Is the American dream alive? People are wondering as we catch our breath from the daunting challenges over the past couple of years: a national reckoning on race, an inflation crisis at home, and a devastating pandemic .
Popular visions have risen to answer this question. I call them “blame the system” and “blame the victim” narratives.
The “blame the system” mindset argues that impediments to young people achieving the American dream are primarily due to systems of oppression, which create institutional and systemic barriers around race, class, and gender. In this worldview, any undesirable outcome in a person’s life has nothing to do with their individual situation but rather is a result of oppressive forces rigged against them.
In making her case for reparations, New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones posited that “none of the actions we are told black people must take if they want to ‘lift themselves’ out of poverty and gain financial stability — not marrying, not getting educated, not saving more, not owning a home — can mitigate 400 years of racialized plundering.”
What “blame the system” advocates fail to realize is their rhetoric ultimately hurts the very children they claim to want to help.
When I hear the collective messages that emphasize grievance and dependency, I think of their corrosive impact on the primarily low-income black and brown children who attend the schools I lead in the South Bronx. Whether intentional or not, this negative worldview resurrects a long-gone period of physical enslavement in a modern-day form of mental enslavement by convincing young people of all races that they are trapped in a lower caste of society.
While “blame the system” places the entire focus on society’s oppressive forces, the “blame the victim” mindset suggests that roadblocks to realizing the American dream are due to an individual’s bad choices or lack of effort. America isn’t the problem if you are unsuccessful; you are the problem.
“Blame the victim” accuses young people of being the architects of their own shortcomings, and the exhortations that accompany this mindset are all too familiar: “Have fewer babies outside marriage, and you won’t live in poverty.” “Commit fewer crimes, and you won’t be abused by the criminal justice system.” They are familiar because they are true at a surface level. They encourage behavior we want to propagate and discourage behavior we want to lessen.
The problem is that these directives are the equivalent of unfunded mandates. In each scenario, the full burden of success or failure falls on young individuals who, through no fault of their own, have only known a reality where the ideal of self-responsibility is never taught or reinforced by local institutions.
Sadly, “blame the system” and “blame the victim” are two half-truths that add up to one fallacious lie that is harming our children. They are a kind of grand theft, robbing people of personal agency and the belief that they can control their own destiny.
What’s more, these depressing messages are demonstrably wrong.
There are decisions that young people have within their control that empower them to overcome institutional barriers. As sociologist Brad Wilcox has shown, millennials who completed their education with at least a high school degree, worked full-time in any job, and waited until marriage to have children (in that order) were 97% likely to rise out of poverty by their early adult years.
And “blame the victim” proponents fail to recognize that pure self-reliance is a myth. Individuals who develop dogged self-determination almost always have someone or some institution that first helps them grasp their own possibilities.
There is a third way: a view of human opportunity simultaneously more practical and more optimistic than our current alternatives. I call it agency.
For me, the essence of agency goes beyond one’s capacity simply to do or achieve (how we often think of it). Agency is not free will alone. Rather, agency is the force of your free will, guided by moral discernment.
Agency is the character-based strength that young people can tap into as a source of morally directed power, and our children do not achieve this by themselves. Young people do not typically find success or meaning in isolation; they need social support from vibrant, well-functioning, mediating structures: families, schools, houses of worship, nonprofit organizations, and community groups.
Amid our nation’s deep challenges, we may not be able to single-handedly reshape Congress’s policy priorities or end racism, but we can work to build a better environment for our children.
We must leverage every imaginable institution, from the school classroom to the church youth group, to surround our children and guide them into a flourishing life unshackled from present realities. What awaits on the far side of such an effort is an “age of agency,” in which children of all backgrounds are prepared to aim high and achieve untold ambitious goals for America’s future.
Ian Rowe ( @IanVRowe ) is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Agency: The Four Point Plan (F.R.E.E.) for ALL Children to Overcome the Victimhood Narrative and Discover Their Pathway to Power .