“It’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”
– MLK 1967
The American Dream is defined as “the belief that anyone, regardless of where they were born or what class they were born into, can attain their own version of success in a society where upward mobility is possible for everyone.” This idea that through sacrifice, risk-taking, and hard work, anyone can progress in America is often hailed as evidence of the country’s greatness. Yet over 150 years post slavery , the net worth of a typical white family was nearly ten times greater than that of a Black family in 2016. A huge disparity resulting from generations of racist policies that impeded Black Americans access to opportunity and resources. It’s the reflection of a society that has not and does not provide equal access to the “American Dream” to all its citizens.
This inequity is both intentional and systemic. The federal housing policies of the 1930’s New Deal explicitly excluded Black families, created segregated neighborhoods and kept Blacks from building wealth at the same pace as whites. This struggle to close the wealth gap is compounded by the impacts of countless impoverished Black neighborhoods and segregated schools that are overlooked, underserved, and undervalued.
And it goes beyond economics, according to the CDC, Black mothers and children die at disproportionately higher rates than whites, regardless of their income. The outcome of segregated neighborhoods with fewer hospitals, higher rates of chronic illnesses, and unequal access to health care.
Although a direct result of government policy, these issues are fueled today by the personal choices we all make on where we live, send our children to school and the systems we use to assess “quality” that center whiteness as the goal. We have the power to redefine what it means to achieve success and demand a society that equally values and invests in Black and white communities. Every policy we enact, system we support, and choice we make has to be intentionally geared towards improving the collective access to the American dream and the opportunity for all citizens to thrive regardless of where they live.