By: Sophene Avedissian
In June of 1979, Clara Bedrossian, along with her husband and two daughters, left Iran during the Iranian Revolution. The Iranian Revolution was an uprising in Iran where the existing monarchy was overthrown and replaced by an Islamic republic. Clara decided to leave Iran during the conflict, immigrating to the United States, a place where there were opportunities for immigrants and where she was certain that her family would be out of harm’s way. Clara worked long days in retail at Macy’s to support her family. She bit her lip when her co-workers teased her thick accent and pronunciation of words. Laughter immediately followed when she said “shoes” as “choose.” After a horrible day of work, Clara spent hours listening to tapes to improve her English. She altered parts of herself to blend in with others in order not to embarrass her children at parent-teacher conferences. Clara and her family immigrated to the United States because, in their eyes, it was the only place where they would have a chance for a happy ending. They were in search of their American Dream, but unfortunately, they never found it because it was never truly an option for them. The American Dream is unattainable for many, as their race, gender, and social status play an integral role in deciding if this dream remains an idyllic vision or if it transforms from an image in one’s mind into reality.
Before proceeding and analyzing why the American Dream is, in some respects, dead for many Americans, it is important to first understand what is the American Dream and from where it originates. In 1931, during the Great Depression which was one of the worst economic downturns in history, writer James Truslow Adams introduced the term, “the American Dream.” In his book, he wrote that the American Dream was “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” (1). After World War II, the American Dream continued to relate to freedom and equality. According to The New York Times, in a book published in 1954, Peter Marshall, former chaplain of the United States Senate, described the American Dream as the following: “Religious liberty to worship God according to the dictates of one’s own conscience and equal opportunity for all men are the twin pillars of the American Dream” (2). It was during this time period where the American Dream’s definition began to uphold stereotypes and standards we still hear today: a bread-winning father, a stay-at-home mother, one boy, and one girl.
Every year, around 1 million immigrants come to the United States, according to the Pew Research Center (3). Similar to Clara and her family, most of these individuals have a crystal clear idea of what life in the United States entails: well-manicured lawns, white-picket fences, barbecues, and fireworks on the 4th of July. However, unfortunately, these idyllic visions very rarely come true.
The manner in which the American Dream discriminates is displayed through the film Minari, which premiered in 2020. Minari tells the story of a Korean family that moves to an Arkansas farm. There, they not only struggle financially but also with adapting to their new environment. David, the son, is not pleased about his grandmother’s arrival to the United States. Since the family’s home is not spacious, David and his grandmother share a room. David explains to his grandmother, “You’re not a real grandma.” He continues, “They bake cookies! They don’t swear! They don’t wear men’s underwear!” Why would the family leave their home country, where they have lived for their entire lives, and where they feel comfortable and safe? They, along with a countless number of others, are chasing after their American Dream, a happy ending.
Another example of how the American Dream remains a dream for a large percentage of immigrants can be expressed through the novel, Enrique’s Journey, by Sonia Nazario. Enrique’s Journey is a heartbreaking story of a sixteen-year-old boy, Enrique. After his mother, Lourdes, leaves him in Central America to immigrate to the United States in order to have access to better opportunities, he takes on a quest to reunite with his mother. In the beginning of the book, Nazario writes, “Lourdes can think of only one place that offers hope. As a seven-year-old child, she glimpsed this place on other people’s television screens when she would deliver her mother’s home-made tortillas to wealthy homes. On television, she saw New York City’s spectacular skyline, Las Vegas’s shimmering lights, and Disneyland’s magic castle. The flickering images were a far cry from Lourdes’s childhood home: a two-room shack made of wooden slats, with a flimsy tin roof. The bathroom was a clump of bushes outside.” Unsurprisingly, once Lourdes reaches the United States, life is not what she expected it to be. Her days are filled with financial troubles, regret, and shame.
In the early stages of the American Dream’s formulation, there were already noticeable discrepancies between citizens. An article by NBC News in 2020 tells the experience of a Black woman, Ebony Jones. When Jones was in her 30s, she inherited a home that her grandfather, a World War II veteran, had purchased about seven decades earlier with the help of his GI Bill, benefits that help veterans and their families pay for college, graduate school, and training programs. Jones and her two children moved into the house located in Compton, California, which was paid off nearly 40 years before. Jones shortly discovered that the sewage sometimes backed up all the way into the living room, and that the plumbing needed to be fixed. In order to complete the repairs, Jones needed a loan. Even though Jones had a good credit score, low debt-to-income ratio, and several thousand dollars of savings, lenders lost interest in providing her a loan after learning that she is located in Compton, a city where 29% of residents are Black and 68% Latino. Jones explains, “When I initially apply for a loan online, without fail, I get no problem. They bombard me with emails and letters. Then they see the property address or ask me if I’m married, and everything changes” (4). Jones is unable to acquire a loan purely because of living in a lower-income, minority populated location. Inequalities during the time when the term “American Dream” was coined, such as contract buying, have caused the perpetual wealth gap present in the status quo.
Contract buying is when a buyer pays a large down payment for a home and then makes monthly installments at high interest rates. However, the buyer never gains ownership until the contract is fully paid. The contract seller could evict the buyer. Contract buyers gained no equity in their homes. NPR News explained that a study conducted by Duke University and the University of Illinois-Chicago reported that, “Home contract sales were a ruthlessly exploitive means of extracting capital from African Americans with no better alternatives in their pursuit of homeownership” (5). The report also concluded that African Americans, who bought on contract, paid, on average, an additional $587 more a month than if they had a conventional mortgage. Consequently, contract buying cost Black communities $500 million over 30 years, according to the Chicago Tribune in 2015 (6).
This gap continues to be a problem today. According to the Census Bureau, 76% of White households owned their homes in 2020, compared to 47% of Black households (7). Homeownership is a large element in the United States’ wealth gap.
Barriers such as contract buying caused many American citizens to lose faith in the American Dream. In 2014, the Center for a New American Dream conducted a survey and concluded that the majority of Americans believe that it is more difficult to achieve the
American Dream than it was a decade ago (8). In fact, according to The Washington Post in 2015, 48% of millennials think the American Dream is dead (9). Today, owning land is no longer part of the American Dream. Having a loving family is not part of the American Dream. Now, the American Dream is living a lavish and luxurious life that is rooted in money and affluence. Extravagant clothes, expensive jewelry, spacious homes, and sumptuous vehicles make up today’s American Dream. However, attaining these exorbitant accessories is only possible if one is wealthy. For instance, the best schools and education are available for only financially comfortable citizens. Author Reniqua Allen’s book, It Was all a Dream, explains how in the status quo, it is extremely difficult for minorities to achieve their American Dreams. She writes, “With the increasing cost of college, the proliferation of a low-wage, low-skilled work force, and a recession. Whatever dreams we once had are in grave danger of never becoming a reality. We see versions of Black millennial success in sports . . . in popular culture, and in politics, yet these are the exceptions, not the rule. Success for young Black people is increasingly difficult to achieve” (10).
Clara Bedrosian is my beloved grandmother. Ever since I was a toddler, I have learned about my grandmother’s experience immigrating from Iran to the United States. I have learned from her that her life in America never turned out the way she pictured it to. She does not live in a house with a white-picket fence; she does not have a “perfect” family that fits societal norms. Simply put, her American Dream never occurred. This, however, does not mean that she is not happy and content with her life in the United States. She has a family who loves her, a husband who she shares her life with, and still has a connection to relatives in the country she left. The formula for a successful American dream demands privilege and access to top-level opportunities and resources. As a result, the American Dream has become more elusive over the years and is unreachable for most of the population. The idyllic vision of the American Dream is merely a seemingly flawless illustration ingrained in people’s minds. In most cases, it is nothing more.
- Clark, Jonas. “In Search of the American Dream.” 2007, The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2007/06/in-search-of-the-american-dream/305921/
- Shiller, Robert. “The Transformation of the ‘American Dream.’” 2017, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/04/upshot/the-transformation-of-the-american-dream.html
- “Key findings about U.S. immigrants.” Pew Research Center, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/08/20/key-findings-about-u-s-immigrants/
- Chiwaya, Nigel and Ross, Janell. “The American dream while Black: ‘Locked in a vicious cycle.’” NBC News, 2020, https://www.nbcnews.com/specials/american-dream-while-black-homeownership/
- Moore, Natalie. “Contract Buying Robbed Black Families in Chicago Of Billions.” NPR News, 2019, https://www.npr.org/local/309/2019/05/30/728122642/contract-buying-robbed-black-families-in-chicago-of-billions
- Brotman, Barbara. “Decades later, black homebuyers’ battle for justice back in spotlight.” Chicago Tribune, 2015, https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-contract-buyers-league-20150724-story.html)
- “QUARTERLY RESIDENTIAL VACANCIES AND HOMEOWNERSHIP, FIRST QUARTER 2021.” U.S. Census Bureau, 2021, https://www.census.gov/housing/hvs/files/currenthvspress.pdf
- “POLL: New American Dream Poll 2014.” NewDream, 2014, https://newdream.org/resources/poll-2014
- Bump, Philip. “48 percent of millennials think the American dream is dead. Here’s why.” The Washington Post, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/12/10/48-percent-of-millennials-think-the-american-dream-is-dead-heres-why/
- “For black millennials, an endangered American Dream.” New America, 2019, https://www.newamerica.org/fellows/in-the-news/black-millennials-endangered-american-dream/
Typical of first-generation immigrants. However, many second-generation(s) do get to live the American dream.