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When Hard Work Isn't Enough
Race, Inequality, and the Politics of the American Dream

My dissertation explores a paradox in Black public opinion. Despite widespread awareness of racial barriers, many Black Americans also believe their country offers plentiful opportunities to achieve the American Dream. However, since emancipation, the U.S. government has failed to secure equitable economic opportunities and protect Black people from racially motivated violence, resulting in substantial racial disparities in housing, education, and wealth that persist today. Nevertheless, many Black people subscribe to the fallacious premise of the American Dream that hard work pays off for everyone. How does believing in the American Dream affect intra-group attitudes and support for redistributive policies among Black Americans? 


Combining observational data analysis, survey experiments, qualitative interviews, and focus groups, my dissertation explores how the American Dream affects Black political behavior and attitudes. I draw on both historical evidence and national surveys to develop my theory of the American Dream Fallacy: the belief that America provides sufficient opportunities for Black people to achieve racial equality through existing mechanisms of wealth-building and economic mobility without government intervention. This misconception derives from the American Dream myth which holds that anyone can achieve wealth and prosperity, regardless of their class or circumstance of birth, if they work hard enough. The American Dream Fallacy crystallized in Black politics as a response to repeated government failure to secure and protect Black rights. However, in focusing on the roles of individuals or groups of individuals rather than systems, the American Dream Fallacy motivates the internalization of anti-Black attitudes, specifically the idea that Black Americans experience socioeconomic deprivation because they refuse to work hard enough (see chart below). Black internalization of racist explanations for racial inequality has consequences for Black politics. I find both quantitative and qualitative empirical evidence that Blacks who believe the American Dream is achievable are more likely to blame other Black people for racial inequality and are less supportive of re-distributive social and economic policies.

So What?

Scholarly Contributions

The central claim of my dissertation is that attitudes about the prospects for upward economic mobility (the ``American Dream") shape how Black Americans think about their own group's economic deprivation. 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.  In filling this gap in the literature, my dissertation provides 

  • A theoretical explanation for why Black Americans endorse anti-Black attitudes about racial inequality

  • A novel measure of belief in the American Dream and economic opportunity 

  • An experimental test of how opportunity cues decrease Black support for race-targeted policies and increase support for anti-Black attitudes. 

Broader Impacts

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. The rhetoric of hard work and self-reliance diverts attention from the systemic bases of racial disparities.  My dissertation demonstrates that even Black Americans (who encounter substantial racial barriers) are not immune to this myth.

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