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The American Dream Isn’t for Black Millennials

When I was younger, I wanted to be like Khadijah James when I grew up. She had a really “black”-sounding name like mine, ran her own magazine business, was not too girlie, remained down for the people, achieved what she wanted, was loyal to her friends and had a fine man. She was also fictional. But that just made it better: The actress who played her on “Living Single,” Dana Owens, better known as Queen Latifah, was from New Jersey — just like me.

Today I laugh at my early-90s notion of making it. Yet, at its core, it never really changed. My American dream was to not mess up, I try so hard not to stop chasing the dream. My dream was to defy expectations. To be unpredictable, to do something better and something more than my ancestors did.

The American dream, the idea that anyone can succeed through hard work, is one of the most enduring myths in this country. And one of its most prominent falsehoods. As I entered my 30s, still navigating what achieving the dream would mean, I wondered what other black millennials were feeling. I wanted to figure out what my generation of black Americans thought about the promise of the American dream and how we can attain it.

Over the course of several years, beginning in 2014 through last year, I spoke with more than 75 people in their 20s and 30s from places like New York; Raeford, N.C.; Jackson, Miss.; and New Orleans. They were Americans from various parts of the African diaspora, class backgrounds and sexual identities. Many of these black millennials told me that their dreams can’t be realized in the same ways as others’ can, particularly their white counterparts, despite perceptions of equality in this “woke” generation.

They were frustrated by the reality of limited opportunities — and also frustrated that many people, including black people from different generations, didn’t understand why we couldn’t just pull up our pants, find a job with our fancy degrees and be happy.

I had many of these conversations at a time when unarmed black men and women were being fatally shot by the police, which led to social movements, many led by people in my generation. But after it was proclaimed to the world that our lives mattered, as video after video of young black people being harassed continued to circulate widely, it often felt like opportunity and even justice would never be ours to claim.

Today, young black Americans are not being chased down by dogs, we don’t have to fight to use the same restrooms and water fountains as people who don’t look like us. But we’re still tired of having to prove our humanity and trying to make sure that America makes good on its promise.

I’m an early millennial or, as some people put it, an “old millennial” — meaning I am among the first of the generation that has come to be defined by this term. I attempted to claim a piece of my American dream through homeownership, and quickly I saw how much of a falsehood that dream could be.

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The MinorityEye

The MinorityEye is a news and information aggregator that curates the voices, thoughts and perspectives of minority writers, bloggers, authors, reporters, columnists, pundits, consultants and thought leaders as well as those who write about minorities and issues that impact people and communities of color.

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