From Clocks and Clouds VOL. 6 NO. 2
The American Dream: Discourses of Equality and Achievability for Black Americans
Analysis of Interviews
In this study, there are both agreements and disagreements with the literature surrounding the topic of the black American Dream, as well as perspectives that the literature did not address. Three major areas of discovery include: the content of and skepticism about the American Dream, Barack Obama as a symbol of black power, and the role of current events. It is difficult to discern which factors of participants' individual identities are contributing to their beliefs. However, socioeconomic status, gender, and concentration of study (major) seem to be significant variables in each student's identity that could be impacting opinions.
Content of and Skepticism about the American Dream
As stated previously, the literature surrounding the topic of the American Dream claims that the dream for black Americans is fairly similar to that of all Americans (Huttman 1991). This study finds consistent conclusions. Having a family, a home, a job, and being happy, educated, and self-aware were all goals of importance to the students in this study. There is therefore agreement about the content of the American Dream and a shared desire for it. However, a key difference between the classic definition of the American Dream and the dream described by the educated black students in this research study was the emphasis on a dream of equality. One student said, "The American Dream to me would be getting rid of those institutional barriers that I believe are in place, to allow for everyone to truly have a fair opportunity to succeed and to attain whatever socioeconomic status they desire." Another student claimed that the American Dream is not an individualistic goal in stating, "My definition of success is that I can never truly be successful if my people are suffering." Communal success was an important theme; while the classic American Dream emphasizes individualism, many of the students in this study claimed that the advancement of all black Americans was important to them. The Plurality of success, or communal success, is therefore an important theme to understand when analyzing the American Dream for the black, educated Americans interviewed in this research.
The literature is also in agreement with the results of this study with the claim that black Americans with the highest socioeconomic status are the most skeptical of the American Dream (Stout and Le 2012). This result suggests that economic success is a weak predictor of optimism in the American Dream for black students. The student from an upper class background was the most adamant that the American Dream no longer exists. The basis for her skepticism, as well as for every other student interviewed, was not in agreement with the literature, however. The theory discussed earlier explained that skepticism of the achievability of the American Dream was attributed to lack of black representation at high levels of government (ibid.). However, this study suggests that black representation is worth nothing if there is not true equality in society, which will be touched on later in this analysis. A lack of communal success, instead, is an integral part of the skepticism in the American Dream that seems to exist for educated black Americans, which implies that a pluralistic society is needed to achieve more trust in the dream.
Structural nativists argue that the American self-image may be changing because of a lack of a mythomoteur, which simply means an ethnic sense of purpose. Many black subgroups in America possess a mythomoteur, an ethnic sense of purpose, yet they have no institutional support to make the goals a reality. The educated group of black Americans interviewed in this study may agree that the desire for equality is an aspect of their ethnic sense of purpose, and more significantly, a collective rise in equality for all black Americans is the ideal dream. While the American self-image may be changing due to a lack of a mythomoteur, the black population may be remaining socioeconomically oppressed due to an active suppression of institutional and systemic support, rendering the mythomoteur of racial equality unachievable.
Another root for skepticism implied in this research is the belief that the American Dream was never made for black Americans. Three of the interviewed students came from immigrant families. Two of these students said the idea of the American Dream was an integral part of their identities growing up; their parents' constant reminder that hard work would yield tangible results pushed them in school and even impacted what friend groups they chose to associate with. However, the other students feel as though the American Dream is an idea that was not made for them or has widely excluded them. "The American Dream has never really been something that has ever seemed like it'll apply to me so it's never been something I honestly thought about," said one student. She went on to explain, "I feel like the American Dream is tied to capitalism and with capitalism you always have to have the poor, and the poor don't look like the people who are on top. The American Dream was never really made for us, although that's what they try to put on us; it's never been the case." Capitalism as an oppressing force for equality is never touched upon in the dominant academic discourse of the American Dream for black Americans, although this study indicates that it may be an important factor in educated blacks' skepticism of the dream. In short, denotations of the American Dream for the students interviewed for this study are similar to the classic definition, but have a more integral focus on communal equality. Skepticism of the American Dream's achievability does not seem to stem from lack of representation, but rather from the perception that the American Dream is not "made for" black Americans and from the systemic and institutional racial inequality in America.
Obama as a Symbol of Black Power
Students directly dissented from the dominant academic discourse when many of them expressed the belief that they do not believe that President Obama is a symbol of black power. One student stated, "Equality is not necessarily equal to attaining positions in government or even attaining the presidency…" She went on to explain that many black Americans and African Americans feel that for equality to be reached, it would happen from outside the current political system rather than from within it. Six students noted that President Obama has been assimilated into a "system of whiteness." The student went on to say, "I wouldn't see more black people in power as necessarily implying equality, unless they are going to change the institutions in place…You are still attaining positions in institutions that are designed against minorities." Another student said, "You can't justify millions of black lives—who are still in poverty whose humanity are still being taken away—by just a few people who made it."
Robert Bellah (1975) argues that the dominance of the Anglo-Saxon ethnic group has not been historically equal in the cultural, the political, and the social dimensions. He claims that the Anglo-Saxon dominance "has declined along all three dimensions, first in the political sphere, second in the cultural, and only quite recently has its social dominance been seriously challenged." While President Obama may represent a shift or change in the cultural and political representation of the United States government, the students interviewed for this study suggest that Obama has not posed any challenges socially because he has assimilated to the Anglo-Saxon dominated system of whiteness that the U.S. government is fueled by. President Obama's election represents equality of opportunity, which is a social equality. Having the right and ability to run for the presidency and be elected demonstrates the Equality of Opportunity. While Obama's election represents Equality of Opportunity, interviews for this study suggest that President Obama does not represent equality of outcomes, which are institutional equalities. One female student said, "The political representation is just a distraction to me. It's a distraction from what's really going on." They argue that systemic barriers to racial equality have not been broken as a result of President Obama's election, and there are no substantive changes or outcomes for the black community as a result of having a black President.
Several students complained that the narrative of Perceptional Equality has been overemphasized. Perceptional Equality in this study refers to the impact that Equality of Opportunities has on society collectively; Obama's election created a perception and a reality that the Presidency of the United States is attainable for black Americans. "I feel like it's a cliché that people always say well when Obama was elected it showed every little black boy and girl that they can succeed and they can go to the White House," said one female student. However, there appears to be a gender gap in the beliefs of Obama's role as a symbol of black power. All women were confident and adamant that President Obama is not, and should not be considered, a symbol of black power. One woman claimed, "Obama's built into the regular American system; he's built into the American Dream. He's apple pie in Leave It to Beaver honestly."
The men in this study were not so united against the idea. Two men claimed a confident "Yes," that Obama is a symbol of black power; they said that Obama represents black power because of the advancement and elevation, or the Perceptional Equality, which Obama's election offered for the black community. The third man interviewed was skeptical of fully labeling Obama a symbol of black "power" but still claimed that he represents "black elevation." "He [Obama] did something incredible in a nation that was founded on racism," the student said. Two women who claimed President Obama is not a symbol of black power cited institutional constraints as the reason he could not create real change in the social system. To explain this claim, one of these women stated that Obama "can't fully advocate openly because some people might look at him a little differently. He has so many constraints that he cannot fully embrace who he is, or every single issue that is a black issue in the United States because of those constraints." Three women cited assimilation to a system of whiteness as the reason Obama could not create real change in the social system. One student said Obama is a symbol of assimilation "because he is not threatening to any system. If anything he is sustaining it."
The man who was not as confident of Obama as a symbol of black power referenced this assimilation, but still ended his viewpoint with the idea of black elevation. The two remaining men see Obama as a symbol of black power because he has advanced and elevated the black community and understanding of what is possible for black Americans to achieve. They did not ignore that Equality of Outcomes has not radically changed since Obama has been in office, but rather excused the lack of change by noting the bureaucratic constraints placed on the President. One student said, "I feel like they was expecting some big change and everything was going to be equal and I mean at the end of the day he has a job to do and he has to answer to somebody too. I definitely respect President Obama all the way."
The Role and Implications of Current Events
When asked if perceptions of inequality or equality of America fluctuate with current events, five interviewees said, "Yes," that current events impact their personal perceptions of racial inequality in America. Three interviewees said "No," that their perceptions of reality do not change. All three of the interviewees who answered "No" are Political Science majors. One of these students answered:
I don't think my perception changes but it makes the call to action to change those inequalities even more; it kind of lights a fire. And makes it even more pressing that I do something in my life currently and in the future to help address those injustices…Oftentimes I find more so that it's my classes that I'm taking that change my perception of inequalities. However, if you're not a political person or you don't follow the news or you're not aware of inequalities, then I think that current events alter people's perceptions, but me specifically, I don't really think so.
This quote implies two important characteristics of the impact of current events: first, those who are educated about historical events of inequality, such as Political Science majors, may be less impacted by current events due to a constant immersion in social subject matter. Second, that current events can stimulate a "call to action" even if individuals are previously aware of injustices in society. One student said of inequality, "These are issues that have been going on, it's just that when it's so intense and it's constantly in the media, everyone's talking about it and becoming aware of it—myself included. I wasn't involved in these types of conversations before and I should have been, but I wasn't." In other words, current events act as a stimulus for action. The students who claimed that current events do shape their perceptions of equality in America all cited "the media" as a source from which their judgments are made. All students, without coaxing or being asked to elaborate, referenced recent media surrounding police brutality and disproportionate violence toward blacks as a reason that their perceptions of equality have shifted.
These findings, that most of the students interviewed in this study claim that current events have the power to influence their perceptions of equality, are important because the key puzzle that set the stage for this research project was that even in 2008 after black Americans were disproportionately impacted by the mortgage and housing crises, they were still more positive that racial equality in America would soon be reached. President Obama's election in 2008 was a current event of Equality of Opportunity that trumped the Inequalities of Outcomes of the 2008 financial crisis. The literature claimed that since perceptions of equality shifted from 2005 to 2008 after Obama's election, that even in a struggling economy Obama could be seen as a symbol of hope, of progress, and of renewal that was sure to come. The belief that Obama was a symbol of progress toward racial equality in America was not a sustainable one; according to this research study, perceptions seem to simply fluctuate with current events. Therefore, the literature has overgeneralized one period of time to say that there is a sustainable, positive trend in the belief of racial equality in America based on studies that were conducted in a time period of extreme hopefulness, motivated by a single stimulating current event.
The American Dream: an illusion, a myth, a set of values, a goal for one's life; the American Dream: controversial, exclusive, manipulative; the American Dream: inspiring, motivating, aspirational. The American Dream has many meanings, and the context for those meanings is important. For the educated black Americans in this research study, the American Dream overall is an illusion. Women are more skeptical of the dream than men, and women generally view the American Dream in a more pluralistic way than men, who view it as an individual journey. Racial inequality, a major player in the perceptions of the American Dream, is the foremost reason for skepticism towards the American Dream for these students, which dissents from the dominant discourse that claimed a lack of representation in government was the cause of skepticism. While President Obama's election is often referred to in the literature as a symbol of progress toward equality, several of the black students in this study do not view his election as an indication of progress or of black power, but rather the opposite. Most students in this study view Obama's election as a symbol of assimilation to a system of whiteness, since no real change has occurred in society. Several students said that Obama abandoned his roots in pursuit of the presidency, and that the barriers he, by chance, overcame in his election still exist. Current events also seem to influence perceptions of equality and inequality, a major finding that ties into the initial puzzle in the history of the topic of perceptional racial equality in America. This particular discovery, linked with all others, can help to explain why perceptions of equality and the achievability of the American Dream fluctuate, become more positive, even as the economic dimensions of the American Dream become more oppressive. The only students who stated that current events do not shape their perceptions of equality or inequality were the three students studying Political Science at Howard University. Every other student stated that his or her perceptions fluctuate based on what the media reports, implying that in 2008, when perceptions that equality in America would "soon be achieved" were positive, perceptions may have been reactionary rather than sustainable.
Opinions about black progress toward equality and skepticism toward the American Dream may vary considerably by educational achievement. The students interviewed for this study state that their studies in school have influenced their opinions. The dominant academic discourse on the American Dream for black Americans also implies that individuals with a higher socioeconomic status are the most skeptical about equality and therefore of the American Dream's achievability. This study correlates with that literature, seeing as almost all of the students mentioned at least partial skepticism in the American Dream. This study opens a conversation that does not end here. The small number of interviews from this study cannot be overgeneralized to represent all educated black Americans. In the future, more students from colleges and universities across America should be interviewed to help uncover more nuances that interviews with students in this study may have missed. A more in-depth analysis of students from historically black universities and colleges (HBCUs) would also be valuable to uncover how the culture and setting of one's education can influence personal identity. Perspectives on equality and the achievability of the American Dream for black Americans who are undereducated and black Americans who are incarcerated should also be interviewed in the future, as a comparison for this study. The students in this study have achieved a higher socioeconomic status by virtue of being black educated individuals in America. Therefore, study of those individuals who have not achieved any of the dream's classic indicators, or those who have been legally barred from achieving them, should also be interviewed.
Emily Dalgo is a student of International Studies. She graduates in May of 2017. School of International Service (SIS), American University.
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