Land of Opportunity?

Facing Up to the American Dream: Race, Class, and the Soul of the Nation

by Jennifer L Hochschild
Princeton University Press, 412 pp., $29.95


From the founding of the nation to the present, American democracy has been tested, and has usually been found wanting whenever the question of justice and equality for Americans of African descent has been raised. After the Civil War, the newly freed slaves were granted citizenship rights by constitutional amendment, but by the 1890s that citizenship had become second-class at best. In the southern states citizenship did not include the right to vote, to use the same public facilities as whites, or to be protected from racist violence. During and immediately after World War II, many white Americans woke up to the fact that legalized segregation, disfranchisement, and lynch law violated the American creed of equal rights and opportunities. When blacks challenged the southern racial order through nonviolent demonstrations that threatened to plunge the region into chaos and to embarrass the United States in the eyes of the world, the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 finally made African Americans full citizens in a legally enforceable way. But it soon became apparent that legal and political equality could not produce social and economic equality. Blacks as a group remained substantially poorer than white Americans and continued to suffer from discrimination in employment and housing, as well as from the accumulated disadvantages inherited from more than three hundred years of white domination and exploitation.

The question of whether the past thirty years have seen progress or retrogression in the situation of African Americans and in the quality of their relations with the white majority has been hotly debated. Statistical comparisons yield mixed results. The average per capita black income relative to white has risen slightly—from 53 percent in 1967 to 58 percent in 1992. The gap in average net worth per household is much greater—currently whites enjoy a three or four to one advantage. But here, too, blacks have made modest relative gains since the 1960s. The ratio of black to white unemployment has hovered around two to one but has recently become somewhat worse.

The most positive development is undoubtedly the expansion of the black middle class. In 1967, 16 percent of black households made more than $35,000 (1992) dollars compared to 36.6 percent of white households. In 1992, 25.8 percent did so as compared to 46.6 percent of white households. Hence African Americans have been rising into the middle class at a somewhat faster rate than whites, although the gap remains substantial. But the proportionate ratio of blacks to whites below the poverty line is still what it was in 1959, or before the victories of the civil rights movement—approximately three to one. The absolute numbers of poor blacks have increased by 686,000 in thirty years, while the numbers of white poor have declined by four million. In 1992, 42.7 percent of all African-American households earned less than $15,000, as compared to only 21.6 percent of whites. 1

In general, therefore, it can be said that economic opportunity for one part of the black population, the relatively well-educated and highly skilled, has increased since the 1960s, while it has declined for the less well off. Affirmative action policies in education and employment have undoubtedly had a major effect on the rise of the black middle class. But how are we to account for the persistent and deepening impoverishment of the one third to two fifths of the black population that has fallen behind in the competition for wealth and status?

Conservative theorists, such as Charles Murray, have put the blame on government welfare policies that encourage dependence and reward such “pathological” behavior as having children out of wedlock. Their social Darwinist solution is to force the black poor to be self-reliant by taking away what help they may get from the government.2 An opposing liberal view attributes the reversal of black progress toward economic parity with whites to the failure of government to do enough rather than its doing too much. The liberal economist Martin Carnoy, for example, believes that the phasing-out of New Deal and Great Society programs that has occurred since the 1970s is the main cause of persistent black poverty and economic stagnation. For him, the welfare state is not the problem; it is the solution.3 National leadership that would improve the programs is needed, and he simply hopes that it will emerge.

Carnoy is critical of other liberal analysts who see racism as so deeply rooted and pervasive that it is not likely to be cured by the kinds of social programs that now exist or are politically feasible. Andrew Hacker, for example, takes the view that little or nothing is likely to be done about racial inequality because whites are so deeply committed to their own supremacy.4 Derrick Bell, the African-American law professor who resigned from the Harvard faculty over the failure of its law school to appoint a black woman, believes that racism has persisted in virtually unmitigated form since the Civil Rights era and that the existing legal and political structure provides little or no basis for overcoming it.5

Conservatives who believe that racism is largely dead and that less government rather than more is the best antidote to the inability of many blacks to get ahead clearly have had increasing success politically, as the 1994 congressional elections showed. Liberal pessimists, such as Hacker and Bell, have a ready explanation for this situation—it simply shows the persistence of racism, which now hides behind a claim that most racial prejudice and discrimination have been successfully eradicated.

Neither those who believe that racism is all-pervasive and all-powerful nor those who would relegate it to the benighted past have so far made plausible suggestions for remedying the existing inequalities between whites and blacks.6 Carnoy’s call for the revival of liberal statism sounds more promising, but skeptics may wonder whether the kinds of reforms he prescribes ever worked very well. A bad welfare system may be better than none, and liberal paternalism may be preferable to social Darwinism. But Democratic politicians are shying away from largescale programs to help the poor, and many African Americans would rather try to take control of their own destinies than be treated like victims who can achieve nothing without government help and supervision.

One of the few signs of hope in the current situation is the undeniable fact that more serious thought is being given to the problem of white-black relations than at any time since the mid-1960s. Although they do not reach a consensus on the nature of the problem and how to deal with it, the book that I consider here, and the several ones I shall take up in a second essay, all seriously engage the issue of race in America and clarify some of the issues that have to be resolved. They are written by academics of both races from a variety of disciplines—sociology, political science, history, and cultural studies. If there is any wisdom from the academy that will help us to think clearly about race, we might expect to find it in these books.

The writers I shall consider all agree on some conclusions that set them off decisively from conservative race analysts like Murray and Dinesh D’Souza. None of them doubts that racism and discrimination persist as serious problems of American society, although none is as bleakly pessimistic as Hacker and Bell. All reject the analogies with immigrants that have been central to conservative and neo-conservative thought about race policy. To judge the achievements of African Americans by pointing to the relative success of European and Asian immigrants strikes them as invidious and misleading. Explicitly or implicitly, they all recognize that the unique disabilities imposed on blacks by centuries of slavery and lower-caste status require special measures, and that the open market and normal processes of ethnic assimilation will not suffice. All hold out some hope for racial justice and equality, but only if Americans are prepared to acknowledge that customary ways of thinking about race are inadequate and that new ones are required.

They differ, however, on whether significant progress is possible without a radical transformation of the cultural values and social arrangements that currently prevail in the United States. To put broadly the question raised by several writers, does a post-industrial capitalist democracy with a value system based on competitive individualism have the capacity to achieve substantial equality between whites and blacks? Or is some kind of radical or “revolutionary” transformation needed? And if so, when and how could such mutation of values and institutions occur and what form might it take? Since blacks alone are too small in number to mount a political challenge to the American status quo, where will they find the allies they need to take part in a majority movement that would make serious changes?


The most substantial and informative of the new books on race is Jennifer Hochschild’s Facing Up to the American Dream. Unlike the others, it is not so much an expression of opinion as an empirical study of what Americans, especially black Americans, think about the current state of race relations and about the future of the “American dream,” which she finds effectively summed up by President Clinton in a 1993 speech.

The American dream that we were all raised on is a simple but powerful one—if you work hard and play by the rules you should be given a chance to go as far as your God-given ability will take you.

Hochschild, a Princeton political scientist, breaks this idea into its component parts: it is supposed to apply to everyone regardless of background; it offers a “reasonable expectation” of fulfillment: pursuers of the dream are in control of their own destinies; and those who succeed do so because they are virtuous. Although she is not uncritical of this dominant national myth—she acknowledges, for example, that it easily degenerates into selfish materialism—Hochschild believes that it provides the cultural and ideological core for whatever national unity still exists in America. If a substantial number of Americans conclude that it is false or does not apply to them, she writes, the nation is likely to disintegrate. She then proceeds to look at data from many surveys and at other evidence of public opinion to see whether or not African Americans still believe that the dream is relevant to their own aspirations.

She starts from the well-established fact that most white Americans believe that blacks enjoy equality of opportunity (or even the edge that affirmative action allegedly provides) and can realize the American dream if they want to; whereas a majority of blacks believe that persistent discrimination denies them an equal chance. But she complicates matters by breaking down blacks’ responses by social class. Her conclusion—and the data seem to support it—is that the black middle class is more disenchanted with the dream and its application to African Americans than the lower class. “Succeeding more and enjoying it less” is her capsule summary for the middle-class malaise that she finds to be widespread.

Among “the estranged poor”—the part of the inner-city black population that other observers have dubbed the “underclass”—there are some, she acknowledges, who have categorically rejected the national value system. They include those who engage in violence as a way of life, those who see no value in work and refuse to engage in it, and those who have found an ideological and political alternative in black separatism. But most of the estranged poor, she maintains, have not so much rejected the American dream as devised their own version of it. They have pursued individual success through disreputable rather than respectable means. The typical drug dealer or numbers runner is therefore doing what the dominant culture prescribes but in ways that it deems illicit. She argues that most estranged poor blacks are willing to work hard to better themselves and she strongly implies that they would do so in socially acceptable ways if they had the opportunity. When asked by researchers what they think about the future prospects of blacks in general, poor blacks, whether they are estranged or do conventional work, are generally more hopeful than those in the middle class; they have a greater tendency to blame their failures on themselves rather than on the system.

Hochschild finds that poor African Americans lack militancy and tend to endorse mainstream values because they perceive their main problems to be class-based or economic rather than racial. They are less likely than the middle class to have frequent and troubling contacts with white competitors or superiors.

The relative invisibility of white domination as compared with the constant pressure of poverty, danger, and degrading surroundings works in an odd way to reinforce poor African Americans’ belief in the American dream. The United States has never had a robust socialist tradition that teaches people to understand poverty as a structural phenomenon in which they happen to be caught.

A political radical might well agree with the conclusion but then go on to characterize the conformist black poor as victims of “false consciousness” or “manufactured consent,” a state of mind that would have to be replaced by militant class consciousness before the economic roots of inequality in a capitalist society could be dealt with. A black nationalist, on the other hand, would probably seek to persuade poor African Americans that their economic problems derived ultimately from ineradicable white racism and that they could prosper only in a separate black economy organized on communal rather than individualist principles. But for Hochschild, the American dream, despite its shortcomings and ambiguities, is the only feasible foundation for racial justice in America. What needs to be done, she suggests, is to provide African Americans with a “reasonable expectation” that they can succeed through hard work. Poor African Americans, she warns, cannot be expected to believe for much longer that the national ideology applies to them in the face of so much evidence to the contrary. In the years ahead, she believes, black Americans will be more and more likely to be drawn to black separatism rather than to socialism or social democracy.

How accurate, one wonders, are the surveys of poor black opinion upon which Hochschild relies? She admits the possibility that poll-takers may induce some of their poor interviewees to “endorse the American dream simply as the path of least resistance…. Pressed by a friendly gray-haired lady with a clipboard to say something, they agree with the common currency of belief in the American dream even though what they really mean is that they do not believe in much of anything at all.” She fails to mention the likelihood that many of the most estranged blacks simply avoid the interviewers and are not counted at all. It is possible, therefore, that disenchantment with mainstream American values is more extensive among lower-class than the surveys reveal.

That middle-class African Americans are “succeeding more and enjoying it less,” however, seems clear from many surveys. Their growing pessimism about the prospects for racial equality in the United States, their frequent sense that they themselves are victims of discrimination and are therefore not as successful as they deserve to be, may strike many whites as strange, if not perverse, since these relatively well-placed and affluent African Americans are apparently making the American dream work for them. But Hochschild finds little evidence to support the popular explanation that they are “whining,” in other words imagining prejudice where it does not exist and putting up psychological defenses against a fear that they are unqualified for jobs they have acquired through affirmative action.

She offers two main explanations for the alienation of the black middle class. First is their sense of racial identity, which makes them acutely aware of how blacks in general are thought to be doing. If some poor African Americans take satisfaction in how well some middle-class blacks are doing, relatively successful blacks are depressed by the images of black failure and social deviance that they see in the mass media and among their own relatives and acquaintances. Being better informed than poorer and less educated blacks, they are more likely to be aware of statistical evidence of persistent inequality.

Hochschild emphasizes, moreover, that middle-class blacks continue, despite affirmative action, to suffer from racial discrimination. Far from being paranoid or oversensitive, they are in fact more likely to encounter face-to-face prejudice and unfair treatment than are lower-class African Americans. In seeking suburban housing, they are steered away from white neighborhoods; they have greater difficulty than whites with similar incomes in getting mortgages; in department stores catering mainly to whites, they are often the objects of special surveillance as likely shoplifters; and they have a hard time getting taxis to stop for them or being served quickly and courteously in restaurants. Everyone knows that such things happen, but only middle-class blacks know how often they happen and how nasty they can be.

What may be harder for some whites to accept is that blacks are often victims of discrimination when they get jobs opened up by affirmative action. Once hired, blacks often encounter subtle or blatant forms of racial harassment from white co-workers and supervisors, and in many cases they do not get promoted as readily as whites to higher positions for which they are qualified. There is a tendency for corporations and large organizations, including universities, to reserve for minorities positions involving public relations or sales targeted at minorities. Such a policy helps to meet affirmative action goals but it becomes discriminatory when the blacks who hold such jobs do not receive deserved promotions to positions of more general responsibility. According to a Labor Department study quoted by Hochschild, “attitudinal and organizational barriers…are an indication that the progress of minorities and women in corporate America is affected by more than qualifications and career choices.” The report concludes that the glass ceiling “exists at a much lower level than first thought.”

Middle-class blacks, Hochschild contends, do not for the most part reject the American dream in principle; their complaint is that the dream is not being realized for African Americans in general, and not even for themselves. They are convinced, with good reason, that racism is still a significant obstacle to equal opportunity and that their relative rise has not exempted them from unfair treatment. She draws hope from her sense that “on balance blacks and whites do not occupy two distinct and warring ideological worlds…. After all, both races overwhelmingly endorse the American dream.” She rejects the facile notion that blacks face obstacles that are not substantially greater than those encountered by the European immigrants of the early twentieth century. But she finds reason for optimism in the fate of more recent Asian immigrants who have been able to succeed in a variety of jobs without changing their color or rejecting their traditional cultures. What she calls “transformative pluralism” signifies a trend toward greater tolerance for racial and cultural diversity from which blacks could benefit. “There is no reason,” she concludes, “why African Americans cannot join that kind of transformative process.”

Can the American dream bear the weight that Hochschild puts on it? At times, she seems doubtful that it could bring about the racial egalitarianism that she favors. “Certainly,” she confesses on the next-to-the-last page of her book,

the ideology can be used in defense of atomism, materialism, self-righteousness and priggishness. More fundamentally, it is flawed at the core: in a capitalist economic system, a majoritarian political system, and a status-driven social system, not all Americans can achieve their dreams no matter how hard they try. But the American dream obscures those structural facts under a cloak of individual agency, thus giving people unjustified hopes and unwarranted feelings of failure.

Still, she argues that the dream is subject to a generous interpretation that can make it once again, as it has been at times in the past, a basis for progressive social change. What she probably has in mind is a process of public education that will lead to a recognition that discrimination persists and that true equality of opportunity for blacks requires special measures like affirmative action and federal aid to ghetto schools. Whatever its defects, she does “not see an alternative to the dream that is both plausible and preferable.” The only “plausible alternatives” are “racial, class, and gender hierarchy,” rationalized by a claim that those on the top are inherently superior to those on the bottom, and a black nationalism that will lead to the balkanization of America.

The current debate over affirmative action, which is especially intense in California, puts Hochschild’s hope for a generous application of the American dream to a severe test. According to California polling data, a substantial majority rejects the policy when it is defined as “racial preference.” But if affirmative action is described as a device calculated to assure fairness to people who might otherwise suffer from discrimination, a majority approves of it. Opponents say that affirmative action violates individualistic and meritocratic American values. To be politically effective, defenders must show that such measures are compatible with the central tenets of the American dream. I wish Hochschild had directly addressed the question of whether affirmative action violates the dream or fulfills it, but she has chosen not to do so.

Moreover, I am troubled by Hochschild’s assumption that the American dream in its basic form has been a constant and ineradicable basis for national identity. It reminds me of the “liberal consensus” school of American historiography that prevailed in the 1950s but has come under heavy attack since then. The Lockean or Smithian liberalism that is the intellectual foundation of her version of the American dream may have been dominant in most times and places, but it has never been uncontested. The dream has been contested at its core by civic republicans who put the common good ahead of individual selfseeking, by labor radicals who championed class solidarity over economic individualism, by feminists who have praised the cooperative virtues they associate with women over the competitive ones identified with the masculine ideal, and by various schools of communitarians.7 Although the ethics and aspirations of the marketplace have generally prevailed during the week, cooperation and service to others have been preached from the pulpits of all major religions on the Sabbath.

The question that Hochschild’s empirical surveys cannot answer is whether or not the license for individual aggrandizement that would seem to be inherent in her formulation of the American dream can ever be the foundation for a just society. Competitive individualism inevitably means measuring one’s power, status, and wealth against those who do not possess it. Can the temptation to exalt oneself at the expense of a group that has always been at the bottom of the American social hierarchy ever be overcome without challenging and discrediting the all-too-common American belief that personal success is the highest good in life?

Many of the recent books on black-white relations in the United States today take exception to Hochschild’s hopeful view that the American dream, as she defines it, can sustain a renewed assault on inequality and thus serve to unify the nation and save its soul. I will discuss some of these more radical or pessimistic books in the next issue.

  1. 1

    All of these figures are taken from Hochschild, Facing Up to the American Dream, pp. 39–51.

  2. 2

    The classic statement of this position is Charles Murray’s Losing Ground (Basic Books, 1984).

  3. 3

    Martin Carnoy, Faded Dreams: The Politics and Economics of Race in America (Cambridge University Press, 1994).

  4. 4

    See his Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, and Unequal (Scribners, 1992).

  5. 5

    See his Faces at the Bottom of the Well (Basic Books, 1992).

  6. 6

    My reasons for thinking that the conservative prescription is unpromising to say the least are set forth in my review of Dinesh D’Souza’s The End of Racism (Free Press, 1995), The New York Review, October 19, 1995.

  7. 7

    An influential sociological critique of American individualism that calls attention to some of these alternative traditions in American thought and culture is Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (University of California Press, 1985).