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,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.