American Dream, or American Nightmare?

by | Mar 3, 2017 | Faith & Politics, Race

I am living the American dream, but it’s only while people who look like Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, are living the American nightmare.

You probably already know the story about my American dream. My parents grew up in working-class and poor families. They worked hard, went to college, and made a wonderful life for my sisters and me. My parents’ dream was passed on to us. We have always had a choice: what to study, what city to live in, what friends to make, what we want our life to be about.

As white people, what we don’t know is the American nightmare. We know about it, true. We know that around midnight on a Tuesday, Sterling was selling CDs in a parking lot when police shot and killed him. We know that the very next evening, police pulled over Castile for a broken taillight and killed him while he was reaching for his driver’s license. We know Sterling and Castile were African-American men. We know the officers who shot them were white.


I actively participate in structures that are designed to keep people like me in power. What kinds of structures, you ask? Schools, for one. Research has consistently shown that the single most important factor for student learning is the socioeconomic status of other students in the classroom. As a student in primarily white, upper middle class schools – I am on the path to success while my African-American and Latino neighbors are stuck.

Jobs, for another. A 2004 study at the University of Chicago showed that candidates with stereotypically white names like “Brendan” were 50% more likely to receive a call back than those with stereotypically African-American names like “Jamal,” even when they submitted the exact same resume.  

So, yes, I benefit from racism. And the police and military protect the status quo of white privilege.

Did I purposefully create this situation? No, but I absolutely benefit from the racism that recurringly generates this scenario. I don’t holler slurs, write nasty Facebook posts, or try to avoid people of color. But that’s not racism. That’s prejudice. Racism, rather,

“is the normalization and legitimization of an array of dynamics…that routinely advantage whites while producing cumulative and chronic adverse outcomes for people of color. It is a system of hierarchy and inequity, primarily characterized by white supremacy – the preferential treatment, privilege and power for white people at the expense of Black, Latino, Asian, Pacific Islander, Native American, Arab and other racially oppressed people.”1


Some say that Philando Castile and Alton Sterling died because of a tragic misinterpretation, or, at worst, a couple of rogue police officers. I see it differently.

I think these two men died for the same reason that the American dream succeeds: the power structure that perpetuates both my success and their suffering. My dream is built off of the American Nightmare created for people of color. Theirs is a nightmare of poverty, mass incarceration, inadequate education, faulty healthcare, collapsed housing, and oppression. Too often, their nightmare ends in death.

In the United States, the wealth gap between whites and people of color continues to grow. In 2011, “the median white household had $111,146 in wealth holdings, compared to just $7,113 for the median Black household and $8,348 for the median Latino household.”2

Rampant inequality like this is violence. While many white people like me have the resources to college, Alton Sterling is selling CDs in a parking lot. Once I was pulled over for having a taillight out: the policeman was kind and the problem was easily fixed. In fact, when I showed up to court, I had my ticket waived. We saw what happened to Philando Castile.

I’m pissed about this unjust power structure. I’m sad in a way that I can barely articulate. But my emotions can hardly compare to those who have actually suffered this violence. As Michael Dyson said in the New York Times, whiteness is blindness and I can never truly understand.


If this is my American dream, I want to wake up. Waking up, however, can be startling, scary, and uncomfortable. Thinking about and praying about this reality forces me to realize that communities of color often live a constant Good Friday so that I can live Easter Sunday. But I must wake up and take action.

I refuse to live at the expense of my sisters and brothers of color. I refuse to let others live at their expense. I want to stand with the crucified.

I could tell you to write letters to politicians, march in rallies, and join activist organizations. You and I already know to do those things. But perhaps more importantly, I should get to know persons of color. It’s time for me to honestly ask myself, “When is the last time I had a conversation with a Black man? With a Latina woman? A woman of Native American descent?”

Maybe the best way to do this is to pray together. We’ve recently heard, “We don’t want your thoughts and prayers, we want your action.” But pray. Perhaps as part of Lent, pray with people of color. Pope Francis states, “Lent is the favorable season for renewing our encounter with Christ, living in his word, in the sacraments and in our neighbor.” Go worship with communities of color. Visit the communities we abandon and leave behind. Pray with those communities. Know and love people of color so to know and love Christ.

#BlackLivesMatter #PhilandoCastile #AltonSterling #SayTheirNames


Image courtesy FlickrCC user Johnny Silvercloud.