Worker Co-ops and the American Dream, part 4

American Dream Deferred

The American Dream, it must be noted, has always been an aspect of white privilege. The promise of those inalienable rights remained a promise for those brought in slavery and this aspect has played a role in the nation as African-Americans, among others, argued for their share of the Dream and understood the consequences of its denial all too well as Langston Hughes express in his 1951 poem, Harlem (Hughes, 1959):

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up?
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
Like a syrupy sweat?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load
Or does it explode?

The American Dream, as noted, developed out of Jefferson’s Americanism and his ideas for a new paradigm of government. Jefferson’s America, however, was the same government to declare enslaved African-Americans 3/5th of a person for the purpose of calculating representation in the House. Even when chattel slavery was overthrown by the 14th Amendment, the State retained the right to use it as a form of punishment, which would fall harder upon non-whites historically.

For many, the American Dream is a dream deferred.  Even after the end of chattel slavery, the underlying racism within the United States presented itself in the form of Jim Crow laws (1878-1964) and modern efforts such as the 1994 Omnibus Crime Act and selective enforcement practices that will cause 1/3 of African-Americans to have experienced prison by 2020, has largely blocked any pathway to the American Dream except through the act of economic co-operation (Gordon-Nemhard, 2014) or succumbing to hegemony of white America (Robert E. Weems & Randolph, 2001; Very, 2012).

The ability to live the American Dream, for African-Americans, hits a brick wall early as African-American children tend to attend poorer schools and be classified as remedial at a far greater rate than white children (Bonner, 2000). Further, the ability to enter Talented and Gifted programs has been limited by cultural differences and institutionalized racism within the educational system (Blanchett, 2005; Bonner, 2000; Card & Giuliano, 2015). The system hampers the ability of African-Americans to achieve academically which further hampers their ability to acquire the knowledge, skills, and abilities to succeed as well as getting into quality post-secondary institutions and making the connections that go with those institutions.

“Mexican-Americans” Cohen-Marks point out, “will share in that dream only if they speak English.” (Cohen-Marks, Stout). As with African-Americans, Latinos also tend to face challenges in achieving an education through unofficial segregation of public education and the added barrier of language that further marginalizes the children and the parents from school systems and a generalization of all students from Central and South America as “Mexican”(Hill & Torres, 2010). Running counter to the expectations of the generational mobility of immigrants, Mexican-Americans actually show a curvilinear growth and even a drop in income by the third generation (Livingston & Kahn, 2002). In addition to educational limitations, Mexican-Americans may also face challenges based on residency status and racism (especially for those with darker skin) (Alba, 2006).

The ability to access the dream rests to some extent with the ability of the incoming community to either assimilate or to engage in social co-operation among their peer group. Different ethnicities (the Irish, Italians, Chinese among others) have had to push their way into the dream although some have had easier entries due to the sheer number of immigrants from their community, skin color in relation to other immigrants or organizing strategies brought over from the home country. For others the ability to access the Dream has required communal effort through economic and political alliances or marriage (Walters & Jiménez, 2005).

The American society, it turns out, has not been that vertically mobile. While the American Dream holds sway as the grand myth, the lessor myths feeding into to it have come under attack. Socio-economic status has a relationship to psychological distress (Cockerham, 1990) and the perceived failure to achieve the Dream may only contribute to it. The fabled middle-class of the United States has generally been the result of cheap credit, not actual wealth (Nasser, 2015). Recent research has shown that people in the lower economic classes tend to stay there (Wyatt-Nichol, 2011). More importantly societal attitudes towards wealth accumulation are starting to shift. This should be seen not so much as a rejection of the American dream (Magnuson, 2008), but as a realignment towards the more social aspect of the dream, the communal spirit of building a stronger community. The concept of wealth, for wealth’s sake, began to recede in popularity by later 1990’s (Gupte, 2011; Kasser & Ryan, 1993, 1996).

Next: Keeping the Dream Alive


Alba, R. (2006). Mexican Americans and The American Dream. Perspectives on Politics, 4(2), 289-296.

Blanchett, W. J. (2005). Disproportionate Representation of African-American Students in Special Education: Acknowledging the Role of White Privilege and Racism. Educational Researcher, 35(6), 24-28.

Bonner, F. A. (2000). African American Giftedness: Our Nation’s Deferred Dream. Journal of Black Studies, 30(5), 643-663.

Card, D., & Giuliano, L. (2015). Can Universal Screening Increase the Represntation of Low Income and Minority Students in Gifted Education. Retrieved from Cambridge, MA:

Cockerham, W. C. (1990). A Test of the Relationship Between Race, Socioeconomic Status, and Psychological Distress. Social Science Medicine, 31(12), 1321-1326.

Gordon-Nemhard, J. (2014). Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice: Penn State University Press.

Gupte, S. S. (2011). The Reciprocal Reshaping of the American Dream and American Religion. (Masters), Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida.

Hill, N. E., & Torres, K. (2010). Negotiating the American Dream: The Paradox of Aspirations and Achievement among Latino Students and Engagement Between Their Families and Schools. Jounral of Social Issues, 66(1), 95-112.

Hughes, L. (1959). Harlem. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Kasser, T., & Ryan, R. M. (1993). A Dark Side of the American Dream: Correlates of Financial Success as a Central Life Aspiration. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65(2), 410-422.

Kasser, T., & Ryan, R. M. (1996). Further Examining the American Dream: Differential Correlates of Intrinsic and Extrinsic Goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22(3), 280-287. doi:10.1177/0146167296223006

Livingston, G., & Kahn, J. R. (2002). An American Dream Unfulfilled: the Limited Mobility of Mexican Americans. Social Science Quarterly, 83(4), 1003-1012.

Magnuson, E. (2008). Rejecting the American Dream: Men Creating Alternative Life Goals. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 37(3), 255-290.

Nasser, A. (2015). Thge Myth of the Middle Class: Have Most American Always Been Poor. Counterpunch.

Robert E. Weems, J., & Randolph, L. A. (2001). The National Response to Richard M. Nixon’s Black Capitalism Initiative: The Success of Domestic Detente. Journal of Black Studies, 32(1), 66-83.

Very, R. (2012). Black Capitalism: An Economic Program for the Black American Ghetto. International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, 2(22).

Walters, M. C., & Jiménez, T. R. (2005). Assessing Immigrant Assimilation: New Empirical and Theoretical Challenges. Annual Review of Sociology, 31, 105-125.

Wyatt-Nichol, H. (2011). The Enduring Myth fo the American Dream: Mobility, Marginalization, and Hope. International Journal of Organization Theory and Behavior, 14(2), 258-279.


About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-ops in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration and Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University.
This entry was posted in American Dream and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.