An article in the September 2013 issue of Time Magazine asked “Is the American Dream Withering or Just Changing?”
The article first points to the origins of the idea of the American dream. In 1931, James Truslow Adams coined the term in his book, “The Epic of America”. His American dream is:
“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 is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
So, James Truslow Adam’s American dream was a dream of opportunity for everyone, regardless of circumstances of birth or (social) position.
In the past half century, however, the American dream has transitioned to become more closely associated with economic opportunity and attainment—the marker of which was the purchase of your own home. Indeed, for many Americans, homeownership is synonymous with success, independence, and the achievement of the American dream. The allure of this dream, combined with government-sponsored programs to promote homeownership, led to a precipitous rise in the demand for and consumption of new and existing housing. As the US housing market expanded, the value of residential homes rapidly increased, causing a significant housing bubble in the mid-to-late 2000s.
Of course, the promise of the American dream defined through homeownership has suffered a severe blow in last decade as many families lost their homes in the subsequent mortgage crisis caused by predatory loans and bundled toxic assets. But what is most striking about the bursting of the housing bubble is not so much that it burst, but how it burst—and who was most negatively impacted as it did so.
Let’s go back to James Truslow Adams’ version of the “American dream”. He stated that “it is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely.” By saying the word “merely” he is acknowledging that there is some part of his American dream that is related to material goods and economic attainment. But—and this is a significant “but”—more so than economic wealth, the American dream is a dream of social order where people are provided the equal opportunity to achieve to their potential. Adams advocates for non-discrimination in pursuit of our “better, richer, and fuller” lives. Of course, those populations targeted by bankers for predatory loans combined with sub-prime mortgage lending, expose discriminatory practices—highlighting how the promise of the American dream is not given equally, to all.
The question posed in the Time Magazine article “Is the American Dream Withering or Just Changing?” focuses narrowly on the material and symbolic markers of economic success. However, if we are to engage fully with Adams’ notion of the American dream, we must also look to the current social order and how it creates an uneven playing field for various members of society.
In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr delivered a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In it Dr. King scrutinizes the social and economic disparities between black and white American citizens.
(Italics below are from MLK’s speech)
Five score years ago a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree is a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
He decries the material poverty within which African Americans have been relegated.
But 100 years later the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later the life of the Negro is still badly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land.
He exposes the false promises of freedom and justice given to black community.
We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is not time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children. It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality—1963 is not an end but a beginning.
He holds the spirit of America and all American citizens’ up to the high bar for which its foundations have been set.
I say to you today, my friends, though, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal.’
In the podcasts that follow, we have expanded the notion of the American dream to embrace both the social and material welfare of individuals and their communities. We expand the notion of the American dream to include multiple dreams—disrupting the mantle of a singular dream by making room for diverse dreamers. We explore the ways in which various aspects of identity provide opportunities or constraints for inclusion or exclusion of any number of American dreams.