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Is the American dream still valid for millions who cross the sea?

By XN Iraki | Published Sun, June 18th 2017 at 00:00, Updated June 17th 2017 at 21:24 GMT +3
David Oyelowo with Lupita Nyong'o at the Queen of Katwe premiere in Toronto last month. (Photo: Courtesy)

Lupita Nyong'o, the Oscar award-winning actress, once said every dream is valid. It has become one of the most original quotations from Kenya. Without being so scientific, could we try to falsify this proposition and ask: Is the American dream valid?

First, what is the American dream? The Collins Dictionary defines it as, “the notion that the American social, economic and political system makes success possible for every individual”. Another definition is “the ideal that every US citizen should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination and initiative.”

Kimberly Amadeo traces the term to James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book, Epic of America. Observers attribute the phrase to the American founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Free market

Emily Rosenberg identified five components of the American. Belief that other nations should replicate America’s development; faith in a free market economy; support for free trade agreements and foreign direct investment; promotion of free flow of information and culture, and; acceptance of government protection of private enterprise.

This dream has been a magnet attracting millions across the seas to go and settle in America. Kenyans are not left behind; though the enthusiasm for the Diversity Lottery seems to have died. As immigrants travel to USA, they are willing to start a new life, cast their burdens from mother country and be what they want. That includes the persecuted and refugees.

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Some turn the dream into reality, like a 73-year-old Kenyan pursuing a PhD. Another Kenyan put it, “Mine (American dream) started off on a high note and then got derailed somewhat. Still wrestling with it and I am not happy where I am right now.” I wish I got more confessions from Kenyans in USA. How many lived their dream and how many had the dream turn into a nightmare? We cannot forget Barack Obama.

But not shouted too loudly is that the American dream achievement depends to a large extent on the skills you take to America, or acquire there. Remember, one of the components of the American dream is faith in the markets.

If you have a skill that the market needs, it rewards you. Some of the skills that make it easier to achieve the dream include STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). I must say loudly that lots of Asians have used this route to achieve the American dream - ever met an Asian historian?

STEM makes it easier to get a good job and enjoy the high standards of living. After all, the American dream is based on being able to make ends meet.

The dream is more achievable depending on where you study. Studying in America’s hallowed institutions like Harvard or other Ivy League universities makes it easier to get integrated into the American society and fastens your upward mobility. It is no wonder all the nine US Supreme Court judges went through either Harvard or Yale.

A PhD from Githaka-ini University might be worth less than an undergraduate degree from Harvard or Oxbridge.

To immigrants, some who might never have dreamt of a college education, where you school does not matter. But later in life when you get into the job market or when positions of responsibility are being doled out, the alma mater matters. In Kenya, we are not yet there but soon it will matter where you go to school.

The dream also favours the talented - the actors, musicians, athletes, golfers and others. Think of the market again. It always rewards the talented, very Biblical: “to those who have more will be given.” Awards such as Oscars, Emmy and Tony keep the dreams of the talented alive. The money they make keeps lots of people dreaming of their time on the stage. This dream is amplified by the media, and the money made by the talented.

Keep working

Is the dream invalid for the uneducated and untalented? There is work and money for such people, too. They work on the jobs Americans dislike. They harvest crops in the farms, work in the nursing homes, drive trucks, work as waiters and security men and other jobs that may not require lots of education.

That is why even after dropping from school, immigrants still make a living In America. We think that since they have not come back home, they are living the American dream. The fact that life would be worse if they were in the mother country keeps them working and dreaming. Many work on hard jobs to realise the American dream through their children.

The third path through which the American dream is realised is through investment. If you have at least $100,000 (Sh10 million) and can prove you can create jobs, you get a visa. If you are a great investor or entrepreneur, the US systems make it easier to experience the American dream. Add the market system and the dream can expand several folds if you get it right.

The American dream is realised through family connections. It becomes easier to get to USA if you have a brother, sister, parent, or spouse already there. But once there, your skills and talents matter. There is a misplaced notion that to make it in life you just get into USA.

It has been suggested that American openness to the rest of the world is the source of her greatness, attracting talent, ambition and endurance to come and realise their dreams. That is why Donald Trump’s attempt to stop the flow of immigrants has been so fiercely resisted.