CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN SOCIETY – The American Dream® : DEAD or ALIVE? INTRODUCTION Originally, the ‘Dream’ was envisaged to be life in a new world where anything successful can happen and good things might (Hochschild, 1996). In 1963, Martin Luther King Jnr said that he too had a dream “that on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood” Video: The Legacy). Since then, many aspects of Martin Luther King’s Dream for the American people have come true, but some remain a dream.
Today, the notion of the ‘American Dream’ stretches far beyond the idea of political and religious freedom to a more economically oriented base. The United States has increasingly become a consumer-based society, so the idea of ‘success’ is now measured by material wealth – a white picket fenced house in the suburbs complete with car, dog and two children. The American Dream is still alive, but only in the minds of those citizens who have the resources to fulfil the definition of success, namely, material wealth.
DISCUSSION The US is the most influential country in the world. This is seen not only in monetary strength and business power, but also in the choice of music, clothes and recreational activities. It is this perception that draws people to the idea of the great American Dream and the ‘land of the free’, a perception that for the right person at the right time, everything is possible. America has traditionally been a land of immigrants and the home to people of many nationalities and cultures, all aspiring to achieve the Dream. Early immigrants have left an indelible mark on American cities and society, from the Italians in New York, the Scandinavian farmers of Wisconsin and the Mid-West, to the more recent waves of immigrants from Asia on the West Coast (Hochschild, 1996).
All came to pursue the Dream and entered the great ‘melting pot’ in the desire to become a successful American. The United States has a history of racial tension and violence that has prevented certain minority groups, especially blacks, from reaching the American Dream. More recently, opposition to immigration has been rising (Daniels, 1991:400). As economic success has become harder for many to achieve, immigrants have been seen as reducing the already shrinking portion of the Dream available. Although American society generally has become more tolerant of racial differences, the population as a whole is permanently divided into three main groups in all official wording – black, white and Hispanic.
Blacks and Hispanics continue to face a harder road to success and achievement of the American Dream than most whites. In The Legacy, the ‘Dream’ as Martin Luther King Jnr saw it was that all people would be treated equally regardless of race, religion, or sex. He dreamed that his four children would not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. He waited for the day they could walk down the street and hold hands with a child of a different race. This part of King’s dream, in theory at least, has come true. Segregation by race has been outlawed. In reality, whites and blacks still lead separate lives. In cities and towns, affluent areas are mainly white, poor areas black or Hispanic.
The two rarely mix. The system of local government in America perpetuates the disadvantages as taxes raised from local home owners determine the levels of funding for schools and community support centres. Poorly funded schools cannot provide the level of education of those in wealthy areas, thus affecting the educational and economic future of the students and consequently the ability to achieve the Dream.
So whilst King today would see black and white children learning and playing together, discrimination still exists. Although it is now mainly economic, unfortunately it tends to follow a racial divide, lessening the access of the American Dream to minority groups. Jeffrey Klein states “..that although American society is more diverse than ever before, a charged division still exists; namely the line between blacks and whites” (1997:3). Affirmative action laws were passed in an attempt to redress this situation, particularly in respect to college entry and access to professional institutions.
Affirmative action was seen as a vehicle for improving the educational and workplace opportunities of minorities, thereby bringing the reality of the American Dream closer to their grasp. More recently there has been a backlash against the concept and practice of race-based affirmative action (Feagin & Vera, 1995:146). The idea behind affirmative action contradicts a widely held American belief that no racial or ethnic group deserves a mandated advantage in the marketplace (ibid). Moreover, opponents to affirmative action laws argue that their own access to the American Dream is restricted by the mandatory workplace and college entry positions allocated to minority groups.
The laws have been successfully challenged by white college applicants who claim to have lost out in the fiercely competitive bid for entry to top colleges and who claim places have gone to less qualified students from minority groups. Proponents of affirmative action claim the system helps minority students who score less on the all-important SAT’s because they have not been able to attend better resourced schools or been able to afford expensive tutors.
Places offered through affirmative action help overcome the economic divide and, by hopefully opening career opportunities to a greater cross-section of the community, help to widen the attainment of the American Dream. There is no doubt that the decline in economic prospects for large sections of the American community is leading to the death of the American Dream in the eyes of those affected. Money is perceived as the only way out and, for some, the chance comes with sporting success.
High profile, high earning professional sports stars keep the Dream alive in the hearts of many. Not necessarily the dream of a house with a picket fence, but the dream that they too could be the next Michael Jordan. In Hoop Dreams, the two young basketball players were both attempting to fulfil the criteria of the American Dream. The only way for them to get out of the ghetto, move their families out of poverty and receive a decent education was through basketball.
To be selected for a college team meant a chance at the NBA and, therefore, a chance at life. When one boy is not selected you see the heartache in his eyes and the fear that his Dream may not be fulfilled The Dream that is envisioned by the decaying inner-urban areas of the US undoubtedly differs in perception from the Dream of the American Heartland. The all-American farmer and his access to the ‘Dream’ is important not only because the farming sector is an essential part of the US economy, but also because rural America has continually suffered under the weight of economic crises.
Many smaller farms, particularly those that are family owned, have had to sell out to leave a structure of agriculture for larger farms dependent on hired labour (Barlett, 1993). This has forced many farming families, as was seen in Troublesome Creek, to face alternative visions of success, the good life, and notion of the American Dream. For these people the Dream is not dead, yet. Rather, it is withering away with the rest of their crops, taken over by an economical weed that is rooted too deep even for a Federal fertiliser to kill. The rural crisis has changed family farmers’ expectations of the American Dream.
Barlett states that “parents are increasingly urging their children to seek employment away from the farm out of fear of them not reaching the Dream of increased income, financial security and other measures of success that have become dominant values in America’s industrialised capitalist society” (1993:6). For the parents, the American Dream is dying, but for their children it is still within reach if they join the exodus away from rural life.
The tiny percentage of farms owned by African-Americans are mainly in the south-east of the country. For years hidden discrimination has hampered possibility of their economic success (ibid). Rural bank loans have been structured to make their availability almost non-existent and government grant approvals often held up until individual farmers have been too deep in debt to succeed.
Farms which could have been economically viable have been deserted and the farmer’s Dream of owning and tending his land has been destroyed largely through racial bias and official and commercial indifference. The Dream of the African-American farmer has been lost by the perception of the whites who hold the purse strings and their belief that they are not capable of the task at hand. For the large landowners, be it Ted Turner in Montana or the Cattle Kings in Texas, the American Dream is alive and well.
Small family farms, whether owned by members of last century’s immigrant communities in the Mid-West or by recently arrived Hispanic families in the south, are trying to achieve a Dream at a different level. Different patterns of social stratification and a greater emphasis by society on individualism and consumerism has meant it is harder for farmers to feel that they have reached the American Dream (ibid).
Economic desperation can lead to violence. Poverty too can stand in the way of the American Dream. While the cities tend to be linked to violence, it has been in the rural communities of the US heartland that American terrorism has been born. Years of economic downturn have led many in rural communities to despise and distrust the US Government, remote in Washington, D.C (Stern, 1996). Citizen’s Militia groups have grown up with their own ideas on how to seek redress for years of perceived neglect and the destruction of their Dream, most famously in the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in April 1995.
In the inner cities of Chicago and Los Angeles, riots fuelled by racial and economic inequality flared in the 1960’s. Thirty years on, the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles in 1992 sparked more rioting. Not in Watts on this occasion, but through a mainly Korean area of LA, devastating the Dream of many business owners. The acquittal of the two LAPD officers involved in the beating sparked outrage in the LA black community and widened the rift of racial inequality throughout the entire country (Klein, 1997:3).
The verdict from the King trial was seen as a direct attack on the civil liberties of African-Americans and their ability to live a life free from oppression and persecution. Such a threat was also seen as an infringement on their capacity to achieve the American Dream and reinforced the fact that racial equality and egalitarianism in the US has still not been realised. American citizens are continually faced with the rising problem of violence. Streets have become a battleground where the elderly are beaten, terrified women are viscously attacked and raped, teenage gangs shoot it out for a patch of turf to sell their illegal drugs and, innocent children are caught in the crossfire of drive-by and school-yard shootings.
For some, the answer to their economic problems is simply to take by force from others what they themselves do not have. While the disadvantaged continue to see others around them moving towards a Dream that they can never hope to achieve themselves, material gain by illegal or violent means continues to be a problem. A very real dilemma behind the violence in America is the issue of guns and their control within US society.
On the one hand it could be argued that the easy accessibility of guns in America is killing the Dream (especially in the ghettos) as death by gunshot wound is the most common way for young black males to die (Skolnick & Fyfe, 1993:65). On the other hand, some American citizens use guns as a means of protecting the Dream they have already achieved. The perceived threat to a citizen’s achievement of the Dream and the reason for possession of a firearm is the fear generated by America’s alarmingly high crime rate, including an average 20,000 homicides committed annually with firearms (Sugarmann, 1992).
This is exemplified in the fact that there are over 200 million guns in America with 70 million gun owners and that a disturbingly high one quarter of all households owns a handgun (ibid:15). Those Americans who have achieved the Dream are afraid to lose it and are prepared to protect it at all costs. Guns are seen as an easy solution and gun ownership is justified by people as protecting their Second Amendment rights – “I have a right to own my gun for my protection and to protect my family (ibid:22)”. CONCLUSIOn As far as the American Dream is concerned, it all depends on how you look at it.
The US may be a welfare state for the rootless, or it may be a country with strong cultural power to unite people. To arrive in America as a rootless person and live in a small colony under the protection of one’s native culture and language, a person may live comfortably, but it must be a solitary existence, a light existence. It may not be easy to go into the core of American society and may not be a desirable thing for many people to do. So is the American Dream dead or alive? The notion of the American Dream encourages people, particularly new immigrants, to reach for it themselves.
There is still a firmly held belief that in the US anyone can be a success, and can achieve The Dream. The concept of the American Dream is sold to every citizen along with the belief in the might and power of the US, patriotism, the American flag and the all-American apple-pie. Belief in the Dream is sufficient to keep it alive in the hearts of most Americans even if the reality of achieving the Dream is different.
The dream of the poor Hispanic farmer will be very different from that of the Wall Street banker, to that of the inner city African-American single parent family and, different again from the family in the leafy outer suburbs. The most under-represented section of the American population, the native Americans, are probably least likely to achieve their version of the American Dream. Poverty, seclusion and total destruction of traditional life has seen their Dream wither. On reflection, the American Dream lives on, even if it remains just that, a dream, for the majority of the population.