Is the so-called “American Dream” dead? And why do whites and Blacks differ in their opinions of that Dream?
A new poll conducted by Penn Schoen Berland for The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute reveals some unexpected truths about how Black people and Latinos view the American Dream with regard to their white counterparts. While the poll of 2,000 respondents suggests that there is great pessimism across the nation—as 75 percent of people say The Dream was suffering and one quarter say it is alive and well—the true story behind the numbers lies in the racial breakdown.
More than four out of five white millennials, as well as whites between the ages 51 and 64, believe The Dream is suffering. Meanwhile, 43 percent of African-Americans, 36 percent of Latinos and significant numbers of Asian Americans believe The Dream is a reality and is achievable to those who want to work hard and strive to accomplish it. Meanwhile, 80 percent of Blacks feel America’s best days are ahead, but fewer than half of whites agree with that statement.
Despite the challenges facing Black people, with chronically high unemployment, police violence and mass incarceration, institutional racism and racial disparities plaguing Blacks every step of the way, optimism remains. Similarly, Latinos face an onslaught from a white supremacist anti-immigration movement that demonizes them and seeks their deportation. Part of this rosy sentiment among people of color may be attributed to who is in the White House. President Obama received overwhelming support from the Black community, and large majorities from Hispanic voters as well, but he received a minority of the white vote. Many whites may view the rise of the Obama era as a nightmare and a tragedy for the nation, particularly for white America. Ultimately, the rise of the tea party movement—though couched in terms of authentic differences of opinion over policy–really was about the fear of a Black planet, to borrow from the Public Enemy song, and a sense that white people are witnessing their country being taken away from them.
Yet, even if Black people are having it hard, as they have for the hundreds of years they have been in America, they are able to point to their legacy of perseverance against injustice, their faith, and support for the first Black president as a source of optimism.
The United States has deep issues, as the nation with the highest degree of economic inequality and upward mobility in the developed world, the only country without paid sick leave or maternity leave, and a crippling $1.2 trillion student debt crisis. Although white America can and should decry the policies that are hurting them, they blame the wrong people for their suffering. Although wealthy whites are responsible for white America’s problems, and policies which keep whites down, poor whites find convenient scapegoats among those of a darker hue.
Too many white Americans view opportunity as a zero sum game, a finite-sized pie in which progress for Black people is equated with a detriment to whites. They would return to the way things used to be–white America’s golden age, the period before the Civil Rights movement and the integration of the public schools, when Black people were largely invisible to them.
To further complicate matters, the U.S. is becoming a nation in which whites will no longer constitute a majority of the population, surely a source of psychological trauma for some. Already, Black and brown children are a majority of new births in America, signaling a significant change ahead, and a source of optimism—or pessimism, depending on who you are. Add to that an emerging Black-led movement that challenges white supremacy and its institutions, and the fear increases for some whites.
If large numbers of white Americans believe their continued success depends on white supremacy and keeping Black people down, they are living in a sad state of affairs.