The Politics of Hard Work: Race, Inequality and the American Dream*

My research examines beliefs about social mobility in America and the consequences of these beliefs for perceptions of inequality and redistributive policy preferences. Synthesizing research from psychology, sociology and political science, my dissertation empirically measures how much individuals believe it is possible to achieve the American Dream– that is, obtain material success through hard work. 

Given mounting evidence from economists that social mobility in America is rare, it is puzzling that so many Americans still believe that the average person can overcome systemic barriers through mere hard work. It is especially puzzling that Black Americans (who, more than any other racial group, are acutely aware of the prevalence of racial discrimination), have a strong and unwavering faith in their ability to overcome systemic racism through hard work. This “working twice as hard for half as much” mentality is often lauded by Black celebrities and political leaders alike as a tool for racial group uplift; but, it may have insidious consequences for how Black Americans’ think about racial inequality and how much they support race-targeted policies. I argue that Black people who believe the American dream is achievable are more likely to make ambivalent attributions for Black-white inequality. That is, they identify both discrimination and Blacks’ own lack of hard work as equally important causes of socioeconomic disparities between Blacks and whites. This is because the ideology of the American dream engenders the belief that the American opportunity structure, while stratified, is still open if one works hard enough.

Using a combination of observational analyses a survey experiment and qualitative interviews, my dissertation shows that many Black Americans express ambivalent beliefs about the causes of racial inequality; this ambivalence is strongly associated with belief in the American dream. My dissertation further demonstrates these beliefs put downward pressure on support for race-targeted policies. As inequality continues to rise in America, my dissertation illustrates the importance of studying the sources of stratification beliefs, particularly among marginalized groups, who, in many instances, are just as intoxicated by the American dream as are privileged groups. 

Contributions of my Dissertation Project 

The Political Psychology of Working "Twice as Hard" 

Data: General Social Survey. Chart: Zoe Walker 

Why do so many Black Americans believe that lack of effort and racial discrimination are driving racial disparities? I propose this ambivalence is partially being driven by Blacks' faith in the American Dream. American culture and politics constantly reinforce the message that hard work can overcome any challenge. Black Americans are not immune to this messaging. Indeed, many Black parents advise their children that they will need to "work twice as hard" as non-Black children in order to achieve comparable levels of success. While this mentality is often regarded as a tool for racial group uplift, it may have insidious implications for how Black Americans think about racial inequality and how much they support race-targeted policies. By suggesting that Black Americans can work their way out of racial disparities that have systemic causes, confidence in the American dream shifts the burden of closing Black-white socioeconomic gaps from the system to the individual. 

Novel Measure of Belief in the American Dream 

Previous work has used economic individualism to measure beliefs about social mobility. I posit the American dream encapsulates a different dimension of attitudes about mobility. Unlike rugged economic individualism, which rejects the idea that any flaws in the structure of society contribute to inequality, those who believe in the American dream may very well acknowledge systemic barriers to economic mobility; but, they believe that hard work is sufficient for overcoming those barriers and that ample opportunities for success exist for those who are willing to put in the work. To quantify this construct, I designed a bi-dimensional measure. The first dimension gages respondent support for the idea that hard work can overcome any barrier to success. The second dimension asks respondents how much opportunity exists to do things like own a home or make a better living than one's parents. Together, these questions reveal individuals' understanding of both the existence of opportunities to succeed and the probability of succeeding through hard work. 

Broader Impacts

Data: Current Population Survey (2002-2019). Chart: Zoe Walker

Inequality is rising in America; but it’s rising even faster among Black Americans than it is among other racial groups. While Black people are the focus of my dissertation, inequality has also evolved differently for whites, Latinos and Asian Americans in the past two decades. My dissertation will shed light on some of the potential psychological and political consequences of this heterogeneous growth in economic inequality and provide a framework for studying attitudes about the causes of inequality among marginalized groups in an increasingly unequal America.


*My dissertation research has been supported by the Russell Sage Foundation Dissertation Research Grant.