There is something very special about the Fourth of July. There are the obvious tributes, fireworks and family picnics, but there is also that intangible sense of Americans' journey through life as free men and women. That journey has defined not just this nation but also our place in the modern world. We call this journey that is uniquely ours the American dream.
The concept evokes different images not only of what it means to be an American on this nation's 235th birthday but also of what success is in America. When you were growing up and you celebrated Independence Day, was it just about the fireworks and the fun you were having right then, or was it also about your hopes for the future?
Now take a minute and remember how it made you feel, what it made you think, when you first heard that phrase: "the American dream." Did it sound like something that was part of you? Was it something you owned? Did it feel like your birthright?
For many Americans, it did. They grew up expecting to achieve it. That expectation was part of their DNA. Chasing the American dream was just part of being born here in the land of the free. Was that true for you? Or was there ever a part of you that felt as if you were on the outside looking in?
From "I Have a Dream" to the American Dream
Until the turn of this century, African Americans spent generations working on a different dream — the "I Have a Dream" vision — because the likes of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, Benjamin Oliver Davis Jr., Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, among so many others, knew that you couldn't dream the American dream until the Constitution applied to you the same way it did to every other American. Until your life and your liberties were valued equally, that dream would be a fruitless pursuit of happiness.
We all stand in the shadows of those who fought and sacrificed and suffered so that we would be free to pursue that American dream. The legacy handed to each of us demanded that our lives and our freedoms be afforded equal protection under the law. Generations before us understood that we have nothing without that. That's what makes our generation possible.
But what does the American dream mean to us in these times? As you prepare blankets and potato salad to celebrate another "Happy Fourth of July," are you truly pursuing it? How much do you appreciate that this is the promise of America — a promise written in the blood of past generations but defined by the endless possibilities of future generations?
21st-Century Challenges to the Dream
This dream values the freedom of the human spirit to access fully the opportunities of America. But you and I know that this dream has often been delayed and often denied, and that in the 21st century, too many of our children awake each morning believing that it is anything but a dream, let alone their birthright.
We continue to pay a dear price each time we allow others to politically, socially or economically marginalize our dreams — to sacrifice our future for their own present. Struggle remains the reality for far too many of us as we seek to empower ourselves and our communities through access to fair and affordable housing, capital and credit for our small businesses, and a ballot box that empowers us.
Moreover, the new reality we face now is that the racial lines of America are no longer as well defined as they once were. In fact, those lines are taking on new hues and textures as Hispanics, Asians and other ethnic groups begin to take their rightful place at our nation's table. America is changing.
But will we change with her? As the agendas of others continually push and pull at the nation's attention, how much longer will African-American leadership allow the black agenda to slip between the political gaps or to fall on deaf ears?
Take education: It affects everything that touches a child's life well into adulthood, and yet as the New York Times reported in November 2010, a study by the Council of the Great City Schools found that "black boys on average fall behind from their earliest years. Black mothers have a higher infant mortality rate and black children are twice as likely as whites to live in a home where no parent has a job. In high school, African-American boys drop out at nearly twice the rate of white boys, and their SAT critical reasoning scores are on average 104 points lower."
Not only should this be unacceptable, even intolerable, to the black community, but we must also recognize first that it is un-American. It should be at the heart of the civil rights battle of the 21st century. But each day, more and more of our children fall prey to school systems more interested in what happens to bureaucrats than to teachers and students. Frederick Douglass said it plainly: "Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them."
Our Problems, Our Solutions
I don't know who is to blame or where the problem started, but I do know that the solutions must come from us. If you live in Maryland, do you really expect someone who lives in Mississippi to solve your problems for you? Likewise, if black children lack the educational tools they need to compete and to succeed, do we really expect some other community of people to fight for and to provide such tools?
Are African Americans really prepared to ignore the girl whose mom can't get her a scholarship to a better school, either because there aren't enough scholarships or because she doesn't try? Are we ready to give up on the boy in the neighborhood filled with violence and despair who finds that his family isn't a refuge from but a continuation of that violence? What are we willing to do to convince a child that his or her best chance at success is a college degree, plus years of hard work and passion, when the punk on the street corner is offering a better "deal"?
Nothing should move us like those "unalienable rights" — life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. Nothing should demand more of us than when those rights are threatened. They never, ever come free. They're never held safe without a cost. What are you quietly willing to submit to when it comes to the education and empowerment of your child?
But getting a quality education isn't the only key to the American dream. Let's say that we succeed in that revolution and we can now get every kid through college graduation with a solid education. It's still not enough! That's really just the beginning of the American dream, not the end.
But the roadblocks to that dream can be immense at times.
We've seen firsthand that in a weak economy, those who have already made it will survive the downturn. They'll have the resources and the connections to get back on their feet eventually. But for someone at the beginning stages of his economic life, or someone who is permanently trapped at the bottom because of poor education or skills, even a short-term economic downturn could spell long-term ruin.
If you don't have assets to collateralize or to cover your retraining costs for a new career, and you don't have networks of colleagues and better-off friends who can help you with loans — or give you contract work to tide you over, or the scoop about job openings that aren't yet public — then you could be down and out for the long haul. You could find that you can't pay the rent, the car payment, the phone bill. And how do you get back on your feet when you're homeless, with no transportation, not even a cellphone to make cold calls?
That's why it's so important that we understand how to get a firm foothold on the American ladder of success. Jobs come and jobs go, based on natural cycles in the economy, government policies and changes in technology. It's not merely having a job that makes a person successful — it's the upward mobility that comes from being employed (or being an employer) that is crucial to an emerging African-American middle class taking hold and locking in our equal share of the American dream.
True Freedom Is About the Mind and Spirit
In our rush to be accepted by America, have we black Americans allowed ourselves to be re-enslaved — not by the shackles and chains that bound our hands and feet so many generations ago but by the shackles of poor education, the chains of joblessness, the whip of drug addiction, the choke hold of poverty and the vestiges of "separate but equal," not just in the classroom but in the boardroom, too? Moreover, we have to recognize, before all else, that sometimes we are enslaved not by the hands of others but by our own hands.
Our modern-day story is not about the enslavement of the body; it is about enslavement of the mind and spirit. It's reflected in the tragic breakup of the black family, the unprecedented diminishment of black leadership, and the erosion of faith in ourselves and one another.
As we seek to address the external issues that confront our community, let's use this Independence Day to declare ourselves free to address the internal issues that also affect our community. Only then can we begin to create a policy environment centered around opportunities for ownership and prosperity, which allow us to develop wealth to pass down to future generations.
These first two steps — admittedly, not baby steps — will require a resolution of mind and spirit unprecedented since Martin Luther King Jr. wrote to us from his Birmingham jail cell. They require an approach to governance that is focused on freedom and the election of leaders who are prepared to legislate on behalf of that freedom — not offer up status quo lip service in ignorance of the true state of the black community.
Those who came before us made our freedom possible. Their efforts are why you and I can pursue happiness today. Now we have the responsibility to do the same thing for this generation. As our nation celebrates her birthday on the one hand and struggles to regain her fiscal footing on the other, she must know that she can't do it without us.
True, we should be concerned about a rising tide lifting all boats, but we should be more concerned about having a boat to begin with. That is our birthright, and we must claim it along the highways and byways of this country, in the diners and barbershops, in the church halls and pool halls, and especially in the halls of our state capitols, Congress and the White House. And when we do, we will truly be free to open wide the gates to the American dream for our children, their children and each successive generation. We should celebrate no less on every Fourth of July to come.
Michael Steele is the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and served as lieutenant governor of Maryland from 2003 to 2007.