enough.

I’m a big city kid raised in the housing projects by a virtually illiterate grandmother who had no formal education. My mother gave birth to me when she was 15 years old. My father — a financially successful but damaged man with a shattered moral compass — abandoned me and never looked back. I didn’t meet him until I was 35, and I can’t say I’m better for making his acquaintance. Like many Americans, my journey hasn’t been easy.

Despite all this, I was able to build a pretty good life — attending an elite prep school, the U.S. Naval Academy, Morehouse College, and graduate school at the University of Kentucky. Despite being raised in poverty by a hardworking but uneducated grandmother, I earned a Ph.D. at 29. Less than 1 percent of Americans have that degree. In many ways, I’m the epitome of the Dream. As the immortal Don King would say, “Only in America!”

That considered, I can’t say the American Dream is a complete lie with any degree of sincerity. I’m not the only one. Remember, Oprah rose from poverty in Mississippi to become one of the wealthiest, most influential people in the world. Barack Obama became president. Maybe most important, LeBron James now has an NBA title. Great stories all, and there are many others. But, there’s a catch in this litany of American achievements — and it’s a major one.

It is true that “anybody” can make it in America. Obama, Romney and other politicians from both parties sell this package of goods to us all the time. One of the great myths in the Dream, however, is the implication (by extension) that “everybody” can make it. Not! We live in a country built on the backs of the marginalized masses. The top 1 percent of our population controls almost half the wealth. The top 10 percent controls more than 90 percent of the wealth. Poverty is out of control. We incarcerate more people than any other industrialized country. There is no doubt that many people are slothful, underachieving clowns who are full of nothing but excuses. There are many others, however, who work hard as hell and still don’t “make it.”

We are a country plagued by racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance, and empire. Many aspects of our country, as great as it is, are not dream-like, but nightmarish. As our own city faces the ongoing crisis of violence and lack of opportunity in the West End, the limitations and myths within the American Dream are relevant. I said at a gathering a few weeks ago that black people need to give up on the illusion that ALL black people can be “saved.” Some folks were angered by this stance. Well, I’m sorry, but it’s true.

In its present incarnation, the American Dream (which is rooted in all our vicious “isms”) allows for the success of anomalous “anybodies” from every racial, ethnic or gender group. But, it definitely does not allow for the success of everybody. In fact, turning Mr. Spock on his head, it demands the failure and suffering of “the many” for the comfort of “the few.” I know it isn’t comforting, but until something changes, we would be well served to remember that.

Forgive me for telling the disturbing truth once again. Maintain!