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Why we need to stop sharing American Dream success stories

Why would author Casey Gerald want people to stop highlighting success stories like his own? Gerald says he grew up on “the wrong side of the tracks” and went on to Harvard Business school. But he says celebrations of the American Dream distract from reality, letting society off the hook for failing to give all children a fair shot. Gerald offers his humble opinion on the reality of American opportunity.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    More than 20 percent of African-Americans and 18 percent of Hispanics are living in poverty in this country. That's according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau figures.

    While those numbers are on the wane, they remain roughly double the rate for whites. Achieving the so-called American dream is clearly harder for some than for others.

    Tonight, author and entrepreneur Casey Gerald shares his Humble Opinion on what he calls the myth of that dream and how its very notion can be destructive.

  • Casey Gerald:

    I was born on the wrong side of the tracks, or, as George W. Bush said of me, the other side of the river.

    We'd met on the buffet line at his presidential library, and he'd become fond of retelling his version of my story.

    And he was right: Most cities have railroad tracks to separate poor people of color from other citizens. In Dallas, there's a whole river between us, the Trinity.

    In all-black Oak Cliff, my neighborhood, I was raised by my grandmother, who worked as a domestic, and by my sister, who adopted me when our mother disappeared. I watched my father struggle with addiction, and watched my friends endure the same or worse.

    But that is not why Mr. Bush felt moved to share my story. At 18, I left my side of the river and traveled 1,600 miles away to Yale. I played varsity football. I interned on Wall Street. I worked in Washington in the early years of the Obama administration, and continued to Harvard Business School, where I started a nonprofit to work with small business owners in places like Detroit, New Orleans, and rural Montana.

    I have seen and lived America from the very bottom to the very top. And so, in Mr. Bush's eyes, and in many others', I am the embodiment of the American dream.

    The sad thing is that they are right. The American dream, you see, is a fantasy, a myth that relies on stories like mine to distract us from the American machine, the conveyor belt that leads most young people, especially from neighborhoods like mine, from nothing to nowhere, while picking off the chosen few, like me.

    Yes, there is Oprah. There is Sonia Sotomayor. But the dream cannot compete with the American reality, that a kid in my neighborhood is expected to earn $21,000 a year, less than their parents were expected to make, that 13 million American children live in households without enough to eat, that one in 30 don't have a stable household at all.

    The stats only begin to make the tragedy plain. When we highlight stories like mine, we send the message to kids that it's their fault if they don't succeed. Even worse, we send the message to the rest of society that it's not our fault that this country has failed to give every child a fair shot.

    The dream makes the machine seem accidental, rather than designed. That, to me, would be a story worth telling.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A lot to think about.

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