Ta-Nehisi Coates Says The American Dream Is A Lie. Is He Right?

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Last week David Brooks wrote about being slapped, figuratively, by the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates. “I read this all like a slap and a revelation,” wrote Brooks, referring to Coates’ new book Between the World and Me. Brooks hastened to join the choir in praising Coates as America’s racial conscience, an heir apparent to James Baldwin (at least according to Toni Morrison, though not everyone agrees), and named his “mind-altering account of the black-male experience” a must-read. But what bothered Brooks the most about the Baltimore-born father’s “letter” to his 14-year-old son was Coates’ treatment of the American Dream.

“By dissolving the dream under the acid of an excessive realism, you trap generations in the past and destroy the guiding star that points to a better future,” Brooks wrote, was citing the Between the World and Me passage where Coates argues that there is no American Dream without the right to control, exploit, break, or kill black bodies. Without this right, writes Coates, Americans would “tumble out of the Dream. And then they would have to determine how to build their suburbs on something other than human bones.”

The problem with this for Brooks is that America without the Dream means no more greatness: What will America be if we let our racial nightmare negate our dominate faith? But I counter that with another question: If America can’t stop relying on myths for guidance—first John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill,” then Providence, then Frontier, then Exceptionalism, and now the Dream—how will Coates’ son and younger generations build a better future, a real one and not a fantasy?

Brooks’ defense of a Dream under attack from a black intellectual eerily parallels William F. Buckley Jr.’s defense of the Dream vis-a-vis James Baldwin at a Cambridge University debate fifty years ago over the question whether “The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” Baldwin’s argument for this proposition followed the same logic as Coates, though he called the premise of the debate “horribly loaded.” America’s unwillingness to acknowledge that the Dream was built on the exploitation and destruction of black bodies was the seed of its own negation. Baldwin said the entirety of American infrastructure—harbors, ports and railways—and its economy would not be what is if the country had not had expendable black labor, and that America’s power in the world would not have been possible without “my sweat and the violation of my women and the murder of my children.”

Baldwin concluded that Americans must accept the fact that blacks were the ones who built this country, and that “until this moment comes there is scarcely any hope for the American dream.” Buckley argued that the Dream does not intrinsically bar America’s deliverance from its evil legacy of slavery, and that instead of disparaging the Dream, Baldwin “should be addressing his own people and urging them to take advantage of those opportunities which do exist.” After the votes were tallied, Baldwin crushed Buckley by a 544-to-164 vote.

In both Baldwin’s Cambridge debate and Coates’ letter to his son, they weren’t concerned with whether or not the Dream was salvageable. Instead, they were concerned with the fact that black labor, given and extracted at an artificially and criminally lowered cost (especially low until 1865), had not only built the physical materials for the American dream, but had also fueled the romance of America’s promise by hiding or denying the true price we paid—and pay—for slavery and white supremacy: a sense of what America is, our sense of reality.

Sure, Coates was able to leave post-industrial Baltimore and land a senior post in the Atlantic. The Dream has gone well for many people, especially poor European immigrants. But just because anybody can make it here, doesn’t mean everybody can. Upward mobility for some doesn’t solve or reverse the offshoring and automation of labor that has killed the post-war Dream of equal opportunity for all. The irony of the Dream as upward social mobility, as Brooks and much of the political elite defines it, is that the mythology that serves to set America apart from the rest of the world is nothing exceptional or sustainable.

No matter how much we tell every American kid to follow her Dream, she is most likely to work as a retail salesperson, cashier, food and beverage server, or office clerk, as Derek Thompson points out. Thompson also shows that the share of U.S. economic output that’s paid out in wages now stands at the lowest level since the government started keeping track in the mid-twentieth century, and that the share of prime-age males (25-to-34 years-old) who are neither working nor looking for work has doubled since late 1970s. Capital doesn’t need labor as much as it did in Happy Days, and it’s hurting all of us, not just the Youngstowns and South Side Chicagos of America.

The Dream remains the Beltway’s rhetorical stand-in for this gritty reality. Perhaps Brooks’ defensiveness in particular, and the incessant use of the Dream in general, are due to a fear that America is losing the providential role in the world and the history of Man that the older, and more racially exclusive, civic religions like City on a Hill or Manifest Destiny bestowed on American soil. Unlike Brooks who thinks we’re special with little proof, Coates impugns the Dream with reality, which is hardly “excessive,” but just part of maturing, a way of aiming for a freer, more just society without a civil religion. If we did that, instead of a Dream, we could finally be a country.

Lead photo: Sean Carter Photography

Justin Slaughter is a writer and journalist in Brooklyn.

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