The Reality of Opportunity and Need to Act
It is probable that a majority of Americans believe the opportunity to succeed is available to all citizens of this country. That’s because the “American Dream” is built on the premise that anyone can be anything, if only Americans work hard enough to better their own lives and the lives of their descendants. After all, the document upon which the foundation of our country rests proclaims that “all men are created equal.” However, for far too many, equality is a myth and the American Dream is simply that – a dream.
Interestingly, the phrase “American Dream” was coined by James Truslow Adams in 1931; a time when the dreams of many had been crushed by the economic hardships of the Great Depression – “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.” It seems, however, that our view of the dream became skewed in the following decades. Rather than focusing on “opportunity for each according to ability or achievement,” we chase the ability to acquire more – a college education, a bigger house, a nicer car, and more and more material possessions. Yet, this is not what Adams meant, and even if it were, for most, such a dream is elusive; not because they don’t work hard, but because the opportunity is simply not available.
Most people I know, perhaps everyone I know, would say I am a product of the American Dream. When I was growing up my family, my teachers, and society told me work hard, get good grades, and you can be anything you want to be. And I had no reason to doubt them. I attended college and law school. That dream came true, and while I worked hard to make it happen, it didn’t hurt that I came from a middle-class background, that I am a white female who is reasonably attractive and reasonably smart and had the example of college-educated parents and grandparents. It never occurred to me that I would not and could not do the same as those who came before me. Yet it has become obvious to me that not everyone believes the same can happen to them.
Still we persist in believing that the same opportunities exist for all. The evidence is clear that it does not, but it is far easier to demonize those who struggle economically; to belittle the efforts of those who work hard to make a living on wages that make it impossible to care for their families. We have a minimum wage in place that has not kept up with inflation. We have a public education system that does not pay teachers enough to encourage others to enter the field and does not provide truly equal opportunities for its students. Perhaps most importantly, we have a higher education system that is becoming increasingly out of reach for a majority of students, and those who do reach for it are left with crippling debt. The truth is, we continue to reward those who already have it all, and who have cornered the market on benefiting from inequality.
Almost 50 years ago, Bobby Kennedy spoke of the lack of opportunity for all Americans, and the need for us to face this hard truth:
Look through the eyes of the young slum dweller, the African American, the Puerto Rican, the Mexican American, at the dark and hopeless world that he sees. On his television set the young man can still watch the multiplying marvels of White America. The commercials still tell him that life is impossible without the latest products of our consumer society. All this goes on, but he still cannot buy them. How overwhelming must be the frustration of this young man, this young American, who desperately wanting to believe and half believing, finds himself still locked in the slums, his education second rate, unable to get a job, confronted by the open prejudice and subtle hostilities of a White world, and powerless to change his condition or even to have an effect on his future. The fact is, if we want to change these conditions, those of us here in this room, those of us who are in the Establishment, whether it be business, or labor or government, we must act. The fact is that we can act. And the fact is also that we are not acting. For there is after all, for all of us, no alternative. History has placed us all, black and white, rich and poor, within a common border and under a common law. All of us, from the wealthiest, to the young children that I have seen in this country, in this year, bloated by starvation, we all share one precious possession: the name American. It is not easy to know what that means. But in part to be an American means to have been an outcast and a stranger. To have come to the exiles’ country, and to know that he who denies the outcast and the stranger still amongst us, he also denies America.
We must be willing to have an honest conversation about opportunity; as a nation we must admit that the same opportunities are not available to all citizens, nor have they ever been. True opportunity for all depends upon a level playing field. Such a field has never existed in this country and it is time to admit that it doesn’t. Only when we take an honest look at inequality can we come up with solutions. When the playing field is level, we all benefit. “The fact is that we can act. And the fact is also that we are not acting. For there is after all, for all of us, no alternative.”
Because focusing on the problem cannot bring about change, my next column will address possible solutions to the problems I have set forth here.