[OP-ED]: Is the American dream on a ‘self-defeating quest’?
Inequality is rising. Segregation by socioeconomic class, educational attainment and race is skyrocketing. The country is generally less dynamic and more risk-averse -- when people have the opportunity to move for a better quality of life or more rewarding job, they tend to settle for staying put.
America is on track to cleave itself into a binary of haves and have-nots through a system in which affluent people use technology to intentionally match themselves with those just like them. Meanwhile, the poor end up in failing schools in crumbling neighborhoods with few supports.
And, paradoxically, this rising inequality breeds political disengagement, which only buttresses the inequity.
The whole mess, Cowen says, is a result of a long period of things being pretty darned good.
For instance, even though we worry about societal violence, racial strife and police impunity when dealing with minorities -- the period we are now living through is relatively safer and calmer than in the 1960s and 1970s.
“With all of our fears of terrorism, the crime waves and riots of the 1960s and the early 1970s were much more destructive. During an 18-month period in 1971-1972, there were more than 2,500 domestic bombings reported, averaging out to more than five a day,” Cowen writes.
He cites the 1965 Watts riots in which “4,000 people ended up in jail, 34 people were killed (mostly by the police), hundreds were injured, and about $35 million in property (1965 dollars) was destroyed.”
In contrast, today’s Black Lives Matter movement “is notable for avoiding any particular kind of political endorsement, and it is also more positive than destructive in its orientation. It favors inclusiveness, gender equality, and justice and peace rather than revolution.”
This last bit is just one of many interesting observations Cowen makes about the world that African-Americans inhabit.
He observes: “Circa 2016, you can see a black president on your television or internet screen, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to see more neighbors of a different race than you would have seen a few decades ago.
“When police misbehave, and taped recordings of that misbehavior comes to the attention of citizens, it does not happen in an atmosphere of harmony and slowly increasing progress under commonly lived public institutions. Many Americans know or at least instinctively feel that the ideal of equal treatment is in some ways receding along the horizon. It may not always or even usually be a matter of deliberate prejudice, but if you don’t live in the right neighborhood or go to the right school, you can’t count on getting fair treatment or even tolerably acceptable treatment.”
Cowen illustrates this with the startling statistic: “If we look at the country as a whole ... the average black student attends a school that is about 8.3 percent white. Is that really a fulfillment of the integrationist civil rights dream of the 1960s?”
This civil rights dream is about the only thing on minorities’ minds these days. Nearly invisible in mainstream media, the conversations that go on between people of color center on whether the inequalities Cowen discerns will erode their painstakingly made gains in economic, educational and social status.
Despite the long slog of distressing statistics, Cowen does offer some hope.
He suggests that African-Americans, through their unique vulnerabilities in society and their increased protests over high-profile grievances, are exhibiting signs of dissent from the complacent class. And that this may signal an opportunity to tackle the larger questions of why so many Americans are relatively satisfied with an increasingly dysfunctional status quo.
“Maybe these incidents” -- the Black Lives Matter movement, the election of Donald Trump -- “are just the beginnings of some deeper fissures in American life, fissures ... that will bring a ‘great reset,’ and fissures that in some fundamental ways will make the pot boil over. If Ferguson [Missouri] was step one and Trump was step two, what then will be next? Keep your eye on these issues. They won’t be going away anytime soon, and they are heralding the beginning of a new phase in American social life.”
Everyone -- rich, poor and in between -- can help usher in this new phase productively. We’ll just have to disconnect from our technology-enabled comforts long enough to engage with the task.