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Facing Up to the American Dream

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

Jennifer L. Hochschild
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7rhtn
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    Facing Up to the American Dream
    Book Description:

    The ideology of the American dream--the faith that an individual can attain success and virtue through strenuous effort--is the very soul of the American nation. According to Jennifer Hochschild, we have failed to face up to what that dream requires of our society, and yet we possess no other central belief that can save the United States from chaos. In this compassionate but frightening book, Hochschild attributes our national distress to the ways in which whites and African Americans have come to view their own and each other's opportunities. By examining the hopes and fears of whites and especially of blacks of various social classes, Hochschild demonstrates that America's only unifying vision may soon vanish in the face of racial conflict and discontent.

    Hochschild combines survey data and vivid anecdote to clarify several paradoxes. Since the 1960s white Americans have seen African Americans as having better and better chances to achieve the dream. At the same time middle-class blacks, by now one-third of the African American population, have become increasingly frustrated personally and anxious about the progress of their race. Most poor blacks, however, cling with astonishing strength to the notion that they and their families can succeed--despite their terrible, perhaps worsening, living conditions. Meanwhile, a tiny number of the estranged poor, who have completely given up on the American dream or any other faith, threaten the social fabric of the black community and the very lives of their fellow blacks.

    Hochschild probes these patterns and gives them historical depth by comparing the experience of today's African Americans to that of white ethnic immigrants at the turn of the century. She concludes by claiming that America's only alternative to the social disaster of intensified racial conflict lies in the inclusiveness, optimism, discipline, and high-mindedness of the American dream at its best.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2173-0
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. TABLES AND FIGURE
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. PREFACE
    (pp. xi-xviii)
  5. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xix-2)
  6. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 3-12)

    Two experiences impelled me to write this book. The first was hearing students of color in my university assert over and over that nothing has changed, that American society is as racist now as it has always been. I had two reactions. On the one hand, they are wrong. Thirty years ago they (and I) would not have been sitting in a university seminar room discussing racism in America or anything else; seventy-five years ago they might have been lynched for talking about racism in public. On the other hand, their vehemence, intelligence, and sheer repetition convinced me that there...

  7. Part One: The Philosophical and Empirical Context

    • Chapter One WHAT IS THE AMERICAN DREAM?
      (pp. 15-38)

      “In the beginning,” wrote John Locke, “all the world wasAmerica.”¹ Locke was referring specifically to the absence of a cash nexus in primitive society. But the sentence evokes the unsullied newness, infinite possibility, limitless resources that are commonly understood to be the essence of the “American dream.” The idea of the American dream has been attached to everything from religious freedom to a home in the suburbs, and it has inspired emotions ranging from deep satisfaction to disillusioned fury. Nevertheless, the phrase elicits for most Americans some variant of Locke’s fantasy—a new world where anything can happen and...

    • Chapter Two RICH AND POOR AFRICAN AMERICANS
      (pp. 39-52)

      As Daniel Moynihan pointed out almost three decades ago, understanding the African American class structure requires us to attend to four phenomena: the “overall indicators” of relative positions held by blacks and whites; the “consolidating and growing” middle class; the “falling apart at the bottom”; and the fact that “the Negro community … [is] dividing.” In conjunction, these phenomena “mean … trouble in the Northern slums”—but not only there, and not only trouble.

      African Americans are in many, but not all, ways better off than their forebears were. Whether they are also better off in comparison to white Americans...

  8. Part Two: The Three Paradoxes

    • Chapter Three “WHAT’S ALL THE FUSS ABOUT?”: BLACKS’ AND WHITES’ BELIEFS ABOUT THE AMERICAN DREAM
      (pp. 55-71)

      The preface claimed that America’s racial situation threatened the future of the ideology of the American dream in two distinct ways. This chapter focuses on the first challenge—blacks’ and whites’ increasing divergence in their descriptions of and explanations for America’s racial situation. The two races share an overwhelming support for the American dream as a prescription for their own and other Americans’ lives. The races disagree only slightly when people consider the American dream as a description of their own lives, but they disagree considerably when people consider the dream as a description of others’ lives. African Americans increasingly...

    • Chapter Four “SUCCEEDING MORE” AND “UNDER THE SPELL”: AFFLUENT AND POOR BLACKS’ BELIEFS ABOUT THE AMERICAN DREAM
      (pp. 72-88)

      Adding comparisons within each race to comparisons across races reveals two additional paradoxes beyond that of what’s all the fuss about? They are:

      Succeeding more and enjoying it less: As the African American middle class has become larger, more powerful, and more stable, its members have grown disillusioned with and even embittered about the American dream.¹

      Under the spell of the great national suggestion: As black poverty has deepened and become concentrated, poor African Americans have continued to believe in the American dream almost as much as poor blacks did thirty years ago. But that support is tenuous and under...

  9. Part Three: Succeeding More and Enjoying It Less

    • Chapter Five BELIEFS ABOUT ONE’S OWN LIFE
      (pp. 91-121)

      The rise of the new black middle class seems to confirm all the promises of the American dream, for three reasons. Its rapid growth appears to show that white Americans have abjured racial discrimination and thus finally accepted the first tenet. African Americans’ strenuous efforts to join the middle class show, in general, the appeal of the dream as a guide for life choices and, in particular, the validity of the second tenet. That many have been rewarded for those efforts shows the effectiveness of the third tenet. Thus the new presence of blacks in mayors’ offices, Big Ten universities,...

    • Chapter Six BELIEFS ABOUT OTHERS
      (pp. 122-140)

      Except for hermits and sociopaths, people allow their own sense of well-being to be affected by what happens to people around them. Mere convention, then, would suggest that well-off African Americans’ feelings about changes in other blacks’ lives must contribute to the paradox of succeeding more and enjoying it less. But in this case, convention has more bite than usual, since affluent blacks arguably feel a strong collective identity. Well-off African Americans feel closer and warmer toward their race than toward their class, and they feel much closer to their own race than does any other race/class group.¹ Up to...

    • Chapter Seven COMPETITIVE SUCCESS AND COLLECTIVE WELL-BEING
      (pp. 141-154)

      Who is right? Are middle-class African Americans mainly wrestling with monsters that are, if not of their own making, exacerbated by their sensitivities, insecurities, paranoia? Or are they confronting what white Americans refuse to face—that whites’ main concern about race relations is that there is altogether too much of it? Are well-off blacks new participants in the American dream who do not (yet?) trust their own good fortune, or will they never be allowed fully to share the dream?

      These questions can never be answered definitively because they are inherently contestable. The politics of next year are as likely...

  10. Part Four: Under the Spell of the Great National Suggestion

    • Chapter Eight REMAINING UNDER THE SPELL
      (pp. 157-173)

      The first comment is from Patrick François, a born-again Christian teen who is the son of a Haitian farmworker now living in Florida. Patrick’s mother picks crops six days a week, fifteen hours a day, earning $45 to $125 a day during the season, to support her six children. Patrick shares a three bedroom trailer with eight other people. But “we have everything we need. When it comes to money, if my mamma don’t have it, we understand and we do without it.”

      The second comment is from a prescient resident of Watts of about the same age and social...

    • Chapter Nine WITH ONE PART OF THEMSELVES THEY ACTUALLY BELIEVE
      (pp. 174-183)

      Many poor African Americans cannot maintain the shields of determination or optimism against despair. They “believe” in the American dream—but only sort of. Gunnar Myrdal followed his observation about remaining under the spell of the great national suggestion with a crucial caveat: “with one part of themselves they actually believe, as do the Whites, that the [American] Creed is ruling America.”¹ Some poor blacks believe in the American dream—but they do not believe in it very much, or they do not believe in anything very much, or they are incapable of mounting the effort it takes to maintain...

    • Chapter Ten DISTORTING THE DREAM
      (pp. 184-199)

      Isaac Fulwood, himself a product of a poor black District family, goes on to describe a recently arrested eighteen-year-old with “a hard-working mother who is doing her best to provide him with what he needs in life—not a wealthy family, but a working family. Yet this kid has 30, 40, 50 pairs of tennis shoes, all kinds of jogging suits, and he is defining himself in terms of these material things…. His world is not next year, not next week. His world is today. Instant gratification, right now.” Asked how this man thinks, Chief Fulwood speculates:

      This kid doesn’t...

    • Chapter Eleven BREAKING THE SPELL
      (pp. 200-213)

      A few poor African Americans reject the dominant ideology altogether. Some live in a Hobbesian world, resisting all social constraints on their preferred actions. Others, with Baldwin, do not believe that whites and the white-dominated ideology of the American dream are worthy of allegiance. They subscribe instead to a competing ideology.

      Let us first consider the Hobbesians. Thirty percent of African Americans live in distressed neighborhoods of large cities, and many of them are not themselves among the estranged poor.¹ Furthermore, I judge that a majority of those whoareestranged are distorters rather than rejectors.² Even if half of...

    • Chapter Twelve THE PERVERSITY OF RACE AND THE FLUIDITY OF VALUES
      (pp. 214-222)

      Most toilets in this student’s school do not work or have been ripped out; school closes when sewage flows into the kitchen. How is it possible for people who live in these circumstances to retain faith in the American dream? What will happen if more come to feel as this teen and his friends do, that the dream means nothing?

      My discussion of poor blacks has been structurally different from that of well-off blacks, so the nature of the conclusions to be drawn also differs. I judged that most readers would believe, but not understand the reasons for, the paradox...

  11. Part Five: Race and the American Dream

    • Chapter Thirteen COMPARING BLACKS AND WHITE IMMIGRANTS
      (pp. 225-249)

      Langston Hughes, a black poet, depicted black Americans and white immigrants as occupying the same structural location and holding the same ideological convictions. John Appel, a white historian, thought the condition of black Americans and white immigrants so different as to invalidate comparisons between the two groups.¹ Who was right? The answer to that question is crucial to my concern about the consequences of changing beliefs in the ideology of the American dream. If blacks and whites who are similarly situated react similarly to the gap between promise and practice of the American dream, then our concern about the ideology...

    • Chapter Fourteen THE FUTURE OF THE AMERICAN DREAM
      (pp. 250-260)

      Perhaps like all dreams, the American dream is open to more interpretations than there are interpreters. In lectures as I was writing this book, audiences responded to my use of the phrase by denying it distinctive meaning beyond general human yearnings for a better life, by affirming that it is what distinguishes Americans from Europeans, by celebrating it as the essence of our ideals, and by denouncing it as a hypocritical sham.

      The American dream is all of those things and yet is more than a shapeless muddle. As an ideology, it performs brilliantly. It has distinctive boundaries but capacious...

  12. Appendix A SURVEYS USED FOR UNPUBLISHED TABULATIONS
    (pp. 261-266)
  13. Appendix B SUPPLEMENTAL TABLES
    (pp. 267-270)
  14. NOTES
    (pp. 271-340)
  15. WORKS CITED
    (pp. 341-398)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 399-412)