The ‘American Dream’ — which symbolises liberty, hope, and the “New World” — was conceptualised when Black people were still strapped to the shackles of slavery. It was a time when they were considered to be subhumans, or non-humans, and thus the Dream was never intended for them nor any other people of colour. However, the phrase naturally expanded over time to include people of colour in line with the progression of laws and policies. In theory, at least.
But has it progressed to truly include everyone, white people and people of colour alike in practice and reality? Does the modern American Dream actually embrace people of colour?
The American Dream is itself an enigma. It is an imaginary vision with high ideals of humanity and society. It is defined as the ideal that every citizen of the United States should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative. The Dream is rooted in the earliest history of the country with the US Declaration of Independence (1776), liberating the US from British rule. Drawn up by the Founding Fathers, the document declared that ‘all men are created equal’ and that every person has the right to ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’. This hypocrisy was despite the continued practice of slavery in the US. These two premises form the fundamental principles upon which the classic American Dream is set.
Although such dreamlike ideals materialised on paper, they failed to materialise in practice. They exist solely in words and imagination as the reality in the US proves to be far more complex.
In a 1965 debate about the proposition ‘The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro’, the writer James Baldwin succinctly concluded:
There is scarcely any hope for the American dream, because the people who are denied participation in it, by their very presence, will wreck it.
First and foremost, racist prejudices in their social manifestation are deeply prevalent in language, actions, and attitudes in the US – especially in the eastern and southern states. From slavery, lynchings, and eugenics in the past to police brutality, socioeconomic inequalities, and systemic racism in the present, racism is an essential element in the story of the US. Advances in technology brought to light several of the injustices that had always been taking place off the record. In 1992, a bystander videotaped four police officers beating the unarmed Black man Rodney King who was driving whilst intoxicated. Despite taking the law into their own hands and using excessive force, the officers were acquitted and found not guilty.
Furthermore, the economic conditions of Americans of colour, and in particular Black Americans, serve to demonstrate the deep-set institutional racism and thus further disprove the supposed equality of the American Dream. The 2022 Equality Index of Black America reveals that, overall, Black people only have 73.9% of what white people have with regard to equality; total equality with white people would be 100%. It is a 1% increase from 2005 that is almost negligible given the nearly two-decade-long timescale. Progress in some areas is offset by regressions in others.
Black-White Equality Index Comparison > 2005 vs 2022, 2022 Equality Index of Black America.
Education as a whole for Black people has regressed by -2.6% since 2020 compared to their white counterparts. The Index reveals that since 2020, many of the educational areas that were measured displayed no change at all, and while a few areas improved, more deteriorated.
In terms of employment, Black Americans face gaps in every aspect ranging from education, representation, wages, and business ownership. White unemployment rates in the US during the first quarter of 2022 were nationally 3% (a -0.1% decrease and thus an improvement compared to the first quarter of 2020). Hispanic unemployment rates were nationally 4.6% (a -0.2% decrease and improvement relative to the first quarter of 2020). Meanwhile, Black unemployment rates in the first quarter of 2022 were more than twice as high as that of white people at 6.5% nationally — a 0.3% heightening or deterioration since the first quarter of 2020.
US National Unemployment Rates, graph by Clera Rodrigues, data from Economic Policy Institute.
Moreover, the feats that people of colour successfully go on to achieve are, in turn, actively robbed by white people. Most notably, the ‘Black Wall Street’ in the Tulsa region in Oklahoma was home to a self-sufficient prosperous business district that African Americans created in the early 20th century. It was subjected to the century-old Tulsa race massacre of 1921, where white mobs looted and set fire to African American businesses and homes throughout the city, burning over 1,400 homes and businesses and rendering nearly 10,000 people homeless.
The living state of Black people does not fare any better with respect to healthcare. Profound racial and ethnic inequities in health and healthcare exist across and within states, according to the Commonwealth Fund 2021 Health System Performance Scores. White people outperformed most racial and ethnic groups (including Black, Latinx/Hispanic, Asian American, American Indian, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander groups) in their personal health and all healthcare systems. Black, Latinx/Hispanic, and American Indian groups fared especially badly in every state studied. Most notably, Black people experienced the most profound inequities in this instance. They underperformed most groups, significantly underperforming multiple times worse than white people. Compared to white adults, Black people also have higher insured rates and are more likely to die early, die from complications, and to be diagnosed at later stages and then die.
Health system performance scores, by state and race/ethnicity, The Commonwealth Fund.
In addition, Black people in the US are discriminated against even in the legal and political spheres. There are innumerable cases evidencing racial prejudices at play. One that is notorious is the Central Park Five Case of 1989. It involved the governmental coercion and conviction of five Black and Latino youths falsely confessing to raping a white woman in Central Park in New York City. The teenagers, between the ages of 14 and 16, served between five and 11 years in prison before the real rapist spoke out.
Evidently, people of colour in the US are denied equal treatment and the opportunities that white people are afforded, even the basics of life: healthcare, education, employment, and within communities. When race correlates with your overall opportunities and well-being, how could we expect people of colour to achieve the American Dream in the contemporary world?
The past decade has seen institutional racism being rightfully spotlighted in mainstream internet culture. The unlawful murder of the Black man George Floyd through police brutality in June 2020 instigated a set of #BlackLivesMatter protests across the nation and the world. Businesses began hopping on the activist trend to make promises to the public about their individual initiatives to combat institutional racism and demonstrate their solidarity with protestors. Creative Investment Research consultants found that 271 US corporations had pledged $67 billion towards racial equity since Floyd’s murder. However, only $652 million (or a measly 0.97%) of those funds had actually been dispersed by the start of 2022. Progress is happening, albeit much too slowly.
The diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategist Lily Zheng commented that “At the same time as visibility [of DEI issues] has won genuine advances in DEI and racial justice, it has absolutely not lived up to its promise”. She continues, “visibility in many cases has not translated to any real change”.
The renewed embrace of people of colour in the modern definition of the American Dream alongside recent company pledges are merely a façade of empty promises concealing the persistently discriminatory circumstances under which people of colour live.
In retrospect, the grim verdict is that the American Dream has, unfortunately, not progressed to genuinely include people of colour. Rather in practice it still caters solely to white people. The renewed embrace of people of colour in the modern definition of the American Dream alongside recent company pledges are merely a façade of empty promises concealing the persistently discriminatory circumstances under which people of colour live. The US may be a symbol of hope and the “New World”, but the nationalistic American Dream will never be achieved while people of colour are on unequal par with their white counterparts. As Baldwin said, “unless we can manage to accept, establish some kind of dialog between those people whom [he] pretend[s] have paid for the American dream and those other people who have not achieved it, we will be in terrible trouble”.
Regardless of how real or unstable the American Dream is, the gap between white people and people of colour must collapse in order to come close to meriting its label.