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When Hard Work Isn't Enough

Race, Inequality and the Politics of Achieving the American Dream

 

My dissertation critically examines the relationship between the American Dream narrative and structural racism in Black public opinion.  Despite long-standing racial disparities in wealth, housing, and education, many Black Americans subscribe to the belief that hard work will overcome any barrier to upward mobility. How does this confidence in the "American Dream" shape Blacks' responses to racial inequality? My dissertation expands on previous work in American politics about the importance of meritocratic beliefs and individualism by situating the American Dream narrative in the context of Black Americans’ historical and ongoing exclusion from opportunities to achieve upward mobility, amass wealth and gain financial stability. Given substantial social-scientific evidence that hard work is not sufficient for eliminating racial disparities between Blacks and whites, I propose Black support for the American Dream myth has insidious implications for racial inequality. By emphasizing the role of personal factors like attitude and mindset for shaping life outcomes, the American Dream narrative shifts the burden for reducing inequality from institutions to individuals. Using this framework, I empirically evaluate the extent to which Blacks who embrace the American Dream myth minimize the importance of racism as a barrier to upward mobility,  endorse negative stereotypes about their group and oppose structural approaches to reducing racial inequality.  My dissertation work has been supported by the Russell Sage Foundation Dissertation Research Grant and a predoctoral fellowship from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (Ford Foundation).

If anyone who puts her mind to it can achieve the “American Dream” (that is, economic mobility via sheer hard work) what explains the persistent inequality between Blacks and whites in America? In the first chapter of my dissertation,  "The Politics of Working Twice as Hard", I introduce a novel framework for understanding how the American Dream myth reinforces negative stereotypes about Black people. Existing work shows the American Dream reinforces status-legitimizing attitudes among advantaged groups. My dissertation intervenes in this literature by describing how minoritized groups, like Black Americans, are harmed by the American Dream myth. Recasting the American Dream myth in the context of Black history in the United States, I argue that because Black Americans have historically been systematically excluded from accessing upward mobility (due in large part to formal and informal legal restrictions on their ability to earn a living, save money and obtain wealth) their belief in the American Dream is based not in reality but in distortion. Despite this, national data from sources like the ANES and the GSS show a surprisingly large proportion of Black Americans believe hard work pays off and that their groups’ own lack of hard work drives racial disparities. For example, the graph below plots Black Americans' explanations for BlacK-white inequality in the General Social Survey from 1996 to 2022. By clicking the arrow in the upper left, you can view the distribution of support for each of the category by year. For the "lack of effort" category, we can see that in most years, between 20 and 50% of Black Americans agreed that Blacks' own lack of will or effort was responsible for racial disparities.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I argue agreement with the American Dream narrative partially explains why many Black Americans support individualistic explanations of racial inequality. I describe this process of shifting the burden for racial inequality from systems to individuals as the politics of hard work. The more Black people believe anyone can achieve the American Dream just by working hard, the more they endorse negative stereotypes about their group members’ behavior and work ethic. I further argue attitudes about the American Dream help to explain Black support for spending on social programs like welfare and unemployment, and race-targeted policies like reparations. Finally, the belief that America eventually rewards hard work for everyone is associated with increased support for market solutions to address racial inequality, like Black capitalism.  

 

I use a mixed-methods approach to demonstrate the salience of the American Dream narrative and its influence on Black political attitudes. To assess the relationship between the American Dream and group attitudes as well as policy preferences, I combine qualitative and quantitative data from three original surveys of Black American adults fielded through Prolific (N = 505), CloudConnect (N = 1,000) and YouGov (N = 1,200) and data from semi-structured interviews ( N = 10). I introduce a novel, bi-dimensional measure, Attitudes About the American Dream (AAD), which combines perceptions of opportunity (dimension 1) with belief in the pay-off of hard work (dimension 2) and validate my measure with confirmatory factor analysis. Using multivariate OLS regressions in both the Prolific and YouGov studies, I find Blacks who believe the American Dream can be achieved through sheer hard work are significantly more likely to endorse negative stereotypes about their group and to oppose race-targeted policies like reparations. 

 

I supplement these findings with qualitative data from open-ended survey responses. With data from the CloudConnect study, I use a structural topic model to analyze open-ended responses to the AAD measure. I find Blacks who believe the American Dream can be achieved through hard work are significantly less likely to mention racial barriers in their open-ended responses. Conversely, those Blacks who believe strongly in the American Dream are significantly more likely to mention personal factors like attitude and mindset in their responses than Blacks who are disillusioned with the American Dream.  

Finally, in my semi-structured interviews of Black adults, I find that when asked about advice they were given about navigating racism as a child, most Black Americans volunteer that they were encouraged to work hard or told that would have to work harder than whites. From these interviews, I also find that many Black Americans reject government intervention as a solution racial inequality and instead focus on ways to change their groups' behavior. Overall, the combined qualitative and quantitative results show that among Black Americans, the American Dream myth shifts the burden for resolving racial inequality from institutions to individuals.

My dissertation introduces needed nuance to research on the role of meritocratic beliefs and values in shaping public opinion. The fact that so many Black Americans attribute racial inequality at least partially to a lack of motivation or effort by their fellow group members cannot be divorced from the influence of American political institutions (which repeatedly fail to secure and protect Black rights) and American culture which promotes individual effort as the linchpin of economic success. My project considers the under-explored strains of meritocratic beliefs in Black public opinion and argues that these attitudes not only influence policy preference, they are also associated with increased support for inaccurate and dangerous stereotypes about Black people. In filling this gap in the literature, my dissertation offers the following scholarly contributions: 

  1. Proposes and tests a novel theory which proposes that the beloved American Dream narrative reinforces the existing racial hierarchy and validates stereotypes about Black people

  2. Introduces and validates universal measure of attitudes about the American Dream which can be applied to assess the relationship between meritocratic beliefs and a number of policy and attitudinal outcomes for any group;

  3.  Interrupts existing literature’s conclusion that race and meritocratic beliefs by demonstrating significant variation in adherence to these beliefs among Black Americans

 

This project also has broader implications for longstanding debates in American politics about the relative significance of structural racism and individual behavior as causes of racial inequality. In recent years, federal and state policymakers have disputed the importance of public education on the consequences of structural racism. For example, in 2022 Florida passed Senate Bill 148 (aka, the S.T.O.P. W.O.K.E. Act) which bars public schools from teaching, among other things that "Such virtues as merit, excellence, hard work, fairness, neutrality, objectivity, and racial colorblindness are racist or  sexist, or were created by members of a particular race, color, sex, or national origin to oppress members of another race."  This law and others like it illustrate the soft power of the American Dream myth to shape policy and public discourse around racial inequality. Despite the reality that hard work does not reap the same payoff for Black Americans (and other minorities) as it does for whites, legislation like Florida's makes the mere mention of unequal access to opportunity illegal.  As the American public grapples with disputes about the meaning and significance of race and racism, my work underscores how inaccurate narratives about the causes of upward mobility harm Black Americans  and reinforce the existing racial hierarchy. 

This research was made possible by funding from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (Ford Predoctoral Fellowship) and the Russell Sage Foundation (Dissertation Grant) 

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