‘Faith in the Dream’

Kevin C. Peterson | 9/5/2012, 8:07 a.m.
President Barack Obama and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick listen...
President Barack Obama and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick listen as Orchard Gardens Elementary School students recite Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the White House on Feb. 28, 2012. In his new e-book ‘Faith in the Dream’ Patrick praises the academic turnaround at the school. Official White House / Pete Souza

Yet at times he hits discordant notes, such as when he complains of being unfairly harassed by a protester at the Boston Occupy Movement site last year as a “1 percenter.” Well, having amassed significant wealth while working at large American corporations such as Coca-Cola and Texaco, and serving on the board of Ameriquest, the accusation may happen to ring true. Patrick comes off as shallow and dismissive in rebuffing the protester.

Maybe the plutocrat charge rings untrue to Patrick because he is always mindful of his blackness and the status of inferiority that designation has connoted for most of the nation’s history. Perhaps he feels he will never find himself fully in the place of privilege and ongoing ease as his white fellow elites.

With all this said, a discomforting elephant sits in the room, challenging Patrick’s belief in the American Dream. While his e-book is generally high-minded about what is possible in America, its absence of introspection on how Patrick arrived at his place of comfort and success deserves scrutiny. One wonders, for instance, why Patrick is so slow to critically examine how he eventually arrived at his wealth and high position while so many others also born to his class have not.

Certainly hard work and intelligence played an enormous role in his financial and political fortune. Most would praise Patrick for embracing the values of opportunity, fair play, and equality he steadfastly espouses throughout this book.

But to read his personal and professional narrative closely, Patrick is also clearly a beneficiary of opportunities and advantages that many born to his station in life will never partake, mainly because of persistent structural social and political inequality. In this narrow context, “Faith in the Dream” may equally highlight the values of “opportunity, equality and fair play” that Patrick believes are accessible to all — and key to gaining access to the middle class — as well as the improbable opportunities he and a few others of his post-civil rights generation have been allotted by chance and circumstance.

Perhaps Patrick’s personal good fortune and success are the exception to the rule. Maybe the civic values he espouses are not the actual root of individual upward mobility and integration into a cornucopia of American material comforts, but rather the cosmetic trinkets attained by the few of his race and class by sheer chance. The sobering aspect of Patrick’s book may well be that he has bought into a version of a dream that might work for a fortuitous few but which is not at all supported by the current American reality.

Patrick’s sunny civic disposition and confidence that the nation can be redirected to grander days displays just how much he has been imbued with a belief that, in America, all things are possible – even for poor children like him who grow up in such unforgiving places as the South Side of Chicago, Watts, or North Philadelphia.

Patrick, brilliant, incredibly gifted and destined, it seems, for a greater future in public or private life, may indeed be living the American Dream that he witnessed Dr. King so passionately pressing for those many years ago. But because he is one to whom much has been given, one hopes to see him tirelessly work to find ways to put that dream in the reach of all who long for its spoils.

Kevin C. Peterson is founder of the New Democracy Coalition, a Boston-based organization that focuses on civic policy, civic literacy and electoral justice. This article first appeared in Commonwealth Magazine.