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

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

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

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


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.


This book makes two claims about the American dream. Both will be controversial. The first I believe to be true, and the second I hope is false (although I believe it also to be true). The first claim is that the American dream is and has been, for decades if not centuries, a central ideology of Americans. By the American dream, I mean not merely the right to get rich, but rather the promise that all Americans have a reasonable chance to achieve success as they define it—material or otherwise— through their own efforts, and to attain virtue and fulfillment through success. As an ideology it is a brilliant construction; as a guide for practice, its defects may match or even outweigh its virtues. Not all Americans share it. Certain categories of Americans have always shared it less than others; at certain periods of our history its preeminence has waxed or waned; its definition has varied, as have its competitors. But since the era of Andrew Jackson (and perhaps before), the American dream has been a defining characteristic of American culture, aspirations, and— ostensibly, at least—institutions, against which all competitors must contend.

The second claim is that the ideology of the American dream faces a severe challenge. The challenge is intricately entwined with race in two ways. First, too often whites and blacks see a barrier, if not an enemy, when they look at each other. Many middle-class African Americans see white placeholders denying them their earned and deserved success, or granting it only on uncomfortable, even humiliating, terms. A few poor African Americans see white bodies and purses to be exploited, if not killed, and other poor blacks are finding it harder and harder to dispute this view. Many whites see middle-class blacks making excessive demands and blaming their personal failures on a convenient but nonexistent enemy. Even more whites see poor blacks as menacing, degraded strangers.

These views are not new. What has changed over the last three decades is that there are now enough middle-class African Americans to make a political difference and enough poor African Americans with the technological means to wreak havoc on themselves and their near neighbors. Under those conditions, if blacks and whites continue to hold these views of each other, a society based on belief in the American dream is in jeopardy.

Race is implicated in yet another challenge to the American dream. In many arenas of life, ranging from demands that the ideals of the Declara-

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.