Thursday, November 5, 2009

The American Dream is Not Dead

Today I got into a discussion with a person I met, whose view point I disagreed completely. I made a passing remark that in this country, anyone who really wanted to can obtain a college education. She disagreed and said, "just look around in Oakland... the numbers show that this is the first time where the next generation will do worse than their parents" and ended by concluding that the American Dream is dead.

Now, it's been awhile I had to debate people and I was unable to adequately make my point before the conversation abruptly ended. I was really bothered by this type of attitude. It is fatalistic, uninspired, and in my opinion totally wrong.

I'm not going to argue against the numbers, as I don't know them or where she got them. Even if it is true, it doesn't mean what she thinks it means. I agree the system is imperfect. A child growing up in East Oakland has a lot less going for them than a child growing up in Pac Heights. That is a difference in circumstances of life, which occurs everywhere in the world. In China, in Brazil, in France, there are the haves and have nots. Class differences exists all over the world.

But the point I want to get at, is that the American system is still fundamentally meritocratic. That child growing up in East Oakland, is not deprived of the opportunity of going to college. Sure, it may involve much more hard work, but it is not impossible. Upward mobility does exist. That is the American Dream.

We live in a country where fifty years ago, a black man cannot use the same toilet as a white man in large parts of the country. Yet fifty years later, we have a black president. Show me another country where this is possible. The American Dream is for those with willpower and the willingness to work. No one said the American Dream is easy. It's not a handout... it is something to be earned.

I think a lot of intellectuals suffer from excessive cynicism. True, the system should be improved so that the bottom of the class hierarchy can achieve more class mobility. However, we cannot discount individual accountability. On the contrary, we need to promote it. It is true that child from East Oakland can go to college, or become president. The difference lies in how much he/she want it, and how much he/she is willing to work for it. There is nothing intrinsic in the system that makes it impossible.

As long as the possibility exists, the American Dream will be alive. 90% of start-ups fail. Yet I'm still an entrepreneur after two years, because I don't believe the numbers apply to me. Others before me have done it, and if I couldn't do it, it would be entirely my fault. That is individual will.

Lastly, this is not a liberal vs conservative issue. Individual will and success, and even the American Dream, is often associated with the rhetoric of the right. But I'm a liberal. Even liberals, need to believe in the American Dream. The dream that one person, whether it be Susan B Anthony or Martin Luther King, can make a difference. Individual will and action can change the system to make our world better. What is, is not all that it can be.

The American Dream is very much alive.


  1. 90% of startups failing includes restaurants :)

    I agree with most of your points, but there are people in the world who just don't want to work that hard. Our parents and grandparents worked harder than our generation does today, and our generation complains a lot more.

    I read somewhere recently that about 3% of society are leaders, striving to improve themselves and the world around them. While the actual percentage is debatable, the fact that these 3% can come from anywhere and achieve just about anything they want is not. I would much rather work with one of those 3% irregardless of whether or not they came from Oakland or East St. Louis or Detroit or Manhattan or Los Gatos.

    The american dream is there if you take it, it is highly unlikely that it will be handed to you.

  2. This is a very complicated and tense issue. What I have "against" this notion of the American dream is the strong belief many americans have that theirs is the only country where one can make his or her dreams come true. Basically believing that in all the rest of the world this is impossible or at least very difficult.

    This view always offends me, being Icelandic where there is nothing that you can´t do that you can do in America!

    The other issue I have with this is that people tend to ignore the psychology behind it, people who do this are in particular part of the dominant culture (white) and have really taken the individualism they grew up with to heart. It is all about the individual but not the culture - environment.

    There are a lot of important varibles to look at but this one is the most important... the very powerful influence of "internalized racism". This has been researched quite a lot lately and when you google it you see definations of it (some not quite correct).

    In my work as a psychologist in California I saw this with many of my clients. It is a sneaky, devious thing.... they were not aware of this themselves but it influenced the way they thought about themselves and their possibilites. But obviously along with coming from environments where so many factors make them feel and often belief that they actually dont stand a chance.