While the American dream might not be realistic for most Americans, for African Americans, especially, the idea of the dream is but a fictitious pipe dream.
Gregory Payne Jr. spent two years of his life dreaming of becoming a fanciful and successful Hollywood animation writer, spending many of his days creating and perfecting his stories of superheroes in his journals that he carried with him everywhere.
That is, until the tragedy of the “ghetto mindset” shot his dreams down before they could become a reality.
“Growing up in the ghetto,” Payne said, “you find very few people with your like-minded mindset of wanting and wishing for more out of life. You find very few people who even want the American dream.”
The idea of the American dream is ingrained in the American system. The Declaration of Independence stated that all men are created equal and have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
James Truslow Adams, the man credited with popularizing the idea of the American dream in the 1930s, defined the dream as, “a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
For much of America’s history, however, African Americans have been excluded from the conversation of the American Dream. When most of the idea of the dream is discussed, it does not take into consideration racial discrimination, systemic racism and other social barriers that African Americans face every day.
Based on research, “one in four African Americans live in poverty, the median annual income for African American workers was about 20 percent lower than Whites, and the unemployment rate for African Americans doubled that of white Americans.”
Though the dream might be a symbol of success for many; the dream, as it relates to a lot of African Americans who were raised in or presently live in marginalized communities, is nonexistent because of discrimination and systemic racism.
Payne grew up in the projects of North Philadelphia in the early 80s. Mostly, when the rest of America see or hear about North Philly on the news, they picture shoot-outs, drug deals gone wrong, deaths and darkly lit alleys with drug dealers on every corner.
Travel advisory boards describe the city as deadly and dangerous, and tourists are often warned to stay away from certain areas in the city.
SmarterTravel, a website that prides itself in delivering “expert travel tips,” warns tourist about the dangers of North Philly. According to their website, “most of the crime and murders are isolated and almost always drug-related.”
According to Payne, when children like himself are raised in these disenfranchised communities, they are not nourished or allowed to flourish, and they tend to fall into the trap of the ghetto mindset.
“As a young boy,” Payne said. “I had my day one homies with like-minded mindset, kids that were interested in comic books, but it wasn’t enough people around to motivate me. There wasn’t even enough stuff out there for me to pursue comic book writing.
“You figure, if I’m not getting pushed to go to school, then why should I go to school?”
A study done by the Harvard economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren determined that the type of neighborhood in which a child grows up determines the child’s future success and income earnings. In fact, the study claims that “bad neighborhoods have significantly more effect on boys than girls.”
“Being raised in these types of communities,” Payne said, “there’s no one there to help you, give you a hand or a leg up in life. You are already disqualified from a lot of things in life, so you just go about trying to make the best out of life.”
His dad, Payne said, contributed to him losing his dream by forcing him into the workforce right after high school. It was not about what he wanted to pursue – which was going to college and majoring in creative writing. He said it was all about what his dad wanted him to do. After a while, he lost his motivation and forgot about his dreams.
Between 1994 to 1998, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development conducted the “Moving To Opportunity Experiment” on over 4,600 families living in high poverty-stricken areas. It was a social experiment that allowed families to enter a lottery; the winners were given a voucher that allowed them to move to better neighborhoods.
The experiment found that the physical and mental wellbeing of these families improved; however, the experiment had no positive effects on their employment or income outcomes. This experiment did not take into consideration the age of the children when the families moved.
A new study done by Chetty and Hendren in 2015 found new data. Their experiment on “The Effects of Exposure to Better Neighborhoods on Children” found that “moving to a lower-poverty neighborhood significantly improves college attendance rates and earnings for children who were young (below age 13) when their families moved.”
Unfortunately for Payne, he did not have the opportunity, as a child, to move out of his neighborhood. According to him, he was stuck in a neighborhood and with a family that did not nourish his dreams.
The American dream, he said, is all about perceiving, and most white people are already perceived as being successful. African Americans, he stated, are perceived a certain way, therefore the moment they step outside their homes, they are already being judged.
“I believe white people have more of a chance to live the American dream than Black people because of place of position in life,” Payne said. “They are perceived to be in a better position, so society gives them a higher opportunity. Society gives them more of a chance than their Black counterparts.”
Though he’s now living what he calls a “good life” working as a cook, Payne is still trying to come to terms with the life he’s living now, and the one he dreamt of years ago.
His American dream was of being a successful writer, and for a time, that dream almost became a reality. But because he was raised in a neighborhood ridden with poverty and crime, he was caught in the vicious cycle of the “ghetto mindset.”
So, how does one break the cycle of the “ghetto mindset?” Well, according to Payne, by being the best father he could be and ensuring his children have a better life than he did.
“It was hard growing up in the ghetto because I was never allowed to pursue what I liked,” Payne said. “I am breaking the cycle with my three kids. I have already moved them into a better neighborhood because I realize that where you grow up has a big impact on your future outcome.
“I am now working toward putting them in a position to be able to do what they like. I have realized that if you do something to compliment somebody’s dream at the beginning stages, their dream will form.”
Payne believes that one way for African Americans to beat the system of the “ghetto mindset” is for them to come together and support each other.
“As Black people, we need to stop judging each other harshly. We already have society doing that to us. We don’t need to do that to each other.”