The American Dream

Moss Island Sound Off

Moss Island Sound Off

Moss Island welcomes guest contributors. Sound Off features alternate takes on movies and other subjects.

Today’s piece is written by Mackie LeFevre-Snee. I was disappointed to find that he recently left Facebook; his voice was a welcome respite from the memesense. Mackie lives with his wife, son, and dog in Jersey City, New Jersey. When he is not practicing law, he can be found playing his saxophone, running marathons, and cheering for the New England Patriots. Mackie previously appeared on Moss Island with his review of the movie Whiplash.

If America is ever going to come to terms with its legacy of racism, we white Americans, who by definition are not living under the weight of that legacy, need to honor the perspectives of those who are, and get over our discomfort with questioning the American dream. America is much more than the myth that we see reflected from our privileged viewpoint.

The latest example of white folks’ discomfort arose in David Brooks’ review of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ most recent book, Between the World and Me. In his review, Brooks attempts to defend America’s core mythos, despite his admitted ignorance of Coates’ experience as a black man in America. Brooks describes Coates’ “rejection of the American dream” as “disturbing”, and goes on to chide Coates for an “excessive realism” that disrobes “[t]he American dream of equal opportunity, social mobility and ever more perfect democracy.” Brooks fails to see that mere noble sentiments have failed to repay four centuries of America’s accumulated arrears.

Had Brooks brought more knowledge of Coates’ previous writing to his review, his perspective may have reflected more empathy and less indignation. Much of Coates’ body of work asks whether the black experience of America gives lie to the American dream, by tracing America’s plunder of black wealth from slavery, through Jim Crow, redlining, and subprime lending. None have debated that the legacy of that plunder lives on today. Median wealth among black families is sixteen times less than white families, the rate of home ownership for blacks is less than two-thirds that of whites, and nearly three times the percentage of blacks live below the poverty line compared to whites. Poor blacks live in high-poverty neighborhoods at three times the rate of poor whites, and black children attend high-poverty schools at a rate nearly six times higher than white children. The consequences of this inequality of wealth and opportunity have been severe for the black community, and its effects will likely be felt well into the future. For instance, the unemployment rate for blacks is twice that of whites, and blacks, while making up 13% of the overall population, make up 37% of the federal prison population. One does not have to search very far to see the legacy of America’s plunder lives on.

Brooks seems to ignore all this, even going so far as to say, “I find the causation between the legacy of lynching and some guy’s decision to commit a crime inadequate to the complexity of most individual choices.” And yet, the chain of causation is undeniable. Crime and violence have always stalked the poor, and America’s failure to pay back the debt it has created has certainly contributed to the disproportionate poverty in black communities. After all, the story of America’s original sin did not end with the Civil War. As soon as Reconstruction foundered, whites instituted Jim Crow, and de jure segregation became the law of the land. When black refugees of the Southern reign of terror escaped to Northern cities, they were shunted into ghettoes. Blacks, unable to take out government-backed loans, were then preyed upon by unscrupulous lenders. Further, the Civil Rights Era did not make up for all this. In fact, the United States government has done practically nothing for half a century to enforce the Fair Housing Act, a key piece of Civil Rights Era legislation. A central theme of Coates’ work is that there has been no full repayment for these injustices, even today. The debt, quite simply, has been accruing interest.

Brooks and those of us like him enjoy the privilege of scolding those who, like Coates, point out the inconsistencies between the American dream and the American reality. No white person has ever personally experienced the legacy that Coates brings to our attention. It is our special right that allows us to live our lives willfully blind to this American dichotomy. It is our prerogative to superficially acknowledge Coates, and note that our experience of America has never been the nightmare that Coates asks us to see. Brooks’ editorial is a sad enough statement about some white folks’ inability to respect the black experience in America and recognize that the present black situation is a direct result of historic injustice. The greater tragedy is that some whites might receive Brooks’ dispensation, and continue to silently accept their own disregard of black perspectives.

We whites may have excised racist slurs from our vocabularies, and taken down our Confederate flags. But we also should learn to see America through black folks’ eyes. We cannot move from a society where race has always mattered to a society where race does not matter until we recognize that our past continues to live on in our present. If America is to ever truly live up to its ideal self, we cannot continue preaching fables and dreams. We cannot ignore the stories of those who would lead us to a more mature understanding of what America was, and what it still is. Otherwise, we will have no clue how to begin to move forward.