A story I heard yesterday afternoon from my Lyft driver has been on my mind since. A very tall young Somalian man, he was very polite and friendly. He told me he’d like to write a book. Why? Because he has a story burning inside him.
He spent his childhood years in a refuge camp, learning early on to scurry for food being handed out and taught basic lessons in a makeshift school by a motley crew of aide workers and volunteers. He arrived here in the US without knowing how to speak English. He learned that very well, went on to get his GED, took some classes and became a corrections officer. Did well there and he wanted to become a Seattle police officer. He passed the entrance exam, got in. Then things began to happen. He basically was harassed and set up to blame for the missing of some evidence etc. Long story short, he’s no longer an officer. He’s currently tied up in a wrongful dismissal lawsuit. When we were stopped at a light, he reached over to the passenger side and handed me a thick folder. Documents pertaining to the lawsuit. As I flipped through them, he said they just found an essential piece of evidence proving he was targeted and evidence in his favour was hidden.
The look of disappointment and disbelief was clear on his face. He said to me, ‘I worked very hard to get that far, you know? People told me not to bother because someone like me with no proper education will not amount to much. But I was in America! Of course I believed I can do it, yes?!’ He then shrugged. Looked away.
His story got interrupted by an incoming call which he said was his mother. He’ll call her back. I told him I don’t mind and to answer the call. He tells me after his quick chat with his mother that there are seven children in his family. Topic changes and I’m almost home.
We keep hearing ferners (foreigners) should learn to speak English. We keep hearing if you work hard, you’ll achieve your dreams in America. We are told if you pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you’ll make yourself a respected member of society and move from being impoverished to being successful. Do these firmly held ideals bend and change as the demographic and technology of the country and world evolve? Many times it doesn’t seem so. It seems set in stone whether that stone is the frontier version of 1774, the golden California Dream version or the one popularised by the 1931 book, The Epic of America by James Truslow Adams. The current election cycle forces one to give in to the belief that perhaps we have returned to the knee jerk, almost immature and selfish frontier version bearing in mind that version came at the heels of the Puritan version where one would keep expanding west as far west one could possibly go, even if they were already on Paradise (paraphrasing Lord Dunmore, Governor of Virginia 1774, quoted in John Miller’s Origins of the American Revolution (1944)).
The upward mobility promise held within the character set of the American Dream – Democracy, Rights, Liberty, Opportunity, and Equality – seems archaic when statistics prove that the US lags behind other members in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The Great Gatsby Curve, coined and presented by Alan Krueger, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, shows the United States as not just one of the most unequal societies in the rich world but also the least upwardly mobile. Miles Corak, a professor of economics with the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, Canada, posits that, ‘that in an era of growing labor market inequality, it is unlikely that the United States will slide down the Great Gatsby Curve in the coming years unless Americans enact effective changes and realignments in public policy that more strongly promote the human capital of the least advantaged.’
A few years after The Epic of America was published, the Social Security Act became a reality in 1935. It was an act culminating from the social construct borne from the notion the American Dream was no longer an individualistic ideal but a common, shared one. David Kamp in his piece for Vanity Fair said, ‘This was, arguably, the first time that a specific material component was ascribed to the American Dream, in the form of a guarantee that you could retire at the age of 65 and rest assured that your fellow citizens had your back.’ Where in the 2016 pursuing of the American Dream do the ideals of that ethos hold true?Democracy -a system of government in which power is vested in the people, Rights – voting rights violations and suppression, Opportunity – “Young Americans are facing higher levels of poverty, unemployment, and student loan debt than the two generations before them, and their predicament is fueling the view that the American Dream is bankrupt, according to the authors of a new State of the Millennial Report conducted by Generation Opportunity, a conservative/libertarian advocacy group primarily funded by the billionaire Koch Brothers, Freedom Partners and TC4 Trust.” (1/16/2016, Vice News), Equality – racial, gender, sexuality, pay, etc. These are the issues that matter. Not a bloody wall, not division via fanning the flames of prejudice and hatred, not willful ignorance or the consumerism of religious faith as justification for injustice. Are we mature enough to deal with these actual, real matters? Or are we a bunch of pouting teens refusing to see the larger picture?
The great hope of the American Dream. What version of it are we in currently? Do we still have each other’s backs or has the individualistic, ‘me first’ brainwashing of the 1980s forever changed us? And whatever the version, are we still the United States of America? E Plubirus Unum – Out of many, (we are) one. When I looked at Mo, the Somalian young Lyft driver, as I opened my door to say goodbye, I could see in his eyes, the American Dream proved a false promise. I wondered then what a dream that died would look like and if I had the stomach to bear seeing it. I pray I never will.