In part 1 of 2, Nur Sevencan discuss how the Muslim community should perceive the American Dream. First, in the economic sense:
Can the American dream constitute life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all?
I have witnessed American Muslim leaders invoking the “American Dream” as their common denominator with the rest of American society multiple times. Their attempt is reasonable given the American context, which is a multi-cultural, multi-religious, and multi-ethnic society. Any group, initiative, or movement has to make reference to founding principles which supposedly unite all and which remain the same throughout time. The American Dream is encapsulated in the first article of the Declaration of Independence as “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness for all”. Positing America as the land of the free, where anyone can make it through hard work and effort, inspires hope.
However, whether it is a realistic enterprise is a question that is rarely asked.
What is the American Dream?
The American Dream, often spoken of in economic terms, is the promise of social mobility to anyone who works hard regardless of their race, gender, or religion. The American Dream translates into political life, broadly speaking, as everyone calling America home and every American citizen having equal political rights regardless of their country of birth.
Is the American Dream a reality? Has it ever been?
This question is a pragmatic one. Although some go as far as to say that America is a racist experiment, it is undeniable that the U.S. is home to numerous different ethnicities and diverse groups of people. These people speak their mother tongue and practice their faith relatively freely compared with many other places in the world, sometimes even more so than in the country they hailed from. And again, we are told that through hard work it is possible to climb the ladder of social mobility and achieve economic stability.
When third generation Muslim American leaders invoke the American Dream in order to reinstate American Muslims’ faith in the U.S., I cannot help but think how this formula has failed the African-American community. These are people who were displaced and brought to the U.S. via the slave trade and have helped build the country from the ground up, and yet whom the American Dream has failed. The economic aspect of the Dream which promises social mobility to anyone who works hard apparently has not worked for African-Americans. Even after abolition, the social institutions inherited from slavery and perpetuated by the American political system have not allowed them to achieve the promised prosperity.
The snapshot of a realized American dream would be a micro-family with their suburban house, white picket fence, car and dogs, enjoying barbeque on their front lawn.
What is missing in this picture are the ones who are left out. After World War II, U.S. veterans returning home were granted suburban house ownership, but this policy excluded Black Americans.
What has colored the American Dream white, however, is what is known as white flight. When African-Americans moved to metropolitan areas in the North in search of high paying industrial jobs, real estate speculators scared white residents with the idea that the value of their properties would subsequently diminish. The white residents who tried to resist the move of Black residents ended up fleeing to the suburbs when unsuccessful.
White flight has left inner city neighborhoods in poverty, as businesses have also characterized Black residents as possessing low purchasing power, left to set up elsewhere. On top of that, redlining policies which came into effect in 1934 deny numerous services either directly or indirectly based on race and ethnicity. Indirect denial occurs via increasing interest rates on loans, or not even loaning credit to business such as supermarkets in the areas where African-Americans lived.
As a result of this structural and institutional discrimination, inner cities are stricken with poverty and high crime rates. One of the most drastic consequences of this discrimination, which constitute an antithesis to the American Dream, is food deserts in American inner cities. Food deserts include areas that are far from supermarkets and usually have corner stores or convenience stores that sell fast-food and snacks with high carbohydrate content, which cause serious health problems such as obesity and hypertension. It is no surprise that these areas are mostly made up of African-American and Latino residents.
While some Americans have enjoyed the the American Dream, others are struggling to move beyond the first step of Maslow’s Pyramid.
With globalization however, the economic aspect of the Dream has started to fall apart for middle class white Americans as well. As high-skill service sector jobs have been replacing low-skill, but high paying, industrial jobs, the size of the middle class has been diminishing. Deindustrialization has also had a severe effect on the African-American community who have already been experiencing generational poverty. As millennials and the working population repopulate inner cities, African-Americans, along with other economically disadvantaged groups, are facing increasing job and housing insecurities.
While the U.S. may still hold many economic opportunities for immigrants compared to other countries around the world, as Muslims we must view this situation with open eyes.
Firstly, it is important not to idealize a lifestyle that is predominantly occupied with individual economic well-being that by its very design, comes at the expense of other people. It is pathetic that the American Muslim community, which has the second highest education rate in the U.S. and a purchasing power of more than $170 billion, is oblivious to the situation of those who cannot benefit from nation-wide economic prosperity.
Secondly, being aware of the reality of the situation is important for us to understand what sort of system truly removes these obstacles and facilitates a just society.
Insha’Allah, we will discuss how the American Dream translates into the political sphere in the next piece.
Nur Sevencan is a final year student studying Economics at Wellesley College, U.S. with a concentration in art history. She is a regular contributor and the Marketing and Outreach Director for The Muslimah Diaries. She is passionate about social justice issues within an Islamic framework. She previously worked at IMAN Central and volunteers for religious communities in Boston. She can be found on Twitter: @nomadicturk