The American dream: Now and then

Ayesha Hussain, Contributing Writer

The image of lavish homes, tailored clothing, elite education and access to travel encompasses the ever sought-after American dream, brilliantly depicted in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, “The Great Gatsby.” But while the American dream is supposedly attainable by all those who desire it, in reality, some groups are placed at a substantial disadvantage due to the systemic racism and discrimination that places hurdles along the path to achieving this dream.

The American dream is described as a ‘gateway to possibility’ — the idea that an individual can go beyond the expectations into which they were born. The dream is, to some, a measurement of success and achievement. Achieving the idea of this dream, usually via high positions in corporate culture, the accumulation of wealth and joining the elite class, gives a profound sense of validation.  For many, the dream is to escape the restrictions of poverty to a more comfortable lifestyle, while for others, it consists of breaking through the prejudices that once held them back.

In “The Great Gatsby,” Jay Gatsby’s American dream is to obtain his love interest, Daisy Buchanan. Gatsby comes from poor roots, while Buchanan is from a wealthy southern family. After falling in love with Daisy, Gatsby must elevate his social status to reach her. She symbolizes success, money, the upper class, comfortable living — everything that Gatsby lacks. To achieve that, Gatsby sets foot on the path to the American dream, taking part in practices to accumulate wealth, eventually acquiring a large mansion, monogram shirts and the lifestyle that he believes will attract Daisy. Gatsby, who sees Daisy as the key to his happiness and the life he envisions for himself, throws lavish parties as often as he can in the hopes of her walking through the door.

But pressures to achieve a higher class chase Gatsby, as it does all the main characters, with relentless and ravenous intensity. For Gatsby, the dream is intertwined with elevating his class, but in today’s climate, it is more about attaining a more comfortable and secure lifestyle envisioned by our nation’s Founding Fathers. This lack of equity falls most acutely on minority groups, who suffer disproportionately from low access to healthcare, housing, sufficient nutrition and meaningful jobs that pay enough to support families. Nevertheless, the desire for equality provides such underserved groups with some hope; it keeps them persistent on the path to progress and, ideally, the American dream.

The Black community and their supporters taking part in the Black Lives Matter movement are fighting for more than justice. These activists are rallying for equal access to the American dream and equal opportunity for what is valued — housing, education and fulfilling careers. In combating police brutality, one facet of institutional racism’s complex mosaic can finally be addressed. This, in turn, will create a society in which all people may feel safe in their neighborhoods, and in which citizens do not feel menaced by the force of the state. Reduction of force in such over-policed neighborhoods will, in turn, create greater confidence, comfort and likely economic prosperity in these areas; such developments bring higher property values and higher quality education, better job opportunities and, finally, further expansion of possibilities within a given region. A virtuous circle is thus established.

In 1951, Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem” questioned, “What happens to a dream deferred?” That dream can dissipate in a variety of ways, or it can explode in anger and excitement. The American dream was not deferred for Gatsby; he went to work to achieve it to the best of his ability. Ultimately, he did not attain Daisy, but he did elevate his social image to fit in among her social circle. Hughes’ prediction has been realized too many times; peaceful protests still hold anger and disappointment and the possibility that the dream deferred too long, stopped by those with more power, will explode. We are seeing this explosion now with the protests and movements for racial equality to combat racism embedded throughout America. And this explosion is necessary and the right way to go if we ever want to cultivate change. We must be allies; we must be at the forefront.

Collectively, we need to ensure that all Americans, regardless of skin color, race, gender or sex, have access to the American dream. We must open our hearts and our minds to bring compassion throughout the country to allow all Americans to feel appreciated and important. Above all, we must believe in children, of all backgrounds, from young ages so that they remain starry-eyed as they grow older and endeavor on their paths to success.

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