Michelle Obama, the American Dream, and black millennials

I’d like to hear a conversation between Michelle Obama and Reniqua Allen.

Who’s Reniqua Allen?, you ask.

She’s the author of the recently published book It Was All a Dream: A New Generation Confronts the Broken Promise to Black America. Coincidentally, on the day I finished reading Obama’s memoir Becoming, I noticed an essay by Allen in a pile of back issues of the New York Times Sunday Review. In her late 30s, Allen is almost two decades younger than Obama, an “early millennial,” as she puts it. For her, “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.”

The American Dream is alive and well in Obama’s story. As she grew up, her family of four lived in a one-bedroom apartment in South Shore, from which whites were fleeing. What Michelle had going for her were smarts and parents who were supportive and set an example of hard work. She also was determined. When a high school guidance counselor suggested she wasn’t Princeton material, she resolved to prove the counselor wrong and got into Princeton, which led to Harvard Law, which led to a job in Chicago with the prestigious law firm Sidley Austin.

As Obama tells her story, she says again and again that she’s an ordinary person — “If I can do it, you can too.” It’s a message she’s communicated in speeches to young women and young minorities many times. She clearly believes she’s not an exception.

Five years ago Allen set out to find out what other black millennials thought of the American Dream and how they could attain it. She spoke with more than 75 people from diverse cities and backgrounds. They were frustrated by limited opportunities, she writes, “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 admire Michelle Obama and her fervor for inspiring young people from underprivileged backgrounds. I also wouldn’t question the reality of Allen’s experience and that of her millennial compatriots. According to the reviews I read of It Was All a Dream, Allen backs up the personal stories with statistics, such as that young black college graduates take on much more educational debt than whites and have an unemployment rate the same as white high school graduates.

One review of It Was All a Dream mentioned that some young African Americans are rejecting “the White-picket fence version of the dream” and redefining success for themselves.

In the unlikely event Obama and Allen were to be interviewed together, here’s the question I’d like to hear asked: Should young people of color be encouraged to aim for the top, or does that set them up for disappointment?

The issue of minority aspiration was more than theoretical for me a few years ago when I volunteered as a mentor for an organization that helped Chicago Public Schools students get into college. The students, who had applied and been selected for the program, were urged to aim high. I remember one presentation where they were encouraged to go farther than Northern Illinois University, both academically and geographically. My thought was that Northern would be a good fit for some of them, based on what I was seeing of their writing.

Like Michelle Obama’s high school guidance counselor, maybe I was selling them short. What I should have given more consideration was the role of support. Obama would surely deny she’s an example of the American Dream if it implies achieving all on one’s own. She gives credit to the support of her parents, teachers, mentors, friends, husband, and the Third World Center at Princeton that was her refuge on an overwhelmingly white campus.

I would guess that when Allen’s subjects talk about the lack of opportunity, they’re including the lack of support to get an education without great debt, to find and stay in jobs, and to live in decent, affordable housing. Those are basic, middle-of-the-road goals. I hope that we as a society can agree that every American is entitled to that much. Whether young people should aim higher can be debated.



What’s with the Chicago Tribune’s candidate endorsements? Back in 2016, the Tribune editorial page excoriated Donald Trump and then endorsed the Libertarian presidential candidate instead of the only candidate who could have defeated Trump, Hillary Clinton. Last week, after countless editorials condemning Chicago’s culture of cronyism, it endorsed Bill Daley for mayor. I was baffled.

I had already eliminated Daley and the other three opportunists (Toni Preckwinkle, Susana Mendoza, and Gery Chico) who waited for Mayor Emanuel to announce he wouldn’t run again before getting into the race. A few weeks ago I wrote that I liked Paul Vallas and Lori Lightfoot but was leaning toward Vallas because of his financial chops — but I didn’t want my vote to be wasted. According to a recent NBC poll, Lightfoot has a much greater chance than Vallas of being one of the two candidates to survive the February 26 primary. For what it’s worth, a WBEZ quiz informed me that I agree with her the most, and the Sun-Times endorsed her as independent, principled, and the best candidate to pull the whole city up. Now I’m leaning toward Lightfoot but am glad there’s another week to deliberate.



“President Trump got one thing right . . . about his [national emergency] declaration when he said, 'I didn’t have to do this.' He’s right, he didn’t have to do this. In fact, he can’t do this because the US Constitution gives Congress, not the president, the power to direct dollars.”
— California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who will contest the declaration of a national emergency in court


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  • Lightfoot would be killed in a runoff and we will end up with a machine candidate - which I believe it is why the ST likely endorsed Lightfoot in the 1st place. Vallas' budget and finance expertise are badly needed, his experience across sectors is much deeper and broader than Lightfoot, who, while a nice person, is limited to law enforcement. The next mayor will be in contentious contract negotiations with the CTU within weeks of taking office. Vallas has negotiated 17 labor agreements - 2 with CTU, 1 in Philadelphia Schools, and 1 in Bridgeport. The head of the CTU at the time Vallas was at CPS, Deborah Lynch, has endorsed Vallas. The labor agreements were in Chicago with police, fire, etc., while he was budget director. He never had a strike or an arbitration, and his contracts never bankrupted taxpayers either. He has executed massive restructuring projects -including overseeing the construction/renovation of 100's of school building and resurfacing miles of city streets. He left the CPS in 2001 with cash reserves and a fully funded pension system. He has the personality to corral city council. If the City of Chicago was United Airlines, I would hire Lightfoot to be General Council, but I would hire Vallas to be CEO. We are lucky he is applying for this job and not one like that. He barely (thanks to the machine) lost to Blagojevich in 2001, and as Lt. Governor candidate under Quinn to Rauner in 2014. I do not think we can risk a third pass on this highly qualified, dedicated public servant. Rahm got out because polling showed there was no way he could beat Vallas in a one-to-one. If Rahm couldn't beat him - none of the others can either. Their negatives are almost as high,. We need to rally to get the best candidate into this runoff.
    Punch 21 Paul Vallas!

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