The American Dream for Who?

Acknowledging the Truth and 5 Actions Toward Freedom

by OCJR Policy Interns Destiny Murrell & Aliye Hargett

On this year's 4th of July holiday, we wanted to examine one of the most closely held beliefs in America: the American Dream. The American dream has always been the ideal standard for living in America. The “American Dream” is a belief that anyone, regardless of race, gender, or religious beliefs can achieve the highest form of success and freedom while living in America but only through hard work and determination. While this belief has also been the goal of people that move to America from other countries/nations, for many Americans this belief is a fallacy that has been told throughout the years and in reality, gives a sense of false hope.  

One of the most perplexing things about the American ideal is the pervasive idea of freedom; however, a quick look at the data shows many Americans are not free. Look at America's criminal justice system.  “About 25% of the world’s total prison population is in the United States, which holds about 2.19 million prisoners as of 2019.” For the last decade, Oklahoma has had the highest per capita rate of female incarceration.  When there is a high concentration of low-income neighborhoods and communities that lack the proper resources needed to live a basic standard of living, then this is what creates high-traffic areas filled with crime.

The average American makes $1.7 million in their lifetime. Those who didn't earn a high school diploma or GED are expected to bring in less than $1 million.”  While America is ranked as one of the highest nations in relation to standards of living,  the work-life balance is ranked very low which means that people are not able to keep up with the standards of living by working one job. Most Americans have to work two jobs in order to maintain a basic standard of living thus increasing the rates of crime in low-income neighborhoods. If a person does not have access to grocery stores, medical services, employment, or affordable housing this drives their need to commit crimes in order to gain access to livable resources. Another factor that increases the rate of incarceration is laws in American states that disproportionately affect lower-income communities. Overcriminalization as well as the militarization of local police forces begins to call America's idea of freedom into question.

The fourth of July is supposed to be a representation of America’s independence and freedom for all Americans. With rural detention centers at capacity, incarceration, homelessness, quality access to affordable healthcare, and pandemic-induced unemployment, not all Americans are privileged to live the “American Dream.” This Fourth of July, show your patriotism by expecting more of the country we all love so much. Here are five things you can do to set off some real fireworks of change in your community.

  1. Register to Vote

There’s nothing that quite says America like exercising your constitutional right to vote.  While it is important to register to vote, it is also important to actually vote in every election.  Oftentimes, individuals only vote in the “big elections,” but the smaller elections are just as important.  The Sentencing Project estimates that 56,995 individuals in Oklahoma are disenfranchised; therefore, it is critical to not take the right to vote for granted and to keep the needs of the individuals who cannot vote in mind during every election.  

  1. Figure out what issues you are most passionate about changing. 

In order to apply your gifts to create change for the country we love so much, we must first know what issues we are passionate about changing.  On this Fourth of July, take some time to think about areas of growth for your community and identify some ways you believe these problems could be solved.  Legislators cannot always know what is important to their citizens if they are not told; therefore, once you have your list of issues and possible solutions, send it to your legislator and follow up with them to see if they are working to address them. The more minds that come together to solve a problem, the more likely we are to make a difference and ignite real change in our communities.  

  1. Learn more about the criminal justice system.  

Because we love our country, we can–and should–expect it to do better; however, it is our job to ensure we are educated on important issues so that we can hold our legislators accountable.  The documentary 13th on Netflix does an incredible job of explaining the relationship between slavery and mass incarceration.  In addition, the Justice for Julius documentary found on tells the story of Julius Jones, an individual being held on death row in Oklahoma, despite him maintaining his innocence and the compelling evidence that he was wrongfully convicted.  If reading is more your style, The New Jim Crowe: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness by Michelle Alexander and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson are two must-reads for all individuals interested in learning more about criminal justice reform and mass incarceration. 

  1. Face whatever problem you are passionate about head-on in your community.

Whether you are passionate about LGBTQ+ issues, women’s rights, education, financial support and services for struggling families, mental health services, access to health care, or any other problem in the United States, everything can be tied back to criminal justice reform efforts.  Once you identify a problem you are passionate about changing, look for local organizations that you can use as a resource and help by volunteering your time, services, or financial assistance. If you are interested in attacking the problem of mass incarceration and would like to volunteer with OCJR or if you are part of an organization that would like to join our coalition team, please email  

  1. Take care of our veterans & work to understand their involvement with the carceral system. 

After members of the military are discharged from service, some become involved the criminal justice system as a result of police contact due to homelessness and mental health crises, substance use consequences, and property and violent offenses. All individuals should be concerned with reducing veterans’ criminal justice system involvement and resulting legal difficulties so that we can prevent the adverse consequences for our veterans and their families, friends, and communities.   In addition, veterans are more likely to have experienced multiple traumatic events than the general public, and in comparison to veterans who are not justice-involved and non-military justice-involved individuals, justice-involved veterans have higher rates of mental health disorders–with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance use disorders, and depression being the most prevalent.  Because of this, it is imperative that individuals recognize how the criminal justice system locks away the very individuals who worked so hard to protect our freedom.  By choosing to support criminal justice reform efforts, we work to create a society that rehabilitates, rather than incarcerates, and that may be one of the most patriotic decisions we can make this Fourth of July.