A New Black American Dream

Children attending school in Brooklyn.

Daddy lives in a quiet corner of Virginia, on the same country road his grandmother walked in the early 1900s. Recently, he shared with me some writings he’s been keeping for years — little remembrances, ideas about what constitutes a loving family, what makes a man. One of the essays describes the day his mother died.

He and his brothers found her body; she was lying in the bed next to her 5-day-old daughter, with a small piece of apple in her mouth. No one knows if she choked on that apple, had an asthma attack or, like so many other black women in America, died from complications of childbirth.

What my father does know is that when his mother died, he had to drop out of school to start working. Daddy was 10, a fifth grader. He never went back, a tragedy that he is sure sealed his fate as a lifelong blue-collar worker. He spent the rest of his working years toiling in factories — making plastic tablecloth fabrics, then repairing machines and overseeing production at a bakery.

He speculates that had his mother lived, life would have been different. “Maybe I could have been a doctor,” he wrote. “She would have helped me.”

That sentence reflects a simple truth about parents, white and black: They want their children to have a better life than they did.

My parents were middle class but vulnerable; a missed paycheck could lead to a missed mortgage payment, which could lead to the loss of their home, dropping them into poverty. Education and professional careers, they insisted, would save my brother and me from this fate. And they were right.

But things have changed since I was a kid. Now that I have children of my own, I am learning that the chances that they will end up better off than me are slim, and that in fact they’re in danger of being sucked back into poverty.

A few years ago, The Atlantic published a story detailing all the ways racial disparities in “transformative assets” chip away at black millennials’ ability to build wealth. This generation has been forced to forgo buying homes and investing in favor of contributing to their parents’ bills and paying off college loans.

Now, a new study on race and economic opportunity has revealed that black boys who are raised in wealthy families are more likely to become poor as adults than they are to remain wealthy.

The explanation was obvious: racism, and the continuous price African-Americans pay for it, from generation to generation.

For this black parent, those stories are the stuff of nightmares. From the moment I saw the double lines on my pregnancy test, I dreamed of a world in which my children win — where they slay their A.P. courses, go to great colleges like Yale or Spelman and enjoy lucrative careers.

I assumed that by the time my two daughters and stepson were of age, society would have moved on from the institutional barriers that lurk in the shadows like some boogeyman, ready to jump out and thwart the forward movement of black folk.

I was hopeful that by then black students would be accepted into A.P. classes without a fight; employers would no longer be tossing out résumés with “black sounding” names; black women would get the same pay for the same work as white men; and black families could live in the neighborhoods of their choosing and get mortgage rates based on their credit and not on the color of their skin. Surely my children would be better off than me.

But here we are, in 2018, the same old shotgun threatening to buck down my children’s chances at a better life, despite my efforts to play by America’s rules. I have been a hands-on parent. I have pushed my kids academically. I have pushed myself, just like Daddy, to make sure that they have what they need and even some of the things they want so they could focus on being great.

Still, statistics say they have a high chance of failing. And I am scared for them.

African-American parents can’t stop demanding equality, but perhaps we need to start dreaming of a different kind of success: a hybrid of the life my father led as a child (while appallingly unjust, segregation made the black community self-reliant, assuring that African-Americans traded in goods and services among themselves) mixed with the expectations he had for me (success in corporate America). Maybe the challenge we should pass along to black children now is to never be afraid of avoiding the shackles of corporate America and creating their own businesses — businesses that also serve our community.

And maybe it’s time for us to redefine success altogether. Doing “better than me” could be about our babies growing up to be healthier, happier and more passionate about the things that matter to them — hard workers, yes, with the cash they need, sure, but also pioneers of a new paradigm that lets go of the all-too-elusive American dream.

In all things, let there be joy. This, for my children, young, black and gifted, I wish with no fear.

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