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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.

  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.

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