I bang on the sliding glass door and wait in a puddle of sweat until my dad grunts up from his post-dinner CNN binge and opens the door. “Girl, you break this glass, you better have the money to fix it.”
I don’t. “Have you heard from your brother?” My mom sits fixed on her computer screen, clacking and clicking away. It’s 7 pm. She has worked a 12-hour day at her stay-at-home desk. But if I broke the glass, my parents wouldn’t have the money to fix it either. “No.”
My other brother waits for me at the kitchen table, pre-algebra on his Chromebook screen. I’m his teacher, but also his classmate because the BA I’ve collected isn’t enough for a good job. I need a PhD to spell the American Dream so that one day, maybe, I will have the money to fix a broken door.
Sweat saturates my mask and drips black Sharpie down my arm. Sweat fades the hotline number for bail, the remnant of a night spent protesting the police—the same police I watched harass a homeless man outside the 7-11 on my run.
I’m sweating from my run, hot and angry thinking about the homeless man and Breonna Taylor and my mom still working and my brother not in school and the national crisis narrated by Anderson Cooper directly to my living room in the hottest September, in one of the hottest years in human history. Watching the final act of the American Dream: a nightmare.
And I think, “Is this how it feels to live at the end?”
But there is another heat inside of me, an ember burning bright inside my chest, another dream sewn into my heart with the hands of my grandmother, and her mother, and all the Black women that came before. It’s growing hot and feels about to burst into a flame: the dream of environmental justice.
Covid-19 ruptured any faith I still held in the American Dream. The ground beneath us fell away, and capitalism did not stretch out a social safety net to catch the 22 million people that lost their jobs, the millions at risk of eviction, and the 54 million that went hungry. Four hundred and fifty-four thousand, two hundred and nine people (and counting) have died. The American Dream does not save them.
The American Dream was always a myth. My parents are Air Force veterans, civilian government servants who both worked for degrees as full-time parents. But in my living room, I’m watching Mom work 12-hour days because we have multiple student loans and her three kids rack up medical bills. And so does she—because she works 12-hour days, and it strains her back and her neck and her eyes and her brain. She works 12-hour days so we can have Christmas and birthdays and a house with a mortgage and chase the American Dream deeper into debt.
So many families do the same: $90,460 of debt, on average.
Some of our debt is from my oldest brother at UC Merced. In my living room, we were waiting for a call, but probably a text, letting us know if he was going to have to evacuate because of the wildfire smoke choking him and the Central Valley.
We also chased the American Dream into a climate crisis. The mid-20th century, post–World War II definition of the Dream: unlimited consumption, material wealth, and fossil fuels on tap. The Great Acceleration—the ongoing era since the 1950s defined by our rapid rate of population growth, economic activity, and degradation of the natural world—extracted gasoline for our private cars, mined coal for electricity, powered the production of cheap, plastic goods. My state, California, has warmed three degrees since the last century and set a global record this summer—130 degrees.
Despite all the enormous wealth that the Great Acceleration brought the United States, my family did not really share in the benefits. Instead, we pay with the climate crisis and debt. The corporate titans are richer than ever and hoard 40 percent of our national wealth. My mother, and so many other American workers are more productive than ever. But the average wage for a blue-collar worker like my father has barely budged since the 1980s.
Wealth disparities widen with race. Black Americans, like my father, hold $5.04 for every $100 of white wealth. Health disparities widen too: Pollution makes asthma a national health crisis—but Black children are 5 times more likely to die from asthma.
Children like me and my brothers. Genetics may be partially to blame, but we also grew up in San Diego—one of the most polluted cities in the United States. I wanted my brother home because I wanted his sensitive lungs safe from wildfire smoke.
But I am also afraid for his drive home. The freeway from San Diego through the Central Valley hides Highway Patrol cars under overpasses and with dimmed lights on shoulders. Police profile drivers like him: young men with dark skin and black hair. They could pull him over, tap on his window, and if his hands drift from 10 and 2 on the wheel, or even if they don’t… police violence is a leading cause of death for young Black men.
And if I didn’t know it already, the thought of an officer killing my 21-year-old little brother for driving home while Black is a reminder that the American Dream was never dreamt with us in mind. The 1950s Dream set on the backdrop of a segregated America redlined people like us away from suburban neighborhoods, placed toxic waste sites near our communities, and policed our streets with violence to enforce a whites-only Dream.
We live at end of a nightmare. But also at the beginning of a dream. For as long as the American Dream has exploited and polluted and oppressed, the people living on its margins dreamed of something else: justice.
This dream of justice is handed down through the generations as our inheritance, and now it burns bright inside of me—in all of us. In this moment of American Nightmare, our generation has the opportunity to blow this ember into a flame and light the path forward for our country. We have the opportunity to reclaim the American Dream and replace it with a dream fit for all and the 21st century: environmental justice.
The environment is more than the High Sierras or the long stretches of my California coast. It is our built and lived environment: work, school, hospitals, homes, stores, and streets. And if we erase the lines drawn to compartmentalize each crisis—Covid-19, climate, racial injustice, and wealth inequality—it becomes clear that it is all one crisis with one solution. Our country has ruptured, but we can rebuild with the blueprint of environmental justice: equity, empathy, and climate science.
I’m dreaming of my oldest brother on his drive home, and without fear of the highway patrol, stopping to recharge his electric car along I-99. He takes the time to breathe the abundance of fresh air in the Central Valley. His mind is fixed on his upcoming and loan-free graduation, and the job in the Civilian Climate Corps that waits afterwards.
I’m dreaming of my youngest brother physically in middle school, opening a packed lunch of fresh food. He talks with his friends about boys over the hammering of the solar panels being installed on his classroom roof. In his 8th grade American history class, he learns the truth of our past, but also our future. Today, he learned about the Indigenous vision of a just transition.
I’m dreaming of my parents planning their debt-free retirement and blurred days of leisure. Mom can visit any doctor of her choosing, and her health care is not bound to a job and a for-profit insurance plan. Dad watches sports with a beer, without worry if his children are going to make it in America. Or if someone will have the money to fix the glass door.
I’m dreaming of me on a maskless run, sweating in peace. At peace, because the half of me that is my white mother and the half that is my Black father are socially equal and I feel whole. At peace, because my youngest brother will grow up with dreams, my oldest brother will be safe on his drive home, and both of them can breathe.
I’m dreaming of the Green New Deal. Abolition of the oppressive and divisive systems that have denied so many Americans a Dream for so long will be a lifetime work for the next generation—my brothers’ generation, and mine. But Congress can help us get started with comprehensive environmental justice legislation. We can begin a decade-long project to reclaim the Dream with jobs, social justice, and enter the era of the Great Decarbonization, for net-zero emissions by 2030.
Right now, the 2020s are a decade of climate emergency and people hungry, jobless, and dying. But our Dream cannot wait, be deferred or denied any longer.
So come dream with us: environmental justice, colorized, 2021.