In the second grade, my teacher asked the class to explain why people immigrated to the United States. My hand shot up with enthusiasm — I wanted to share my family’s story. “My parents came here because they wanted freedom and a better life,” I answered patriotically.
At the time, I believed America was the land where hopes and dreams would come true for everyone — where “all men are created equal” as the Declaration of Independence claims. My parents left their small village in Guangdong, China, and immigrated to New York with the same determined mindset. They wanted to prove anything was possible in America, and attest to the validity of the rags to riches fantasy. To their dismay, achieving the American Dream was harder than they’d expected as non-English speakers without a college education. Sacrificing this dream for their blue-collar jobs, they passed these aspirations down to my siblings and me, pushing us to pursue higher education so we would obtain high paying jobs. In becoming successful, they believed we would also live a happy and comfortable life. I find skepticism in that sentiment, however. As long as I am a person of color in America, I will never live comfortably because racism will remain an ailment hanging over me. As long as the color of my skin is the main determinant of how society treats me, I will never be able to fulfill the American Dream.
Coined by James Truslow Adams in his book “The Epic of America,” the American Dream is a dream in which an individual can be recognized “for what they are, regardless of the (unanticipated) circumstances of birth or position.” This has encouraged lower class Americans and immigrants to work harder and seek higher education in order to live a prosperous life, but it fails to acknowledge how one’s race plays a role in economic success or societal acceptance.
The United States has a history of systemically oppressing communities of color and immigrants in an effort to protect its white Americans from foreign influences. The Immigration Act of 1924 barred all Asians from entering the country and set quotas for countries outside of the Western Hemisphere. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, over 127,000 Japanese-Americans were forced to relocate to internment camps because Americans feared they were spies for the Japanese government. More recently, the Trump administration ordered three variations of Muslim bans, the latest of which blocks people from seven countries, five being predominately Muslim, from traveling to the U.S. The ban also denies Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and Syria — leaving refugees vulnerable to deportation back to countries in the midst of war, natural disasters and humanitarian crises. Restricting rights for communities of color is no different than upholding white supremacy.
Black Americans have borne the brunt of centuries of systemic oppression. Despite the abolishment of slavery and segregation laws, American policies manage to covertly discriminate against the Black community across many facets of life, ultimately maintaining many characteristics of the slave institution. The American Dream fails to recognize that not everyone is given an equal opportunity to succeed, and it would be naive to believe otherwise — however the glorification of the dream itself nurtures the idea that everyone who comes from some sort of struggle has an equitable chance at acquiring said dream, but this is far from true. The racial wealth disparity is not a result of Black people being stereotypically lazier or less hard-working than other races, but a byproduct of the structurally oppressive practices which have prevented Black people from opportunities or resources that level them to their white counterparts; these include slavery, Jim Crow laws, redlining, environmental racism, school segregation and mass incarceration, amongst much else.
Those who are able to break the cycle of poverty and find success are still prone to life-threatening racial profiling and discrimination as well. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., a Black man, was pulled over seven times in one year over trivial matters. Dr. Brian H. Williams, a Black trauma surgeon, said he fears the police and is given drastically different treatment from the police while wearing his white coat versus casual attire. Furthermore, a study has shown that wealthy Black women with a college education experience worse childbirth outcomes at greater rates compared to poorer, less educated white women.
Former President Barack Obama, the first Black president of the U.S., suffered from racism throughout his presidency. He was questioned on his citizenship by many including current President Donald Trump, who believed he wasn’t really American and that his birth certificate was fake.
What Obama experienced is a common occurrence for all people of color, especially for the Black and Indigenious communities. Many people think American is synonymous with white and forget that Asian, Latin, Black and Native Americans have existed here for generations. Even those of us who are natural-born citizens, whose ancestors immigrated here decades or centuries before, are alienated, labeled foreign and told to return to our native land. As long as our features do not satisfy white Eurocentric norms, we will not be deemed American, or at least not American enough. It is difficult to live in a society where human interactions are determined by the color of one’s skin, and where that same skin is considered evidence of criminal character. While I cherish my Asian heritage and am proud of my roots, being Asian in America worries me at times. Recently, it was the 38th anniversary of the death of Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American man beaten to death by two white men who thought he was Japanese — they saw this as a sort of retribution for stealing their jobs. Now, people are using “the kung-flu” and the “Chinese virus” as misnomers for COVID-19, and the Asian community has been put at risk of verbal and physical discrimination for simply looking Chinese. Vilifying innocent people of Asian descent for the sake of societal sanity does more harm than good; this sort of false blame inspires dangerous perceptions toward our community and leaves us unprotected for the sake of having somewhere to point a finger. We are endangering our own humanity, simply creating opportunities for white supremacists and xenophobes such as those who murdered Vincent Chin. This kind of universal scapegoat has been programmed into society by the white hand to separate our greater community: All Latinx have been depicted as job-stealers and criminals, Middle Easterners as terrorists and Black people as thugs. To perpetuate these racial biases only drives this country further apart and creates an unsafe space for a large body of the American population to live without the fear of being arrested, deported, assaulted or murdered.
This makes the American Dream an impossible chase for people of color and Black and Indigenous people because we are never given the respect we deserve; we are not honored as a sacred contribution to this country. As much as financial stability encompasses much of this dream, it isn’t enough to mitigate the explicit and implicit racism all minority groups live with. No matter how successful we become, it’ll never rid us of the discrimination we’ve become numb to — and we are not truly successful until the mental and physical barriers that oppress all of our people have been deteriorated.
Until our nation addresses the racism in our society and institutions, it will continue to stand in the way of our true freedom. Until then, the American Dream will never become a person of color’s reality, for it was built beyond the barriers that the white man has created for us.