Class Mobility: Is the American Dream a Myth?

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A New York Times poll found 80 percent of Americans still believe it's possible to pull yourself up by the proverbial bootstraps. But a recent mobility study suggests the American Dream may be more style than substance. According to the study, the lower classes of Canada, Britain, Germany and France have an easier time moving their way up the social ladder than their American counterparts. News & Notes conducts a poll of its own. For generations of African Americans, race has played a key role in determining class. But does it still? To help answer that question and take a closer look at class mobility in America's communities of color, host Ed Gordon is joined by Elizabeth Cole, a psychologist and associate professor in the Women's Studies Program and the Center for Afro-American and African Studies at the University of Michigan, and Jennifer Hamer, associate professor of sociology in the African American Studies and Research Program at the University of Illinois.

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Eighty percent of Americans still believe it's possible to pull yourself up by the proverbial bootstraps. That's according to a New York Times poll reported last week, but a recent mobility study suggests the American Dream may be more style than substance. According to the study, the lower classes of Canada, Britain, Germany and France have an easier time earning their way up the social ladder than their American counterparts.

Joining us to examine the issue of class mobility in America are Elizabeth Cole. She's a trained psychologist and associate professor in the Women's Studies Program as well as the Center for Afro-American and African Studies at the University of Michigan. She joins us from members station WUOM in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Jennifer Hamer, associate professor of sociology in African-American Studies and Research Program at the University of Illinois. She joins us from member station WILL in Urbana, Illinois.

I thank you both for joining us.

Ms. Hamer, let me start with you. Did, in fact, and are you surprised at the finding of this study? We hear so much about what we noted here as the American Dream, the idea that if you work hard, you can climb this ladder?

Professor JENNIFER HAMER (Associate Professor of Sociology in the Afro-American Studies and Research Program, University of Illinois): Not at all surprised. Americans continue to hold on to the belief that if you work hard and you work hard enough, you will be able to access opportunities not only for yourself but for your children despite the fact that this actually is decreasing across the nation.

GORDON: So, Elizabeth Cole, what do we tell a person who is born into poverty? Do we say the reality is you will probably live your life in that way?

Professor ELIZABETH COLE (Associate Professor in the Women's Study Program and the Center for Afro-American and African Studies, University of Michigan): Well, I think that one of the problems with the ways that they've framed these findings in The New York Times is that they are presenting it across Americans in general. And I think if you look at racial differences in how people perceive the possibility of attaining the American Dream, there are important differences. So other studies have shown that as a group African-Americans are less likely to believe that mobility is possible than are whites or even Latinos.

And what I think is particularly interesting is that among African-Americans, not everyone thinks that mobility is equally likely, and it's the black middle class who is most skeptical of being able to attain the American Dream. So I think if you look at subgroups within the US, people have different ideas about whether mobility is possible and that that affects how they pursue success, how they see its possibility.

GORDON: What do you think that says about the black middle class? Do you believe that to be the case because ofttimes, particularly in job situations, a glass ceiling is hit?

Prof. COLE: I think that's exactly true. So I think the black middle class is more likely to encounter that kind of glass ceiling. They're more likely to be working side by side with whites who they can see might have more access to inter-generational wealth. They're more likely to perceive that mobility, when it is possible, can come with hidden costs. And working class and poorer African-Americans might be shielded from that reality. Partly because we still have such profound residential segregation, they may not be able to see how different their opportunities are in life from those of whites.

GORDON: Yeah, Jennifer Hamer, we would be remiss without suggesting that we have seen great growth in class structure in this country over the last 40 years for African-Americans, and noting that this is truly, class, a social construct which many people suggest takes into account education, occupation, wealth and income. And we should note that there is a difference between wealth, obviously, and income.

Prof. HAMER: Yes. I think one of the mistakes we make when we talk about class is we end up talking about just income or we talk about lifestyle or we talk about social capital; that is, attitudes and behaviors that are passed on from one generation to the next. And whe--I think the best way for us to think about class is to think about access to resources and access to opportunity. And we find that African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans are less likely to access opportunities and have less wealth. And this is something that's historical; that is, it's moved through time in the United States. And when we talk about wealth, that's something that's passed on from one generation to the next. And so if your grandfather owned property, then you're more likely to own property and more likely to be able to access quality education, higher education and higher income. But we find that this isn't something that has worked the same for different groups over time.

GORDON: Elizabeth Cole, is it fair to state, though, that when you talk about class and you look at those four groupings that wealth really is the biggest muscle of the four?

Prof. COLE: Well, I think that that's true for a number of reasons, probably most importantly is because of the four, wealth is the only one that can be passed on intergenerationally. And even though we've seen growth among African-Americans in the other three aspects of class, wealth has not changed that much. So I saw a recent figure that at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, African-Americans as a whole possessed 1/2 of 1 percent of the nation's wealth. And in 1990, African-Americans possessed 1 percent of the nation's wealth. So wealth has not changed very much at all, and it's wealth that gives you that stability when something like income, which is much more fragile, gets taken away.

GORDON: That being said, we are seeing, over the course of the last decade or so, a group of African-Americans who really can find themselves in what we consider true wealth and who will indeed be able to pass their wealth on to generations, and conceivably, without any systemic downturn of income will be able to do so for more than one generation. That being said, can we look at that at all as a silver lining, or are these people the anomaly?

Prof. COLE: Well, I think...

Prof. HAMER: Oh, I'm sorry. I'll--go ahead. Your turn.

Prof. COLE: I'm sorry.

GORDON: Elizabeth, go ahead, and then pick up after.

Prof. COLE: Well, I think there's two important things to keep in mind about that group. First, it's a very small group that's unrepresentative of the black middle class as a whole. So when you look at black middle class families as defined in terms of income, on average the net worth of white middle-class families is double that of black middle-class families. So a Michael Jordan or an Oprah is really not representative of what's going on for the black middle class as a whole. I'll leave it at that. What do you think, Professor Hamer?

Prof. HAMER: No, I agree completely. In fact, if you look at the highest fifth of--let's say that you're comparing whites and blacks--and you look at the highest fifth, you find that the net worth for whites is about $133,000, and for blacks, their net worth is 40--is about $44,000. So even when we talk about the topper--the upper groups, we still find significant differences.

Prof. COLE: So what do we look at when we look at these numbers? Can we find a silver lining? If we talk about the miniscule number, albeit applauded by those of us who watch these people grow--and whether we want to admit it or not, we are still African-Americans, a very small community, and find pride in people who attain this status--if that is such a miniscule number, and by definition, 42 percent of African-Americans are born in this country into poverty, when we look at those two numbers and juxtapose them, is there a silver lining out here, Dr. Hamer--Professor Hamer? I'm sorry.

Prof. HAMER: I wish I could say that there was a silver lining out there, but I think what we find is that wealth and income distribution, of course, that they're distributed unequally in the United States, but we also see it, this inequality, perpetuated through our institutions. So we see it in education. We see it in the labor market. We even see it in the criminal justice system. So I wish, yes, that we could say that there's a silver lining, but at this point, I see that there is such inequality that it's going to take a long time to overcome.

GORDON: Elizabeth Cole, what's your thought there, and what's your thought in trying to close this tremendous gap between African-Americans and whites, in particular, not only with wealth but education, the job market, etc.?

Prof. COLE: Well, I hate to put another pessimistic spin on it, but I think that another potential downside of the attention that the few extremely wealthy African-Americans receive is that a number of social-psychological studies have shown that when dominate group members read stories about the success of minority group members, they're more likely to attribute failure among certain minority group members to their own shortcomings rather than systematic obstacles. So they're more likely to think that the reason poor blacks are poor is because they just can't cut it. So that's another downside of these few examples of extreme visible wealth.

GORDON: Unless we f...

Prof. COLE: I think that...

GORDON: Go ahead. I'm sorry.

Prof. COLE: I was going to say I think that one thing that we could take away from all this is that there's still a real need for programs like affirmative action. So sometimes when we hear opposition to affirmative action, it's framed in terms of we've had such growth in terms of occupational mobility and education for African-Americans, and by paying attention to the huge gaps that still exist in wealth and how important that is for intergenerational economic stability, that might still be a good rationale for continuing affirmative action.

GORDON: Unless we forget--when we talk about the social construct and talk about education and occupation, income and wealth, perhaps more than any other country, certainly in comparison to the countries we mentioned before, that it seems easier to climb that ladder. Race really should be injected here--Should it not?--when we talk about class in this country...

Prof. COLE: Oh...

GORDON: ...as a factor?

Prof. COLE: ...I completely agree. And I think all too often when people raise the issue of class, it's done in such a way as to substitute for race. So they point to a few examples and say, `Why should we have affirmative action for Bill Cosby's children or for Oprah's children? What we really is class-based affirmative action.' But when we look at the way class and race work together, I think you see that race is not declining in significance.

GORDON: And your thought?

Prof. HAMER: My thought is that we also need to talk about gender because we have an intersection of race, class and gender. And once we insert gender, we find that women are actually at the bottom when it comes to income and wealth.

GORDON: Well, ladies I wish...

Prof. HAMER: So...

GORDON: Go ahead. I'm sorry.

Prof. HAMER: I was gonna say, so even if we just look at income, less than 7 percent of all working women earned more than $75,000 a year, and 37 percent earned less than $25,000 a year. So I think we also need to talk about gender.

GORDON: Well, ladies, I wish we could have put a slightly brighter picture on this, but the truth is the light, as they say, and perhaps people will start to look at this situation as it is. And as we move toward trying to close this gap, we hope that this discussion will, in fact, shed some truthful light on these numbers. Elizabeth Cole's a trained psychologist and associate professor at the University of Michigan, and Jennifer Hamer is associate professor of sociology in the African-American Studies and Research Program at the University of Illinois.

Ladies, I thank you for joining us today.

Prof. HAMER: Thank you.

Prof. COLE: Thank you.

GORDON: Coming up, the dictator has no clothes: reaction to newly released photos of Saddam Hussein. And Mexico's president appeals to black America.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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