Who stole the American dream and how can we get it back?

We recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. King sketched a land of equal rights and opportunities as the birthright of every American. Increasingly, it appears that dream has been stolen from us.

King’s speech was much on mind last week when I toured the inner city of Detroit. I witnessed miles of shuttered factories and destroyed neighborhoods, with weeds five feet high and rows of houses rotting on foundations or completely torn down. Factory jobs that once sustained families who could send their children to college are gone. Businesses have collapsed. Half of the population has moved away.

My parents grew up in that once prosperous city, but their high school has been torn down, along with about 200 other schools, as well as the home of my grandparents. The inner city looks like bombed-out Dresden at the end of World War Two. A bankruptcy proceeding now threatens to turn over the pensions of hard-working city employees to pay off debts owed to big banks.

I drove from the utter destruction of inner city Detroit into and through the adjacent luxurious Grosse Point suburbs. I saw manicured lawns and one mansion advertised for sale at $26 million. I kept asking myself, how could this happen? In my mind, this scene of vast inequality is linked to other questions. Why does 1 percent of the population own more wealth than 90 percent of the rest of us combined? Why is our political system unable to ensure health care, a job, and decent living standards in the richest country in the world? Who is responsible?

I found it doubly depressing to hear the answers given to such questions by my dearest relatives in the Detroit area: Black people don’t want to work; Obama is a liar and a socialist who has torn down the country; union wages are to blame for the recent economic crisis, etc. As we talked, in the background Fox television blared out one scapegoating accusation after another.

A recent book, “Who Stole the American Dream?” by Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Hedrick Smith, sheds a better light on why America has strayed so far from Dr. King’s vision. Our current disasters do not result from random economic forces nor simply from competition between capitalist enterprises in the global economy.

Smith’s book looks back to the “power shift” of the 1970s and 1980s when business conservatives took back power from environmental and health protections, labor laws, and anti-trust regulations that cut into their profits. A cascading series of political campaigns and economic crises for working people followed. A conservative political agenda not only deregulated business and cut taxes but also undermined social programs, unions, and middle class standards of living.

The new oligarchy of the 1 percent, aligned with the unrelenting political agenda of conservatives, is only one cause of the country’s dysfunction. Our problems are many and deep, as the unraveling situation in Detroit shows. Democrats as well as Republicans get the blame for dismantling the Dream.

I think millions know that something utterly destructive to American democracy has happened. Although our political system is paralyzed by sabotage and attack politics and Americans are often at each other’s throats, it is possible to understand who stole the dream and how we can get it back.

I instead of looking for scapegoats, we need to study the problems we confront and find ways to fix them, together. It is possible. Please join the conversation.

If you go

Hedrick Smith speaks on his book, “Who Stole the American Dream?” at Philip Hall, University of Washington Tacoma, on Thursday at 7:00 p.m. The talk and a 6:00 reception are free and open to the public.

Michael Honey is the Fred and Dorothy Haley Professor of Humanities at the University of Washington Tacoma.