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The American Dream Is a Fraud. What Now?

In ‘Stakes Is High,’ Mychal Denzel Smith argues that justice begins with challenging America's self-perception

Stakes Is High: Life After the American Dream is the second book from New York Times bestselling author Mychal Denzel Smith. The title is borrowed from the 1996 De La Soul song and eponymous album, and nearly 25 years after its release, Smith — who has contributed to The Washington Post and The Nation and was twice named to The Root’s list of the 100 Most Influential African-Americans — is employing the phrase as a pithy nutshell for this current highly charged political moment. 

Smith turned 30 around the time of the 2016 election and felt he and his country were both at a turning point. Despite feeling the looming threat of Trump, he had initially pitched his agent an entirely different book that avoided the Trump question altogether. “All I do is write,” he tells me over the phone, “and [I didn’t] feel as though writing itself carried any revolutionary potential at that point.” But as Trump’s regime unfolded, and horror after horror set in, Smith felt called to action. “Where I eventually landed,” he explains, “was I have to do what it is that I can do. And so, I sat down and wrote this book.” 

Stakes Is High joins a growing genre of nonfiction tomes about Trump — from journalistic deep dives to memoirs by former administration officials. “There have been so many high-profile books about the Trump era,” the New York Times has reported, “that there’s even a forthcoming book about all the Trump books.” Stakes Is High, however, cuts through all that noise with a tight, 187-page argument from a Black millennial’s perspective. Smith explores the chasm between who this country is and who it desires to be by holding up a mirror to America and asking it to be accountable for its reflection. It unpacks the idea of the American Dream as a gateway to talk about the 2016 election, Ferguson, the current Black Lives Matter protests and the White House’s disastrous pandemic response. The book’s passionate, persuasive cultural essays attempt to pathologize how we got here — where here represents a formerly democratic nation mutating into an autocratic one. 

But that’s not all it is, either, as those essays sit alongside the personal revelations of a young Black man living in a gentrifying Brooklyn and a writer asking his readers to join him in imagining a better future than the one we seem to be headed toward. In Smith’s own words, Stakes Is High is “a desperate plea for community.” “I want to shake loose the dread,” he explains, “and I know I cannot do it alone.”

Below is the rest of my recent interview with Smith, which has been edited for length and clarity.

One of the most persuasive parts of the book is your discussion of America’s dangerous obsession with myths — you call Trump the “embodiment of the American delusion.” 

When you look at someone like Donald Trump, if you strip away some of the bluster, he is someone who is wholly invested in his own mythmaking. The only reason we believed Donald Trump was successful before he was president was because Donald Trump kept telling us he was successful. And that was in the face of all evidence to the contrary. He had gone through a number of bankruptcies, he hadn’t actually improved upon the investment that his father made in him or the wealth that he had inherited. There is nothing about Donald Trump that’s actually successful except the story that Donald Trump told about being successful. 

The way he then markets himself and is able to get the New York media on board with proliferating this story by virtue of trading in gossip and what have you, it’s all a facade. It’s all a means of producing success by virtue of lying. And that’s America in a nutshell, right? There’s so much of our history that’s papered over, that’s deleted, that’s altered. As a country, we don’t have a genuine sense of what constitutes American history. But what we do have is our self-mythologizing. What we do have is all of the high points of our history that we tell, and those things become embedded in the American identity.

When you’re in conflict with the American mythos that upsets people because they have so much invested in the idea of America as inherently good — America as a beacon for democracy, as the land of the free, whether these things have been true or not. But obviously that speaks to the particularities of who has always been able to make those claims. It’s something that America has tried to sell to people who haven’t been able to make those claims, that the possibility of it is always available to them. Maybe you exist in the state of unfreedom now, but there’s a potential for you to be free at some point because that’s what the promise of America is. We establish in the national imagination the idea of the American dream: You can start from nothing and then become something. 

That on its face speaks to an ideology that says that it’s okay for some people to have nothing, that it’s okay to deny people because it’s embedded in the American identity to overcome these obstacles, even if those are life-threatening obstacles. That’s all wrapped up in what Trump has presented to the American people. The American spirit triumphs over everything: “I am the embodiment of that very thing, I worked hard.” He didn’t work hard, but “I, by virtue of my own smarts, my own savviness…” He’s not smart or savvy either. But he could just say those things over and over again the way Americans say over and over again, “We are the greatest nation on the face of the earth, the greatest nation in history.” That, “We are a functioning democracy, that we do value equality and justice.” 

None of these things are true. None of these things are borne out by the actual evidence of our history or our present. But the repetition of them becomes part of who we view ourselves to be and who others view us to be, and we get by on that reputation that’s built on the mythmaking.

I’d like to talk about justice because it’s a word that we’ve heard a lot this year, especially in connection to the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake. You give a robust definition of the word in the book — justice is “a proactive commitment to providing each person with the material and social conditions in which they can both survive and thrive as a healthy and self-actualized human being.” How did you arrive at that definition? 

Well, because the definition that we’ve been using is insufficient. The definition of justice that we essentially buy into by virtue of the criminal legal system is essentially that someone does a wrong to you and then you do a wrong in response. Someone hurts you, and you are able to levy a punishment against them. The worse the offense based on where we’ve landed within the criminal legal system’s definition of it, the worse the punishment. This isn’t justice. This is a system of revenge. Where is any space for healing? 

This isn’t to let people who do heinous things and are responsible for abhorrent violence off the hook for what they’ve done. They do have to have responsibility for those actions and be accountable to them. But if we recognize that those things come from somewhere, we can be more proactive in terms of rooting those actions out of our society in the first place. We can recognize that we have undergirding so much of our actions, both a history and a presence of white supremacist hetero-patriarchal capitalist violence that takes many different forms and that people are products of. 

[People] are fighting within a system for their own sense of self and identity and material goods to help sustain an adequate life — not even a good life. People committing harm are doing so on the basis of that understanding of the world; to dominate it, they need to use violence, they need to steal and rob for their basic survival. If we have a system of justice understanding that that’s what’s taking place, then justice means not that people get revenge in the event of harm being caused, but they get the freedom from the harm in the first place. That takes an overhaul of the entire system. It takes an investment in the actual needs of people. I mean, we’re talking basic things here — food, clothes, shelter, good health care. If we’re providing a good life for everyone, that’s justice. That’s a means of mitigating harm. It’s not going to be found in the way that we’re doing things right now. 

Relatedly, Trevor Noah brought you onto his podcast in June to talk about policing. He talked about how he’s worried abolition isn’t going to seem possible to a lot of people because it’s going to be too difficult to counter the years of copaganda on TV shows and in movies like Die Hard that have made it so that viewers have a positive association with the police even when they abuse their power. Basically, our imaginations have been corrupted. So what do you, as an abolitionist, say to people who can’t yet imagine a world without police? 

It’s funny to me, because what you’re saying in terms of where people are getting the idea that police are good is true — it’s largely from the depiction within film and television. It’s not with people’s own personal experiences with police. There’s an odd story that people will tell about a good interaction with police, but most people — and this cuts across racial and gender identity — have bad interactions with police because you’re going to. This is a person emboldened and given the authority of the state to use violence against you. 

Everyone I know has a bad story about being pulled over by police or getting a ticket from police. The police ruined their night out, and this, that and the other thing. None of these times did the police actually help with conflict resolution. 

So it’s about getting people to think about that first — that you have way more stories of negative interactions with police than you do positive ones. The positive stories that you have of the police are given to you by virtue of, again, mythmaking. The Los Angeles Police Department goes on a PR offensive, and they say, “to protect and serve.” This gets translated into the idea that the police’s job is to protect people and to serve them. But neither has ever been the case historically. To protect? They protect property. To serve? They serve at the behest of capital and white supremacy. That has always been the case. 

There is so much wrapped up in the idea that there is a looming threat, and this is obviously racialized and sort of comes to bear, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s when we see civil rights uprisings and different urban uprisings in Chicago, Watts and Harlem. Mayoral candidates say to a white populace, “I can protect you from that looming threat of Negro violence over there. I can make sure that it doesn’t affect you out in the suburbs.” That translated to a national level with Richard Nixon and the Southern Strategy, and Ronald Reagan is sort of the culmination of that. You can see Donald Trump deploying a similar tactic today when he talks about suburban women. The racial coding is there. 

The feeling is the police are the only thing standing between us and full-on anarchy in the streets, and the only reason that people aren’t killing as much as they could be is because the police are there. But police presence doesn’t prevent these things from happening. At best, what police do is respond and put someone in handcuffs and potentially prison. But they generally don’t clear most of the homicides that happen, burglaries, theft. Even when they do, the idea of clearance is just that they put someone in handcuffs and get someone charged. 

Hopefully, we learned in the last few years that police lie, or police arrest the wrong people and they don’t do thorough investigations when they’re in the wrong. I hope that particularly in the past few months, Hollywood is having its own reckoning to recognize its complicity in building the myth around policing in the U.S. and that they’re saying to themselves, “We dramatized this because cops’ lives are actually boring or they don’t do the things that we think of,” and that they’re now thinking of ways to depict police in a different way that can contribute to a shift in consciousness. 

There’s a statue being built to honor Shirley Chisholm — to whom this book is partially dedicated — in Prospect Park, and you wrote about how you have mixed feelings about it because inevitably “there will be someone sleeping in the shadow of her statue.” What do you make of other symbols like the Black Lives Matter street art that so many cities installed this year? Can public art have a role in the revolution?

You know, all of that feels like bullshit pacification [Laughs]. When I was talking about the Shirley Chisholm statue going up — it’s part of this larger city project to honor more women with statues in the city — I was thinking about the actual record of Shirley Chisholm, not the legacy that gets discussed; her being the first Black congresswoman and the first Black woman to run for president on a major party ticket, a trailblazer. I mean, her actual fight for poor people, the things she presented as a legislator during her career in order to help fight for a welfare state that actually cared for people who had been exploited and pushed out of the system. 

When I think about the idea that they’re putting up a statue of Shirley Chisholm to honor her in a place in which I can see that legislators haven’t lived up to her record — what she dedicated her life to — I just think we didn’t earn that statue. We haven’t earned the right to honor Shirley Chisholm in a way that’s symbolic when the material fight that she waged hasn’t been won. To me, the debate around if you tear down Confederate statues, you should put up these other statues of Black freedom fighters or civil rights heroes or that Juneteenth should be a national holiday, it’s like, when did we earn this? 

We’re talking about establishing Juneteenth as a national holiday because we’re talking about emancipation and Black freedom, and it’s like, well, do we have that as our status now? Are we actually experiencing freedom? Those are the questions that I want us to ask more than whether or not it’s politically solvent to erect these statues and monuments and holidays. The biggest example is Ronald Reagan. He established Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a holiday, but what have we actually lived up to in terms of King’s political philosophy? What have we lived up to to honor what he fought for during the life that was cut short by an assassin’s bullet? 

I think we have to be more conscientious when doing these celebrations that we’re paying more attention to the material needs of people as opposed to offering the symbolism and celebration in their stead. 

In the book you cite Alex S. Vitale’s The End of Policing, which was a very popular book to recommend this year on anti-racist reading lists. I’m curious about your thoughts on the pedagogical efficacy of anti-racist reading lists because I have a feeling Stakes Is High will be added to some. 

[Laughs] Well, if it sells books, then why not? There’s a well-meaning position of gathering these lists, but how much follow-through is there on reading them? How much follow-through is there on engaging with the material, to challenging yourself, to challenging your social circle, to challenging your thoughts on ideologies that have produced patterns and behavior that have allowed people to continue supporting political candidates that run counter to the ideas of these anti-racist reading lists? Where does it produce action? What kind of consciousness is being raised? 

That’s what I’m more interested in. I’m happy for everyone who sold thousands of books because of those anti-racist reading lists. I mean, redistribute the wealth, right? But that’s the thing, if you weren’t going to read it, you could have just handed your money over. The point of it is that you seriously engage it as a text that’s worthwhile, that will challenge you in some way. 

Then there’s also the fact that so many of these lists being constructed — and this only happened in the wake of the uprising and in response to the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor — were very Black-focused. The idea that all of these things are collapsible and that Black writing is only to be consumed as a means to becoming less racist or anti-racist and not on its own merit — not for its own examination of the human condition or because of its achievements within the world of letters in pushing forward the art form of the essay or the memoir or the novel — that in itself is a further dehumanization in which Black writers and artists only serve as some sort of syllabus for white people to consume in moments in which white people feel that they need to educate themselves. 

If you broaden your consumption of this work in the first place, you don’t have to catch up with an anti-racist reading list.