The ability to achieve economic security through hard work is a central tenet of the American Dream, but significant shifts in today’s economy have fractured this connection. While economic insecurity has always been a reality for some Americans, Black Americans have historically long experienced worse economic outcomes than Whites. In Work in Black and White, sociologists Enobong Hannah Branch (Rutgers University) and Caroline Hanley (William & Mary) draw on interviews with 80 middle-aged Black and White Americans to explore how their attitudes and perceptions of success are influenced by the stories American culture has told about the American Dream – and about who should have access to it and who should not.
Branch and Hanley find that Black and White workers draw on racially distinct histories to make sense of today’s rising economic insecurity. White Americans have grown increasingly pessimistic and feel that the American Dream is now out of reach, mourning the loss of a sense of economic security which they took for granted. But Black Americans tend to negotiate their present insecurity with more optimism, since they cannot mourn something they never had. All educated workers bemoaned the fact that their credentials no longer guarantee job security, but Black workers lamented the reality that even with an education, racial inequality continues to block access to good jobs for many.
The authors interject a provocative observation into the ongoing debate over opportunity, security, and the American Dream: Among policymakers and the public alike, Americans talk too much about education. The ways people navigate insecurity, inequality, and uncertainty rests on more than educational attainment. The authors call for a public policy that ensures dignity in working conditions and pay while accounting for the legacies of historical inequality.
Americans want the game of life to be fair. While the survey respondents expressed common ground on the ideal of meritocracy, opinions about to achieve economic security for all diverge along racial lines, with the recognition – or not – of differences in current and past access to opportunity in America.
Work in Black and White is a call to action for meaningful policies to make the premise of the American Dream a reality.