Does Anybody Still Believe in the American Dream?

American flag
American flag

In Yazoo City, Mississippi, a cluster of kids playing in the street, stripped by the heat of shoes and shirts, greeted me like a rock star, surrounding me with requests, because I had a camera and wanted to talk.

I was traveling around the country asking people about the American dream, and when I asked them they answered without pause, a rapid-fire succession of desires for wealth and fame, obtained via the NBA, NFL, and hip-hop.

The adults, clustered yards away next to a grill, were less forthcoming, less eager, seemingly abashed to be talking about dreams.

After a few minutes of conversation, they reckoned that the American dream was a farce. This wasn’t an isolated event; most of the adults I spoke with on this trip, some 200 over 30 states, had a similar response. An initial confusion, a quick and visceral listing of failings, of disappointments, of things not achieved, only to be redefined moments later, perhaps out of embarrassment, because everybody is supposed to have dreams, certainly the American dream. Many refused a portrait. “Nobody will print what I have to say anyways.”

Americans are not rude. Every single person I met was gracious, but they have little time for dreams. They are worn and overwhelmed by the realities of life, the burden of caring for kids, the burden of “keeping Mr. Bill from kicking me out of my house.”

Dreams imply things are getting better, growing, but many people are just focused on hanging on to what they have. They want to keep their families intact and safe. This isn’t an unusual concern, cherry picked from the streets. The statistics show most Americans haven’t seen their wealth increase in decades.

For those fighting to stay current, dreams are silly things spoken about only by those looking for votes. “The only people talking about the American dream are politicians. The rest of us are busting our asses, dealing with shrinking paychecks and rising costs.”

The blame for this, when assigned, is directed at a vague other: the other class, the other side of town, or the other part of the country. The only other ever made explicit is immigrants.

Immigrants are seen as a direct threat to paycheck and to values. “Ain’t nobody who works with their hands who hasn’t lost a job to a Mexican.” “Things have changed here. Our values are not the same since we opened our borders.”

Yet for the immigrants themselves, who have see their wealth grow and their freedoms multiply by crossing the border, the American dream is anything but silly. When asked they answer quickly, without cynicism, and unwavering in their optimism.

A recent immigrant from Mexico, taking his son fishing in the Rio Grande on a bright Sunday, shot back when I asked about the American dream. “I am living the American dream. I have a job, a family, and my son goes to a great school, and if he works hard enough, he can have any job he wants. I didn’t have that. He does. That is a dream come true.”

His story and others are collected in the portraits below.

Click here to read more.

SOURCE: The Atlantic, Chris Arnade