The American Dream, In Black and White

Steve Nelson/Head of the Calhoun School in Manhattan Posted: 8/25/11 06:30 PM ET


Obscured by incessant chatter about the credit rating and national debt is the sad reality of poverty and hunger in America. At the root of these issues is the ugly legacy of racism and the failure to recognize white privilege. Some will argue, with justification, that many white Americans are suffering these days too. But those problems are not the consequences of systematic oppression. To acknowledge white poverty does not absolve us of our responsibility to address racism. Here’s part of my family story:

The small house at the corner of 89th and South May in Chicago has seen better days. Surrounded by a patchwork quilt of tired houses and vacant, weed-choked lots, at least it’s still standing. A few nearby houses are freshly painted with tidy lawns, proudly refusing to succumb to the neglect trying to swallow the neighborhood.

This entire South Side Chicago neighborhood has seen better days. As in so many urban pockets across America, unemployment is epidemic, municipal services are spotty and all the faces are black or brown. According to the Chicago Urban League, real unemployment in this community may be as much as double the “official” rate of 21.9%. The Urban League also reports that, in one neighborhood, 70% of young black men are in prison or ex-offenders, many for minor drug offenses. Try competing for a job with those credentials.

There isn’t much hope for neighborhoods like this. In the post-racial world invented by political conservatives, the problem with most poor folks is that they just don’t try hard enough. This is particularly true for poor folks of color, for whom the most demeaning epithets are reserved: Shiftless, unmotivated, irresponsible parent, welfare queen, etc., etc. America is a great meritocracy, conservatives claim. Racism was yesteryear’s problem so help won’t be coming soon.

These attitudes are often accompanied by rags-to-riches or up-by-the-bootstraps stories. The most vehement resistance to social programs seems to come from those whose immigrant ancestors made their way out of poverty through hard work and sacrifice — the American Dream. “If my grandparents could do it, why can’t those folks?” they ask.

My grandfather did it.

John Rinkema was born and raised in Ho