Meditations – The Dream Deferred: Re-conceptualizing Class and Politics in America

Tadias OP-ED

By Zelela Menker

Published: Monday, July 21, 2008

New York (Tadias) – Patrick Brennan is a 33 year old White male from Kansas City, Missouri. Although he grew up in the Midwest he currently lives in New York City and has developed a strong affinity for diversity. Patrick moved to New York approximately three years ago because, “[he] was tired of being around people who shared the same views and wanted to really be exposed to diverse people and cultures”. Ironically, however, Patrick does not have any significant interactions with the “diverse people” that initially attracted him to the city. In fact, the extents of his cross-cultural engagements are mostly limited to business transactions, and the daily hellos and goodbyes exchanged with his door man who he suspects to be Polish.

At first glance, Patrick’s overpriced and beautifully decorated loft is impressive; his life appears to be void of the tensions associated with every day life. Nevertheless, the truth is there is more than what meets the eye. Patrick’s lifestyle is in fact symptomatic of some of the same deprivations that plague the lives of the poor and the working poor throughout America. Patrick’s workdays are long, he wakes up at 5 A.M. in order to commute work, he suffers from stress and feels overworked, he rarely has time for family and friends, when he eats he has a majority of his meals away from home, and he has not been able to get the exercise he needs.

The irony in Patrick’s “deprivation” of course is that it has not been caused by a shortage of social and material resources, but rather his desire to attain more. He informs me that although he is financially fit to retire he chooses to work and that he is extremely proud of his accomplishments. As a successful trader at a top financial firm Patrick states, “it is has been hard to find time for the things that matter most”. He elaborates how he has had to consistently sacrifice personal relationships, hobbies, and even his health to achieve financial success stating, “I have come a long way …I have had to sacrifice a lot …but my choices have paid off”.

The belief that one’s social and economic status is consistent with one’s personal drive and hard work has been a dominant ideology in contemporary American society. Thus, inequalities in education, income, and healthcare are often perceived to result from individual victories and failures. Concurrently, political arguments and decisions pertaining to social and distributive justice have been formulated in relation to ideals of individualism, equal opportunity, and free choice.

In the United States, advocates of free choice have synonymously been considered to be true lovers of justice. Historically, a majority of Americans revere and are intoxicated with the promise of freedom—and I like Patrick Brenan am no exception. However, I also believe that there is a particular fundamental problem in developing understandings of poverty from the premise of “to each his due”: in matters of survival, life and death, there is no fixed line that distinguishes between coercion and free choice.

In my opinion developing political based arguments and understandings of wealth and poverty from individualistic ideals are extremely flawed and problematic. Within the romantic ideals of individualism, equal opportunity, and free choice co-exist an assortment of problems regarding public conceptions of hard work and free will. Inequalities cannot be understood merely within the context of personal desert and merit because individual choices are made within the context of dynamic and complex relationships.

Taking an individualistic perspective to understanding the vast disparities that exist in the United States today is inaccurate and incomplete because it does not consider the restrictions that social structures and political institutions place on the lives of the poor. I would argue that for a majority of people in the United States, life opportunities and “deviant lifestyle choices” are pushed upon individuals as a result of social, political, and economic circumstances. Within the context of poverty, the lack of adequate employment, safe housing, education, and access to health care all take a negative toll on the capacity of individuals to make free choices if and/or when they are able to act at all.

Currently the face of poverty in America continues to be portrayed to mirror problematic stereotypes of the social welfare queen and Juan Does. However, a closer analysis of class structures in the United States suggest otherwise. Despite popular notions, it’s important to note that an estimated two-thirds of the poor in the United States are White. This misrepresentation highlights an important issue that is often times entirely overlooked if not insufficiently explored.

While minorities are disproportionately negatively impacted by poverty, “The Poor” is not a homogenous or static group; it is not a class that has inherently been raced, sexed and (hyper)sexualized, it does not share a distinctive set of characteristics, and the individuals that make up this group have not somehow inherited and internalized dysfunctional values that have claimed and marked their future generations for suffering. The individuals currently accessing the limited social welfare programs in America are not aspiring free riders, but rather encompass many hardworking individuals and families coming from diverse backgrounds struggling to survive in a nation with a political system that is highly defective because it depends on preserving gross inequalities in the distribution and play of economic and political power. Capitalism being the foundation if not at the core of the American Dream has played an integral role in shaping social and political structures. The problem with this is that the success of the western political capitalist culture in the United States, and the validation of that American Dream, both heavily depend on the continued exploitation of marginalized groups.

It is important to remember that flawed public policies are not informed by a fixed or divinely inspired doctrine, but rather have been formulated and negotiated within the context of our misguided perceptions and representations of social, political, and economic realities. In order to change current living conditions it will not merely require that we critically assess and reassess flawed socio-economic infrastructures and amend labor laws, but also that we take look at ourselves to change our visions and aspirations of and for America. Some of the revolutionaries of the Civil Rights movement stated that justice can never be secured as long as American society ceases to exist – and I agree. This is not to say that there is something inherently wrong with America or Americans, but rather to highlight that for most America is not merely a dream deferred, but a nation desperately waiting and in need of collectively being re-considered, re-conceptualized, and re-imagined.

A Dream Deferred by Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

About the Author: Zelela Menker was born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She moved to the United States to attend Mount Holyoke College (MHC) in South Hadley, MA where she majored in Critical Social Thought (CST). She lives and works in New York City.

By the same author: OP-ED: Why I’m supporting Obama (Tadias)

2 Responses to “Meditations – The Dream Deferred: Re-conceptualizing Class and Politics in America”

  1. 1 Betty Negusse Jul 21st, 2008 at 5:42 pm


    Interesting read…but you don’t really define the problem. It sounds as though you are speaking in sem and worq (wax and gold).

    What are the misguided perceptions and representations of social, political, and economic realities? Please explain in layman’s language so I can understand it.

    Thank you.


  1. 1 OP-ED: Why I’m supporting Obama at Tadias Magazine Pingback on Jul 21st, 2008 at 4:43 pm
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