With so many disheartening reports about COVID 19, like many others, I’ve limited my exposure to television news. On Monday, June 29, however, I turned the television on for noise as I folded some just-washed towels. I was not really attending to the news reports until I heard this statement from White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany: “Law and order are the building blocks of the American Dream.”
Stunned by the statement, I stopped folding towels and wrote down what she said. I began thinking about the term “law and order” and its historical political connotation combined with the historical concept of “the American Dream” and what that dream has meant to generations of immigrants and poor people for decades.
The wedding of these two terms in the press secretary’s statement elevates the political and cultural meaning of “law and order” while diminishing the ideal some have held as “the American Dream.” The statement raises the question: Whose dream is it if law and order are used to exclude, discriminate, and abuse?
Historian James Truslow Adams is credited with coining and defining the concept of “The American Dream” in 1931: “That dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.”
Such a concept is in keeping with the sentiment in Langston Hughes’ poem, Let America Be America Again, as the speaker calls upon the country to at last enact its highest ideals:
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
[Where] opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
But the poem’s refrain that “America never was America to me” brings us back to the question of what, in fact, this “dream” has become and for whom. While soldiers may have gone off to war to “make the world safe for democracy,” they returned to political propaganda touting the virtues of home ownership, narrowing the idea of “the American Dream.” What’s more, a history of racial discrimination—particularly in regard to mortgage lending and redlining—made this dream attainable by only some.
Although there has been much progress in discarding explicitly racist residential maps and ensuring oversight to more equitably distribute loans for mortgages—and, to be sure, houses purchased in white neighborhoods by Black people are not as frequently firebombed—the concept of “the American Dream” may be out-of-date given the current global environment.
Over the years, the concept of the American Dream has been used as a benchmark to measure how Americans, especially college students, feel about their future. A few years back, in referencing New America’s annual survey on higher education, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) made the following statement:
While most Americans believe that higher education is valuable for students and beneficial to society, they also believe that the state of the economy, self-interest, and costs inhibit some institutions from helping students achieve the American Dream…. Overall, the data show that people are aware that the American Dream is increasingly out of reach.
Given how deeply embedded “the America Dream” has been in the American psyche, I think the 2011 Bonner report’s finding that, “First and second-wave African American millennials were not familiar with the term” is particularly telling.
Considering that the prognostications about achieving “the American Dream” as originally conceived are generally negative; surveys show that the new generations of young people, in large numbers, do not want to own a home; and the new narrative from the White House Press Secretary has devolved the concept into something not remotely related to the original idea, I think we have reached an important point in the nation’s history in which some terms and concepts should be deleted from our psychological dictionary.
One way we can do this is by letting go of and replacing dreaming about a monolithic concept of doing well materially with a “Dream for America” that has as its foundation our hope for humanity—a hope that this dreamed-for America yet will be. A “Dream for America” would include putting together the fragments many have just become aware of into a human connection focused on justice and equitable and sustainable opportunities for all.