Listen to this story




Giving up on the American Dream

As a young black son of immigrants, the closer Dajourn Anuku came to affluence and success, the more vulnerable he became

OnOn a muggy Saturday morning in August, 18-year-old Dajourn Anuku stood outside the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City, wearing cutoff jean shorts and a baseball cap sporting the phrase “Be Humble.” A large, meaty kid, Dajourn was sweating beneath the weight of his massive backpack and a plastic shopping bag stuffed with laundry detergent, paper towels, and dryer sheets. Earlier that morning, he’d lugged all of this from a Georgetown University dorm room to his bus, where the driver requested $35 for the luggage. Dajourn had the money but wasn’t willing to part with it. He’d just finished a pre-college summer program at one of the country’s most prestigious universities, but he was still the son of Nigerian and Jamaican immigrants from blue-collar Canarsie, Brooklyn—a kid who schlepped his laundry detergent, paper towels, and dryer sheets across five states because that stuff cost money.

Luckily, Dajourn was good at persuading people. “He can talk his way out of anything,” his father, George, told me that morning as we drove to Port Authority. Sure enough, Dajourn convinced the driver to drop the luggage fee.

If Dajourn could get himself out of sticky situations, he could also get himself into promising ones. There aren’t many black, first-generation students at Georgetown, which Dajourn refers to as a “PWI,” or predominantly white institution. This year, 12 percent of Georgetown’s admitted freshmen were black, and 11 percent were first-generation college students. The school has need-blind admissions, but the median family income of a Georgetown student is about $229,000, and 74 percent of its students come from the country’s top 20 percent of earners. In contrast, only 3.1 percent of students come from the bottom 20 percent.

“I can attain as much as possible, but I’m a black person.”

Admission into this rarefied world required a mental, emotional, and physical effort on the part of Dajourn and his parents that was nothing short of extraordinary. And Dajourn’s future is not promised: Though the majority of Georgetown students experience upward mobility after graduation, a 2018 study on race and economic opportunity in America found that “black Americans have substantially lower rates of upward mobility and higher rates of downward mobility than whites, leading to large income disparities that persist across generations.” Further, the statistics showing that children of immigrants tend to out-earn their parents don’t necessarily apply to second-generation blacks.

Even if he doesn’t know these figures, Dajourn sees them play out in his everyday life. “I can attain as much as possible, but I’m a black person,” he told me the week before he returned to Washington, D.C., to officially start his freshman year. “That’s going to overshadow everything else. Maybe [it would be different] if I was a white man whose family moved to America.”

Dajourn says he’s given up on the American dream; he’s not sure he ever believed in it. Still, he wants to succeed and is incredibly eager to get ahead. If there’s ever going to be real mobility — and real equality — in America, Dajourn says it must be reimagined in the image of kids like him: the ones who are not humble, but persuasive. The ones busting their way into elite PWI’s like Georgetown, the very places they don’t belong.

InIn theory, Dajourn wants much of what the American dream symbolizes: economic and social mobility, stability and success born of hard work. But experience has taught him that the path for black immigrants and their kids is different from that of their white counterparts. Take his neighborhood of Canarsie, New York, for example, a majority black community of low-income families, many of them Caribbean in origin. Though the poverty rate is relatively low there compared to the city at large, more than one in 10 minors living in Canarsie experienced poverty in 2016. In 2017, the community had three times the citywide crime rate.

From a demographic standpoint, you might call Canarsie middling; it wasn’t terrible, but it didn’t give Dajourn a lot of opportunities. He and his mother describe the neighborhood schools as crowded and rowdy. Fights between students are frequent — and frequently broken up by police. Academically speaking, student performance is slightly higher than citywide but still dismal: Only 42.3 percent of fourth-graders perform at grade level in math, and only 45.6 percent perform at grade level in English.

Was this the American dream?

From an early age, Dajourn grew up with certain advantages that others in the neighborhood lacked. Most important, he had two highly involved parents. His mother, Nareen, forbade him from hanging out with his friends when school let out, precisely because she worried about the fighting and the heavy police presence. Sometimes she stood out on the street, watching her kids to ensure that they did as they were told. Dajourn learned to appreciate his parents’ concern. “My parents loved to stress that you do not leave the house and act like you don’t have parents who care for you,” he said. “When we stepped outside, it was with the understanding of the struggles they faced.”

But Dajourn also knew that his family’s economic resources were limited. Nareen, a Jamaican immigrant who had dreamed of becoming a nurse, works 96-hour weeks as a secure care treatment aid for the New York State Department of Mental Health. The position, which entails assisting and restraining patients, is both difficult and dangerous. His father, George, works 40-hour weeks as an operating room tech, prepping for and cleaning up after surgeries. Both overcame significant obstacles to reach this point. When she came to the United States as a teenager, Nareen was sporadically homeless. She eventually opened two cafés that were shuttered because of neighborhood violence. George, who was raised in both inner-city Chicago and Nigeria, fled his abusive family as a teenager and managed to make it on his own. Neither he nor Nareen graduated from high school, though Nareen earned her GED.

Today, the couple earns enough to cover the $1,900 monthly rent on their cramped if homey apartment, in which, remarkably, each of their three boys has his own bedroom.Though Nareen says they’re getting by fine, Dajourn and his brothers qualified for free and reduced lunch throughout school. (Nareen and George would not disclose their annual earnings. To qualify for those two programs, a family of five can’t make much more a year than $37,000 or $53,000, respectively.)

Was this the American dream? Dajourn’s friend Rawchaayah Charles, who grew up nearby and attended high school with Dajourn, answered the question this way: “The only way your children can be successful is to move to another country, work crazy hours, not make a lot of money for a chance that your kids might do better? That’s not a dream. That’s a nightmare.”

EEven as a kid, Dajourn was ambitious. He came to believe that the closer your school was to Manhattan, the more likely you were to get Manhattan opportunities and have a Manhattan kind of career. But here is where Dajourn’s ambitions ran into reality. Yes, the dream was about moving up and achieving more. But it was also about making yourself less vulnerable. Instead, Dajourn experienced the opposite: The closer he was to affluence and success, the more vulnerable he became. Riding the subway or bus toward Manhattan, he witnessed the city’s stop-and-frisk policy firsthand. “I’d see people at the train station who were bothered by the police. And I would think about how police officers are doing more injuring than protecting,” he said.

Last year, his older brother Terrence, a psychology major at the University of Buffalo, was falsely accused of committing fraud. Two police officers stopped him outside one of his classes, asked him to identify himself, and then took him to the station. Apparently, a woman had come to the campus police, said a black man from the university had stolen her bank information and, when the police presented her with a series of student IDs, pointed out Terrence. He was questioned and released for lack of evidence. His misstep, it seemed, was being a black man who may or may not have resembled another black man.

In theory, a white immigrant or a white immigrant’s kid could blend; with the right clothes and the right swagger, people might never suspect humble beginnings. Dajourn didn’t have that luxury. In proximity of Manhattan — or anywhere that was predominantly white and privileged — a person who saw him might make any number of conscious or unconscious assumptions.

Racism, racial ignorance, or, at the very least, unconscious bias became more acute for Dajourn the more upwardly mobile he became.

“For black men, even if you were born to very wealthy parents, your chances of falling economically are very high,” says Liz Hipple, a senior policy adviser at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. She points to the 2018 race and economic opportunity study, explaining that downward mobility for black males in particular was not associated with things like a lack of education or a nontraditional family structure. So what was the cause? “You need to look at the incarceration policy, which very disproportionately affects black men,” Hipple says. “You need to look at the impact of racism itself.”

Racism, racial ignorance, or, at the very least, unconscious bias became more acute for Dajourn the more upwardly mobile he became. The summer before 12th grade, he’d been able to attend a summer study trip to Ireland, where most of his peers were private-school white kids. One girl from Westchester, New York, the daughter of Harvard graduates, spoke frequently to Dajourn about her expensive tutors and family vacations. “She wasn’t socially aware,” he explained. And so, he told her, “Not everyone can do those things.”

In the moment, the girl didn’t protest, but later at dinner, she looked at Dajourn across the table and said defensively, “I feel like you’re watching me.”

Dajourn burned with discomfort. “Are you trying to get a reaction from me?” he wondered. “I had to calm myself down and not react,” he told me, “even though I was still sitting there.”

Though the girl had accused Dajourn of watching her, he was the one under the microscope. Just a few days before, his Irish host brother had reached out and touched his hair without bothering to ask. And yet Dajourn was being made to feel that he was insensitive and rude. No wonder he felt amped up. His father would later warn his son never to let his emotions get the better of him. Because here was the other reason Dajourn couldn’t believe in the American dream: It was a minefield.

“That girl was trying to trigger ignorance out of you,” George said, “to have you [get angry], to trigger a stereotype.” Dajourn didn’t need any clarification here. He was in middle school when 17-year-old Treyvon Martin, an unarmed black kid, was shot while walking around a gated community in Florida. It was the first time — though by no means the last — that Dajourn realized how quickly and dangerously basic interactions between whites and blacks could escalate. It was a fear that George shared — and one that took on new urgency now that his son was about to leave for college. “Don’t let nobody squeeze your trigger,” he said.

DDuring high school, Dajourn’s teachers did everything in their power to convince him that college was a real possibility. “My education tried to enforce that the American dream is real,” he said.

The summer before seventh grade, Dajourn was sitting on his front porch, paging through a brochure of New York City high schools, when his eye caught on the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice (SLJ). The law-themed public high school in downtown Brooklyn was just across the bridge from Manhattan. Last spring,100 percent of the 2018 graduating class was accepted into college — a number unparalleled for public schools without a specialized admissions exam and where the majority of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

In New York City, students apply to high schools via lottery or admissions test. In theory, a student from a poor neighborhood can secure admission to an affluent neighborhood school, though the chances are low. New York City schools are notoriously segregated, and only recently has the city started taking proactive steps toward integrating its most elite public high schools.

To access SLJ, which caters to kids like Dajourn but accepts only about 118 freshmen each year, you have to know about it (a greater barrier than it may seem), have the flexibility for an hour-long commute, and be selected in the lottery. And it’s not like the SLJ model is anything close to common. The school’s success is based largely on its relationship with the Adams Street Foundation, an affiliated nonprofit whose sole purpose is to help students prepare for and, crucially, fund college. Adams Street money means that SLJ has many of the resources — like intensive college counseling, scholarship assistance, mentorship programs, trips abroad, and academic electives — that are more typical of Brooklyn Friends, a private Quaker school just down the street.

“I know every single kid in the building,” says Nicholas Caruso, who taught Dajourn forensic science during his freshman year and advised the Young Men’s Initiative, which, among other activities, takes students to JPMorgan Chase for regular mentorship sessions. “There’s nowhere for you to hide,” Caruso says. “By the time they become juniors, the chase is on. You’re being hounded to make sure you dot the Is and cross the Ts.”

Dajourn’s parents also emphasized education to a fault. His father used to make him and his brothers sit at the kitchen table for hours until they’d mastered their homework. “That table has a lot of tears on it,” Nareen told me. “I never let them miss a school day, not even when they were sick.” In retrospect, she understands how harsh this sounds. “But it pays off,” Nareen said. “It’s necessary. I came here, and everything fell flat on me. I wanted to see something different in my kids.”

With his parents’ discipline, Dajourn was able to rise to the top of his class at SLJ, but he was still far behind his peers at other schools. In 2013, when Dajourn was in the eighth grade, there was a 26-point discrepancy in reading skills between black and white eighth-graders and at 31-point discrepancy in mathematics skills, according to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Education.

Dajourn reminded himself, this was precisely why he’d come to Georgetown in the first place: to be a witness to the system and work as hard as he could to change it.

“Our kids come in and there are often significant academic gaps, particularly on the literacy side,” says Charon Darris, executive director at the Adams Street Foundation. “We make significant gains over four years… but when our students go to selective colleges, they still struggle.” For SLJ students, he says, “You cannot separate the academic challenges from those of race, gender, and economic background.”

“The education system in America is very racist at its core,” says Amara Brown, an independent education consultant at schools across New York City. Some of these are high-end private schools that cost up to $50,000 a year, have few students of color, and are, as Brown says, “mass-producing kids going to Harvard.” In other words, “If you’re in a high school in NYC, that’s not horrible, but it’s not at that Trinity level. You’re already behind in the race,” she says.

Previously, Brown mentored Dajourn at Sponsors for Educational Opportunity (SEO), an intensive eight-year program that provides supplemental education for low-income students through four years of high school (one weekday after school for three to four hours and eight hours every Saturday) and mentorship throughout four years of college. The goal isn’t just to help kids get into selective schools, but also to make sure they graduate. Georgetown boasts a 92 percent graduation rate for first-generation, high financial need, and other underrepresented students, but that is the exception. At private not-for-profit colleges and universities, the graduation rate was 43.5 percent for black students who entered in 2009 and graduated in six years — 26 percentage points behind the white graduation rate.

SEO is meant to help kids through the academic and social challenges that lead to high college dropout rates. Still, Brown is the first to admit that even an SLJ education combined with SEO does not make a kid like Dajourn academically competitive with his peers at elite high schools. “Dajourn will struggle [in college] because of the system, not because he’s not capable,” she says.

DDajourn knows all about the system, that perpetuation of ignorance, racial animus, and false stereotypes that prevents kids like him — and people like his parents — from realizing their dreams. For Dajourn, the system is a very real, almost tangible, thing. It is, perhaps, the primary reason that he doesn’t believe in the American dream. “It’s great if you can come [to America] from a place with low resources and make money,” he said. “But money does not fix everything. The system is the biggest caveat.”

Within days arriving at his summer program at Georgetown, Dajourn discovered that the people he expected to be critical of the system were actually helping perpetuate it.

He’d been assigned an intro to sociology class; the professor was white, as were most of the students. One day, she asked whether black people could be racist toward each other. Dajourn believed that the shared history of systemic powerlessness among blacks prevented intraracial racism and rose his hand to say as much. He was heartened when some of the students agreed. But then the professor stepped into have the last word: “Yes,” she said, “black people can be racist to each other.”

Dajourn watched in disbelief as the class scribbled this into their notebooks. Weeks later, on the ride home from Port Authority, he recounted this story to me, his frustration palpable. “Why are you sitting in front of all these white kids saying black people can be racist?” he asked. “You’re the professor, and they’ll write down what you’re saying. You’re indoctrinating them.”

In other words, how many of his peers would now go into the world believing that black-on-black racism somehow excused white-on-black racism?

But, Dajourn reminded himself, this was precisely why he’d come to Georgetown in the first place: to be a witness to the system and work as hard as he could to change it. It was why his older brother Terrance had bought him that “Be Humble” hat. Dajourn wasn’t advertising his own humility; he was telling the world that it needed an education. “When they say ‘Nigerians can’t do this’ or ‘Jamaicans can’t do this,’ I’m going to show them,” he said.

Dajourn could have applied to a historically black college like Howard. “The closer you get to that campus, there’s so much more culture,” he said, describing the cafés with murals of Obama and Prince and the cheap chicken joints that reminded him of Brooklyn. “When I found places like those, I was like, ‘I know where I’m at.’” In contrast, Georgetown University is located in one of the whitest, most affluent neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. “Sandwiches there cost $9,” Dajourn said with dismay.

But Dajourn never considered a historically black college. It was partly a financial decision. “To be fair and honest, most of the opportunities and resources for students are from the PWIs,” he said. But Georgetown was also part of his mission. “I need to learn to get to the top inside this institution,” he said. “I went to school my whole life with black kids and people of color. Somehow or other, I’ll need to face [the system], and I chose to face it now.”

It is precisely this conviction that is motivating Dajourn to become a lawyer. During his sophomore year in high school, SLJ helped him arrange an internship at a Brooklyn-based law firm. The owner, Anthony Minko, always advised his interns to visit the federal courthouse, but nobody ever did. “Until Dajourn,” Minko told me when I called him later. “He was like a dogged reporter, looking up the numbers for clerks, making appointments.”

There, Dajourn saw his first criminal trial: a gang member accused of murder. “I walked in, and it was a lot of white lawyers,” he recalled, struck by the fact that almost nobody else had come to witness the event. Not long after he sat down, he and the defendant locked eyes. It was a powerful moment, a “shook moment,” Dajourn called it. “I just keep thinking about how he looked at me. And I thought, ‘This is really it,’ realizing that this is what the system is like.”

The man, Dajourn later learned, was found guilty.

“I’m not saying all black people are saints,” he said. “But I’m going to be for the people who are not taken care of in the system.”

In the popular imagination, the American dream is a fundamentally individualistic thing. It’s the lone striver scrambling out of the slums and into the high-rise or, at least, into the suburban home with the white picket fence. But Dajourn, despite his personal ambition, doesn’t see himself this way. Yes, he is climbing upward, but he’s also pulling a lot of weight behind him: his parents’ expectations and unfulfilled dreams, the strains and struggles of his community. As long as he’s in the system — “And I have to be in the system,” he said — he’ll never experience the freedom of the lone striver. He’s got too much responsibility.

“My father didn’t have any of these options,” he told me. “My mother didn’t finish high school. But I’m going to take even the smallest opportunity, and I’m going to stretch it. Like a rubber band. I’m gonna stretch it.”

Jennifer’s next book, First Generation, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. She writes for the New York Times and the Washington Post Magazine.

Get the Medium app