Opinion: When Americans Dream, Is This What They Have in Mind?

A land of opportunity — but not always equal opportunity

A dry-land farmer and his family on the Flathead Reservation near Niarada, Montana, in 1921. (U.S. National Archives)
A dry-land farmer and his family on the Flathead Reservation near Niarada, Montana, in 1921. (U.S. National Archives)
Posted February 8, 2018 at 5:03am

The “American Dream” may be a problematic concept, but everyone in this country and around the world knows exactly what it means. And truth be told, everyone wants to believe it: If you are determined and work hard enough, smart enough and long enough, you can achieve anything in this land of unlimited opportunity.

Yes, the history of this country, from its founding on, has proved that the dream is not complete. Ask Native Americans, who have a more than convincing argument to counter the oft-told story of American goodness and greatness. Ask enslaved African-Americans and their ancestors who fought and died for rights enshrined in authentically American documents. Ask the Americans whose family members toiled in factories and on farms for little more than subsistence.

Yet those of every nationality and circumstance have served a flag and country that did not always return the favor because they had the hope that their sacrifice would translate into a better life, for themselves, and especially for their children.

In theory and as an ideal, this “American Dream” has touched many. It’s not a bad wish for a country to hold onto. And it has held Americans together — just.

A zero-sum vision

Events large and small, however, suggest that more cynical sentiments, such as “It’s who you know,” “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine” and “If you’re in my tribe, you’re OK” — always lurking in the background — may be crowding out the unlimited optimism the country says it strives to be known for.

What else are we to think when Florida’s coast is exempted from Trump administration rules opening up oil and gas offshore drilling after Republican Gov. Rick Scott has a chat with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, while Democratic governors such as North Carolina’s Roy Cooper are still trying to make their case?

And doesn’t Donald Trump spend a lot of time in Florida?

Life really is not fair. We watch as the dream, along with the melting pot tapestry we claim to revere, begins to fray, with consequences that Americans have yet to realize.

“Dreams” are now zero-sum, with a fight over the right to even use the term.

In limbo are the so-called “Dreamers” of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which President Trump has decided, and his Chief of Staff John Kelly confirmed, probably will end on March 5. Protections for DACA recipients, who passed educational, personal and financial hurdles to enroll, would then begin to expire. Bipartisan immigration proposals in the Senate and House are not getting any White House love.

While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer have reached a bipartisan budget deal that does not mention DACA, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she would withhold support without a promise to consider a DACA fix. GOP fiscal conservatives are also balking at the bill. That’s where we were, this week anyway.

When the president said in his State of the Union speech that “Americans are dreamers, too,” many supporters took heart, hearing a rousing confirmation that no one would be forgotten in his administration.

Opponents, perhaps skeptical after the president’s constantly changing positions on protections for DACA recipients (and now Kelly’s remark calling some who had not applied “lazy”), heard a phrase that was exclusionary and divisive. Also, David Duke loved it.

The end of their rainbow?

The parents who broke the law when they brought young children into the United States did not so much steal the dream, but bought into it, sharing it with their now-grown children, affirming its resiliency.

That would be a good thought to refocus Americans — away from a president who can reliably escape behind the doors of his private clubs, and toward those still struggling for the dream, putting in hard work but having doubts, one of the main ones being whether others even see them as full human beings.

Such doubts are real, and not just for the “Dreamers.” Listening to an NPR report this week that epidemiologists at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health say they’ve identified in central Appalachia the largest cluster of advanced black lung disease ever reported, one can easily understand why feeling forgotten can spur someone to crave the headline another group may be getting.

The research, from 2013 to 2017, mostly in the coal-rich area of Virginia, Kentucky and West Virginia, shows a reverse from gains in eradicating the illness in the 1990s, and this is in an area hard hit by the opioid crisis. Many workers in coal country voted for the president and Republicans because of a vow to save the industry, one that supplied both jobs and potentially harmful consequences, with regulations under review.

Politically, West Virginia miners and DACA recipients probably have little in common. But in their desire to be productive members of society and enjoy a good and long life with family, all are more related than they may realize.

Right now, the possibility of them joining the same team to support policies that benefit them all seems like a long shot.

But we all can dream.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.  

Watch: Pelosi Holds House Floor Seeking DACA Commitment From Ryan

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