Brandon Bartlett is an English sophomore and Mustang News columnist. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Mustang News editorial.
If you had a childhood like mine, then from even a very young age the couplet “American Dream” had the power to produce a viscerally mythic sensation. You didn’t know exactly what it meant, nor what it entailed, but vague images of hardworking men and women against a star-spangled background would inevitably rush through your mind upon hearing that simple phrase.
As you got older, you began to pick up on all kinds of different interpretations of what this nightly phantom truly meant: maybe it was the white picket fences, maybe it was strength and integrity, maybe it was patriotism and valor or maybe it was consumerism and greed. But eventually, through the help of a teacher, a parent or some good ol’ fashioned republican rhetoric, the dream was summarized about like this: “If you work hard and do what is right, then you will succeed”.
And what could be better than this meritocratic utopia? Seemingly, not much. For it motivates the best in people, punishes the worst and may even have some necessary Darwinian elements.
But while this narrative, psychologically speaking, can be incredibly helpful to people, it also has some very concerning implications that we are currently seeing played out in the political arena.
Specifically, if one’s merit is directly tied to one’s (economic) success, then one’s (economic) failures are necessarily tied to one’s vices.
And maybe this is the case. But we must be aware of the ramifications that such a statement carries along with it.
For instance, in America today the average Black household has just 6 percent of the wealth which the average White household has, and the average Latino household has just 8 percent of that wealth.
To put that into concrete terms, the median White household owns approximately $111,146 in wealth holdings (capital, property, investments, etc.), while the median Latino household owns only $8,348 and the median Black household has merely $7,113. And while I know that perfect wealth equality between races may never be fully possible, these numbers are staggering.
And while, of course, there are those who succeed and fail by their own merit within every people group, the notion that virtue and ingenuity bifurcates so starkly across racial lines seems utterly preposterous to me, and hopefully to you as well.
So maybe we need to build a more nuanced view into our understanding of the “American Dream,” and this often seems like the move taken by conservatives. Usually the disparity is blamed on some scripted list of explanations: broken homes, the lack of role models, the cyclical nature of poverty.
While each of these probably plays some role in the overall problem (as well as often carrying problematic assumptions of book-worthy proportions), we must admit what has now been done. We have taken the very core of the “American Dream,” the individualism it contains, and polluted it.
One is no longer judged merely by the merits of one’s self, but by the actions and choices of one’s parents, grandparents and so on (which, if we may be honest, were, in the case of the Black and Latino population, highly obstructed by the actions of an overtly racist society).
And so we have doomed the “American Dream” by rejecting its central thesis. Or have we?
Maybe that is the very point, the “American Dream” is still exactly what it claims to be: a dream; a hope for a better future in which mere nepotism and the randomness of birth do not construct a glass ceiling which one can only hope to crack.
And in this light, I fully support the idea.
However, what happens when we presume that the “American Dream” is already a reality? Well, I believe we are watching that unfortunate parody of politics play out before us.
For if, as an example, lack of merit were why the average Latino American holds such fewer assets than the average White American, then it would make sense (almost) to claim that Mexico was sending us its worst: its rapists and criminals.
But of course we know that claim to be ridiculous. Yet, unfortunately, it can only be as ridiculous as the premise it is founded on: the idea that the “American Dream” is already here. For the first is unmistakably tied to the second.
Which is why I urge you, my reader, to awake from the American stupor. For only with eyes wide open to suffering and injustice can we even begin to make the “American Dream” into the “American Reality” that it deserves to be.