“[The 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.”
– James Truslow Adams
It was American author and historian James Truslow Adams that famously popularized the phrase “The American Dream” in his 1931 book The Epic of America. The above quote is Adams’ precise definition of that dream. The notion of “The American Dream,” along with philosophical constructs such as achievement ideology and the Protestant work ethic, have, in large part, helped to shape the somewhat abstract ideal of “middle-class values.”
While the pursuit of “The American Dream” is an enduring principle that has been woven into the fabric of America for the better part of its history, it has been frequently assailed given the racial, cultural and economic realities of the nation. Speaking to an audience in Cleveland, Ohio in April of 1964, Malcolm X stated, “I don’t see any American Dream. I see an American nightmare.”
More than 50 years later as we consider the racial disparity, income inequality, and malevolent public discourse that dominates America’s social, economic, and political landscapes today, we should not forget the legacy and impact that Civil Rights and other social movements had in this country.
As a result of these social change efforts, an increasing number of African Americans, women, and other historically marginalized groups were able to sample “The American Dream” and achieve middle-class status. And yet over time, throngs of those who were left behind fell deeper and deeper toward the “bottom of the well” that the late Harvard Law Professor Derrick Bell described in the early 1990s.
In fact, several scholars and activists suggested that many Americans who had already been mired in poverty for generations were now plunging below the ranks of even the “working class” or “lower class” into what some have called the “permanent underclass.” Or, in other words, those who remain seemingly invisible to the rest of society.
As the 2016 presidential election season heats up, we hear more and more talk about renewing “The American Dream” and the need to rebuild the middle class. Such rhetoric is certainly not new, but it has been amplified in the wake of the Great Recession and the skyrocketing gaps in wealth and income.
The question that rarely seems to get asked, however, at least among politicians and media types, is “Why just the middle class?”
Consider the poignant words of Gawker.com’s Hamilton Nolan, who writes that “The presidential debates are essentially arguments between millionaires over who cares more for the middle class. Caring for the middle class is good. But there is something that is more important: caring for the lower class.
“If that point seems simple, it is. Children can understand it. By the time we reach voting age, though, most of us have managed to forget it.”
I don’t know that I’ve recently heard anyone express such sentiments better than Mr. Nolan. Why is it that when public debate tackles the quagmire of the American economy, the talk so often centers on the health and well-being of the middle class?
Clearly there are people in America and throughout the world that genuinely care about the plight of the poor. Yet, as we allow the conversation to focus on restoring the middle class, we not only marginalize the 50 million Americans currently living in poverty, we also forsake their humanity as well as the humanity of all of us.
Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104.