Goodnight, American Dream

May 31, 2016
By: Nijah Glenn

I would strongly venture that I’m not the only one to have grown up with the images of the American Dream blasted into my head: 1950s Americana (think TVLand Beaver Cleaver), the age old “work hard, gain large” mentality, and the whole house/car/comfortable career/ idyllic life combo. It’s a bit like those advertisements you see:

The American Dream!
The perfect life awaits you; want a house in the suburbs, a comfortable career, and a perfect family?
Work hard, and all dreams and desires will follow!
The perfect life may be a dream, but it’s a dream all can achieve with enough determination and effort!
Find a job, work hard, and live your American Dream today!

Of course, this product from the past doesn’t note the many restrictions to this goal: not applicable when class/racial/ gender stratification occurs. In the modern age especially, stratification makes this dream difficult for nearly everyone. While race, gender, and a multitude of factors make the American Dream unattainable, one has always been an underlying factor of the rest: class.

If you’re like a significant chunk of Americans (including myself), you probably had at least one relative come through Ellis Island to start a new life for your family. And I have to admit: even visiting it as an 11-year-old pulled my heartstrings to think of any past children coming to America to begin a new life being welcomed by Lady Liberty and Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” awaiting them. After being processed at Ellis Island, many immigrants hoped to leave and find prosperity in the country “so rich, the streets were paved with gold” (I’ve heard this quote from family friends and strangers alike, sorry I have no attribution).

However, that is not the country that greeted them. The country instead that saw a bulk of the Ellis Island immigrants was still industrializing, or in the throes of the Industrial Age. If you geeked out in history and hated injustice as much as I did as a kid, you’ll recall that the immigrants who came through (often speaking little or no English) were easily cheated by agents and slumlords because they were green. Children and adults alike were forced to take jobs which required them to work in unsafe conditions for long hours for much of their week. The standard housing was tenement housing, which brought vermin and disease. While wealthy citizens and public officials alike had the privilege of not passing through poor areas rife with disparity and violence, the new immigrants and poor first/second generation Americans had no choice. These immigrants from countries ranging from Russia to Syria to Jamaica came to the States seeking the dream advertised to them: freedom from religious and ethnic persecution, the ability to make a better life for posterity, and to live a life which would make them proud and happy. Instead, many new Americans found themselves in a position where they’d left an unfortunate situation in their homeland for the states only to find yet another unfortunate situation. Same old troubles, but in a different place.

 Despite these numerous setbacks, these immigrants made a way for their families. They hoped to provide their children with the dream they may have never had: opportunity. In many ways, I would consider this to be the start of the American Dream myth. Much of the mythos I am acquainted with via my family friends and from stories as a child referred to America as “the land of milk and honey”–the same title given to Heaven. When a strange and foreign land is likened to a place of luxury where suffering does not exist, it becomes difficult to be discouraged even when confronted with obstacles.

Fast forward to the 1950s: the American Dream has been fleshed out. As the world is recovering from the bleakness and misery of war, people need something to believe in. In this age, we see the Dream take shape. If you are also a fan of those technicolor images of the 50s, then you know the Dream well: the pretty houses in the suburbs, the newest models of cars in pastel colors, children awkwardly smiling at their new washer or refrigerator, and those images celebrating the polio vaccine or other improvements to life that we take for granted today. I’ve always felt that a reason why people painted the 1950s as such an idyllic time despite racial, gender, and economic discrimination is because none of these issues were covered in the media. I mean sure, those jello molds that included ham and mayonnaise were criminal in most culinary ways, but how many widespread images of suffering can you think of? Quite honestly, if I didn’t know American history, I probably would’ve forgotten about the Korean War, the Cold War, and a multitude of other issues occurred in the 1950s. However, these mores of the 1950s never changed despite the world and American republic changing drastically. Even in 2016, the ideal American life is still portrayed as a house in the suburbs (albeit bigger), a comfortable (aka highly paid) career, an ideal family, a new and expensive car, and privileges to make life even better. However, these are not in the cards for many Americans.

Today, the cost of living is incredibly high: most house prices start at levels which would be a minimum of a few years of many Americans’ salaries. Education is now a necessity, and is priced as a luxury; equally as important, plenty of schools in America are in debt and under-prepared to help their students succeed in universities. Trades have become undervalued; the minimum wage is not a living wage for a family, and opportunities are limited for those without a certain amount of generational privilege already. Add gender, race, and other societal factors into class disparity, and you’ll find even wider gaps between the Dream and the average American.

It becomes hard to not become disillusioned when young Americans lucky enough to attend university realize their lives may not be as comfortable as their grandparents or parents. But too often, we don’t consider the many for whom never even considered the American Dream an option. What about the child living in four generations of poverty who still may have the highest education just graduating from high school? Are we to tell them they do not even deserve to entertain this Dream? What about the child of immigrants who may see their parents’ sacrifices as being in vain? Do they not too deserve the Dream? Or the child living on a reservation still recovering from systemic generational disenfranchisement?

When we tell children the lie of the American Dream, we know more often than not it is unattainable, but we do not tell them why. Is it because telling ourselves a lie is easier than facing the truth? Is it because pretending issues do not exist make us feel as though they do not? In all honesty, I cannot answer these questions for a whole nation. I can say as an adult who has seen the already imaginary Dream slip from the fingers of Generation Y after the turmoil of the 2000s that no one ever told us how much class matters, and that it will decide how much of the Dream you can have. Rich or poor, we all have a piece of the pie, but a sliver isn’t quite going to measure up to a chunk.

Nijah Glenn is a third year biology major, a TMC intern, and a member of the NewPeople Editorial Collective.

Categories: News

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