The Hypocrisy of the “American Dream”

By Kate Harveston

Economists will tell you that the last American recession ended in 2009. That may be true, but for blue-collar Americans, things haven’t gotten much easier. Life is still an uphill battle, and that’s before you factor in the challenges marginalized folx face.

The average age of the American dad is going up. Wages also aren’t increasing quickly enough to keep pace with the cost of living in urban markets, and young people are struggling to pay off college loans. The “American Dream” isn’t dead, but we may have to rename it the “American Fantasy.”

The American Epic

John Truslow Adams is credited with inventing the phrase “the American Dream,” in his 1931 book The American Epic. In his own words, the dream was “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”

The fabled Promised Land is an idea that existed long before 1931. It was exactly this idea that inspired European Protestants to strike out from mother England and sail west in search of religious freedom. It was this idea that inspired former slaves to defy their masters and risk everything for a life not bound by chains.

The New Promised Land

One can only go so far west, though, and today there is no more of North America to settle. The Promised Land is no longer an actual place. It’s an idea. People often make references to a big house with a two-car garage, a picket fence and two children

For modern Americans, the Promised Land is what we make it. Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist whose work is cited in every Intro to Psych class taught in the country, created his famous hierarchy of needs just thirteen years after Adams’ book was published.

At the top of Maslow’s pyramid is self-actualization, and while our caricature of the American dream involves material things, Maslow seems to have hit upon exactly the way one is supposed to feel to be happy. To achieve the dream means that one “thinks they are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing,” (to borrow Jack Kerouac’s position on the idea.)

America or Fantasia?

There’s a problem with that idea, however. The problem is that we’ve stopped being our own judges of what we’re supposed to be doing and have allowed society to define it for us. The “America” of today’s American dream doesn’t include you or your neighbor. It’s the simulacra of the ideal society we tell ourselves the rest of our country expects us to be.

You won’t be surprised at the ideas that fantasy society promotes. It imposes unrealistic ideas about body image and professional life on women and consigns men to a one-dimensional family role as baseball coaches and breadwinners—it’s also racist.

Does subscribing to ideas promoted by this fabricated version of the world make you a bigot? No… and yes. In the struggle for equality, we must accept that some of the frameworks our society was built on rely on assumptions that make life easier for people of a given gender, race or religion.

Take for example the way that standardized tests given in schools across the country were found to contain questions that referenced ideas whites might be exposed to during adolescence, but that were far less prominent in other ethnic groups.

Men who work in corporate America don’t spend a lot of time worrying about whether their boss might treat them differently if they wear provocative clothing, or laugh off sexual comments that fall squarely into the category of abuse.

But what is the cost of defying these societal norms? Is it worth the attrition of reporting that incident or fighting that testing company? We can’t know for sure. In many cases, these things are woven into the fabric of society to such a degree that should you choose to speak up there may not be a swift resolution.

Separate but Equal Dreams

The matter becomes particularly disturbing when you consider the way that we fail to provide opportunities for marginalized people in this country. The United States has always been a home for immigrants, and one thing that hasn’t changed about this country is that its newest members are among the hardest working and least appreciated of Americans.

During Donald Trump’s 90-day travel ban, there was a real risk that cities in the rust belt might go without certain specialized physicians who trained in Middle Eastern countries and immigrated to the United States. What better example of the American dream is there? And these are the people we choose to bar from our shores.

Wages for Americans are typically expressed using numbers that represent white males. The statistic that white women make eighty-one cents on the dollar compared to the average white male is accurate, but what doesn’t get reported is that the delta increases by race. African-American women earn on-average 63% of what a white male makes for the same job.

Dreams Are for the Young

We present this idea of the American dream as the same for every citizen of this country, but that simply isn’t the case.

At the rate we’re going, this idea assumes an African American female should be content with 63% of the American dream—either that, or every white male office worker should be capable of supporting three kids and parking a sports car in the third space of his carport. Look around you. It’s not 1953 anymore.

Truthfully, to think that there’s a path to success for everyone in a capitalistic society is a little like viewing the world through rose-colored glasses. We like to think we have the best system available, but where a young capitalist nation sees nothing but opportunity via “the American dream,” a mature capitalist nation has to live with the realities of what capitalism is and who it hurts.

Capitalism isn’t necessarily wrong, but it certainly is not fair, and it’s not a hard-and-fast system immune to change. It is, however, the system we built our society on. In capitalism, there is a free market and unfortunately, a free market demands there be winners—and losers.

Socialism, communism—these systems have tried to bake equality into government policy and failed because it’s part of human nature to compete. The lie we’ve been fed as Americans is that the competition we’re all taking part in as American citizens is fair.

It’s not, and it will never be perfect. It can, however, be more perfect than it is now. So, make up your mind, America. Would you rather play the game with advantages you don’t deserve or give your fellow citizen a fair shake?