If it is realistic to speak of a shared American ideology, everyone having some set of commonly held beliefs, one belief is pervasive: the promise of the American Dream. It is such a fulcrum in American political thought that every modern president has at some point referred to it either directly or obliquely.
President Obama said, “Our job as Americans is to restore that basic bargain” that is the American Dream. President Trump told us, “Sadly, the American Dream is dead” — but not to worry, since he and he alone knows how to give it mouth-to-mouth.
The concept is so prevalent that most any American could probably define it: If you work hard, apply yourself, take responsibility, you will be at liberty to have the house with the picket fence and the middle-to-upper-middle-class lifestyle blessed with some statistical fraction of children, a kitchen garnished with gleaming appliances, and a spouse whose virtues and beauty are commensurate to your worthiness. But notice there is a condition upon which the dream rests, and its implication is at least questionable: If you work hard, if you apply yourself, the material rewards you receive will be the outward expression of your gumption and grit. And conversely it follows that, for those who lack gumption and grit, their lack of material reward is evidence of their meaner worth.
If there is a concept that’s at the core of American ideology, the American Dream is it, and its logic makes it easy for us to disregard poverty and incarceration as outcomes that only the worst of us reap.
After the homicide of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police, U.S. Attorney General William Barr was interviewed by CBS News. When Barr was asked whether law enforcement was systemically racist, he answered, “I think there’s racism in the United States still but I don’t think that the law enforcement system is systemically racist.” And since law enforcement is the tip of the spear of the criminal justice system, it’s probably safe to say that people who think like Barr would say the same of the whole criminal justice system, that it is not systemically racist. For people who think this way, there are only a “few bad apples” in the criminal justice system tainting a couple of slices of the American pie, but for the most part the law is administered justly in our country.
This is Republican catechism but many Democrats would be eager to jump on that bandwagon as well, even though the breakdown of the prison population in the country is disproportionally made of black people who more broadly are considered reliable Democratic voters. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the 2010 Census reveals that, nationwide, “… “Blacks are incarcerated five times more than Whites are, and Hispanics are nearly twice as likely to be incarcerated as Whites.” While black people comprise 13 percent of our population, they comprise 40 percent of the prison population. White people make up 64 percent of the general population, but they only comprise 39 percent of the prison population. If our legal system were not systemically racist, black people would only make up about 13 percent of the prison population. By denying there is a problem with systemic racism in the criminal justice system, Barr implies black people must have a proclivity for criminality.
Concerning economic success, Louisiana’s own Dan Fagan, opinion writer for The Advocate, voices an opinion I think is pretty common in our state. Writing in The Hayride shortly after Heather Heyer was murdered by a white supremacist at the Unite the Right Rally, Fagan desperately tries to make a distinction between David Duke and Republican conservatism.
I must confess, Fagan’s argument was so subtle that the demarcation line between the two slipped right passed me. But in Fagan’s piece, he claims that “America is the least racist nation on the planet,” and when it comes to economic wealth, a “lie the left promotes is people of color don’t have the same opportunities as whites when it comes to creating wealth in America… [N]ot true.” He writes this in the face of the fact that black wealth in our country is catastrophically depressed. According to the Brookings Institute, “At $171,000, the net worth of a typical white family is nearly ten times greater than that of a Black family ($17,150) in 2016.” If our economy were not systemically racist, there would be little to no wealth gap between white and black families. But since we all have the same economic opportunities, Fagan implies that black people fail as a race when it comes to creating wealth.
We have an economic system that produces a cavernous wealth disparity between black and white people. While I’d be open to some third explanation, there are only two ways of looking at the problem: Systemic racism is grinding black people down or, if racism is not the problem, black people are not as industrious as white people. There really isn’t a middle ground on this because, even if one applies that exhausted trope of the truth being “somewhere in the middle,” it would still rest on the assumption that black people’s innate abilities are inferior, albeit to a lesser degree.
The same line of thought is true when we look at criminal justice as well: Either there is a problem with systemic racism, or there is a problem with race. When a system produces racist outcomes, even if there are “good” people in that system, it is by definition and function a racist system. And if there is anything truly sacred in this dark and darkening world, whether housed in a deity or common to our humanity, it calls upon us to fight against the clockwork destruction of our brothers and sisters.
I’ve only dealt with two aspects of life: economic justice and criminal justice. But there are housing, education, childcare, healthcare and more; there is plenty of evidence that these too are compromised by systemic racism. But for so many Americans, all the evidence in creation is cynically explained away with polite denial and a thin veneer of rationalization. And while there have been some ideas being proposed — from diverting portions of police budgets to social programs and banning chokeholds to abolishing or reforming departments and redefining law enforcement’s mission — there was similar talk after Michael Brown’s death.
The real reformation must be economic. To reform the police only blunts the tip of the spear; to materially change the conditions in which Americans have to live could possibly transform our country into something other than a weapon. Even then we will not be able to say the American Dream has been “restored” — for so many in our country, it has really never been possible. As geographer and abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore more cogently put it, “When black lives matter, everybody lives better.“
From the author: “Leo Lindner taught English composition for three years at Nicholls State University, until the extravagant riches lavished upon him by the University of Louisiana System weighed on his conscience so heavily it encouraged him to take a position as a “mud engineer” in the oilfield. He worked on the Deepwater Horizon for five years with some of the finest people he will ever know. He is now retired and lives with his excellent wife, Sue.“
The Opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Opinion Editor Tom Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.