Race rhetoric and the american dream
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... Divide a Historical Artifact or a Reflection of current affairs? ... .The promise that all Americans have a reasonable chance to achieve success as they define it -- material or ...

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Race

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Race, Rhetoric and the American Dream

Athens to New York

Prof. Pearson


Outline

  • The American Dream

  • Race and the American Dream

  • Is the Contemporary Divide a Historical Artifact or a Reflection of current affairs?

  • African-American Analyses

  • How to Explain? How to Respond?

  • Next Steps


The American Creed

  • Equality

  • Individualism (self-reliance,self-determination)

  • Religious Piety or Secular Virtue

  • Competition based on Fair Play

  • Intergenerational Progress


The American Dream

“...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.”

Source: Hochschild, Jennifer L. Facing Up to the American Dream: Race, Class and the Soul of the Nation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, c.1995


The American Dream, cont.

  • Rooted in Enlightenment-era ideas of progress

  • Assumes that people will be judged on the basis of individual, not collective identity

  • Has always been complicated by realities of caste and class hierarchies

  • Last 30 years has seen some effort to remove artificial barriers, but.....


The Challenge to the American Dream

  • “...First, too often blacks and whites 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 blacks see whites as purses to be exploited... and other poor blacks are finding [this] harder to dispute...


Challenges, cont.

  • “Many whites see middle-class blacks making excessive demands and blaming their personal failures on a convenient but non-existent enemy. Even more whites see poor blacks as menacing, degraded strangers.”

    Jennifer Hoschshild, Facing the American Dream, Princeton University Press, 1995


The Divide

  • Polls show that most Americans who identify themselves as white believe that there has been substantial progress on race and gender, and that anyone can participate in the Dream.

  • Most Americans who identify themselves as black say that they are still hierarchized and collectivized. U of Chicago poll: 70 percent say that US economy, politics and laws are unfair. Source: http://www.spc.uchicago.edu/ucrpc/papers/working-paper.html#Change


A Historical Artifact or a Contemporary Reality?

  • Real disparities exist in, for example, employment, infant mortality, health status, wealth accumulation, incarceration that are not explainable by education and income levels.

  • To some degree, blacks, as a vulnerable population, anticipate changes in larger culture: e.g., teen pregnancy.


Historical Artifact or Contemporary Reality?

  • Real examples of old-fashioned discrimination still occur: e.g., Texaco

  • Other instances are less overt, but still insidious: e.g. Tums case, problems with EEOC rules

  • Argument over whether disparity=discrimination

  • Argument over intent vs. effect


The Question is: What is Fair? African American Analyses

  • Most conservative definition of civil rights assumed that the removal of legal barriers was enough. Saw experience of European immigrants as model.

  • However, many CR advocates saw links between racism, sexism militarism, and economic exploitation


Martin Luther King, Jr.

  • “We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

    Source: http://www.spc.uchicago.edu/ucrpc/papers/working-paper.html

  • “I don’t want to be integrated out of power.”Source: Cone, James. Malcolm and And Martin and America. Orbis Books, 1993


Malcolm X

  • “So it’s the ballot or the bullet. Today our people can see that we’re faced with a government conspiracy. This government has failed us.” Source: Malcolm X. “The Ballot or the Bullet,” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. NY:WW Norton and Co., 1997, p.99

  • Ideology of black nationalism draws partially from analysis of European ethnic assimilation process.


What Neither Analysis Anticipated

  • Double-edged impact of integration

  • Advent of crack

  • End of American economic expansion

  • Social Saturation and the Populated Self

  • Commodification and co-optation of black culture, protest movements


The Message

  • 1982

  • Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

  • Sampled by Puff Daddy, who removed political and social content

  • Some critics think that the transformation of this song reflects co-opting of rap


Grandmaster Flash

  • “A child is born with no state of mind

  • Blind to the ways of mankind

  • God is smiling on you but he’s frowning too

  • Because only God knows what you’ll go through

  • You grow in the ghetto living second rate

  • And your eyes will sing a song of deep hate


The Message

The place that you play and where you stay

Looks like one great big alleyway

You’ll admire all the number book takers

Thugs pimps and pushers and the big money makers

Driving big cars/Spending 20s and 10s

And you want to grow up to be just like them


The Message, cont.

“Smugglers gamblers, burglars, gamblers

Pickpockets, peddlers, even panhandlers

You say, “I’m cool, I’m no fool,”

But then you wind up dropping out of high school

Now you’re unemployed, all nonvoid

Walking round like you’re Pretty Boy Floyd


The Message

“Turned stickup kid but look what you did

Got sent up for an 8-year bid

Now your manhood is gone and you're a Maytag

Spend the next two years as an undercover fag

Being used and abused to serve like hell

Till the day you were found hung dead in a cell...” Source: Grandmaster Flash, “The Message,” Noton Anthology of African American Literature. NY: WW Norton Publishing. 1997. p.64


Persistent structural inequality

Racist, sexist, classist culture creates divisions and self-destructive behavior

Culture of poverty

‘Bell Curve’ argument

Redistributive strategies

Alternative ideologies e.g. africentrism, feminism, womanism

Welfare reform

Re-impose hierarchies

How to Explain? How to Respond?


Charles Murray

  • Bell Curve: 1994

  • Murray’s culture of poverty arguments influential

  • Bell Curve argument largely rejected, but important to understand


Next Steps

  • Study the immigrant experience

  • America’s contemporary economic challenges


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