Jesse Jackson tells the Union “The playing field is not even”
73% of the chamber voted with Rev. Jesse Jackson that the American Dream is affected by race
The debate last night, ‘This House Believes the American Dream is Colour Blind’ took place 50 years after the same motion was debated by James Buckley and William F. Buckley in the same building.
For many, the highlight of the evening was hearing Rev. Jesse Jackson speak. There was instant electricity in the chamber as people stood up to applaud Jackson’s entrance. Throughout the debate, other speakers kept saying what an “honour” it was to be sharing the stage with such an esteemed guest.
The debate hit a number of points: how can one conceptualise the meaning of an American Dream? Is America institutionally racist? Is the standard of living better than it was in 1965 for African Americans?
Playwright Bonnie Greer took the floor first, arguing that the American Dream is colour blind, “despite barriers and racism”. It is “a dream which comes from within the individual”. She argues that her own experience of coming from a poor background yet having eventually become Chancellor of Kingston University shows that the Dream is colour blind because it is attainable, no matter what colour you are
Nina Davuluri (Miss America 2014) also claims that the American Dream means that “regardless of your race, gender, socio-economic status”, you can achieve. She tells how when she was growing up she “was the only Indian girl in my class. I was often mistaken for a Native American”.
She spoke frankly about the effect 9/11 had on her life. She recalls how that evening her family went from being the “little Indian family” in the neighbourhood to the “terrorists on the block”. When she won the title of Miss America, she experienced similar discrimination. People would mistakenly call her a Muslim, and say she was a terrorist.
Despite all of the blatant racism faced during her quest to become Miss America, she argues that her victory serves testament to the fact that America is slowly but surely embracing its diversity. She concludes with passion that “if you want the American Dream, you have to work for it”.
Jackson responds to this, “we must never confuse a few flowers coming through the cracks in the rocks with a garden”; that success of a few individuals must not be mistaken for greater equality.
Controversially, Evan Tarte, (an MPhil candidate), argues that advances in the condition of African Americans shows “race is no longer a disqualifying factor”. His justification? “Our current congress is the most diverse yet” and “the lives of African Americans have improved in absolute and relative terms… the life expectancy of African Americans has increased by 11 years”.
Tarte argues that, because life for African Americans today is ‘better’ compared to that of 60 years ago, the American Dream has become more accessible. This was met with heavy criticism from the chamber, not least from Jackson who called Evan up on the redundancy of his comparison between the current situation and the barbaric life condition experienced by African Americans 60 years ago.
He explains how that past is not a yard stick against which we should be measuring racism today. The only way you will get useful insight is by looking at whether guaranteed human rights correspond with the reality of African American’s lives.
BBC journalist Mark Mardell sided with Jesse Jackson in the debate, arguing that the number of opportunities offered to people of colour compared to white people is too unequal for the American Dream to be colour blind.
The shootings of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman is a terrible display of how differently people of colour are treated to white people. Mardell argues that under-age drinking, smoking a spliff or even using a fake ID are considered a “rite of passage for white teenagers” but become “a pathway to criminality for black teenagers”.
Those African Americans wishing to attain the American Dream must face the reality that “the entrance price to the Dream is that your parents are twice as good and you path needs to be straighter”.
This isn’t exactly the promise of opportunity the American Dream is supposed to represent.