Understanding the Symbolic Idea of the American Dream and Its Relationship with the Category of 'Whiteness'

by Manuel Madriaga
Sheffield Hallam University

Sociological Research Online, Volume 10, Issue 3,

Received: 5 Apr 2005     Accepted: 1 Aug 2005    Published: 30 Sep 2005


This article examines the impact the category of 'whiteness' has on individual interpretations of the American Dream. Via twenty-five life-history interviews, this article presents how US military male Veterans have varying interpretations of the collective idea according to their ethnic and racial background. The evidence presented in this article shows that the idea of the American Dream has racial dimensions or aspects. It suggests that 'whiteness' is taken-for-granted in this symbolic idea. For most ethnic minority respondents, this association between American Dream and 'whiteness' places them in a position to straddle the boundaries of American-ness and Otherness. This has implications in their everyday lives and sense of belonging. This article highlights a wider question regarding the extent 'race' shapes the boundaries of American national identity.

Keywords: American-ness, American Dream, American Identity, Community, Ethnicity, Latino, 'race', Social Identity, Social Categorization, 'whiteness'


1.1 'Whiteness'[1] helps demarcates those who are included from the excluded, dividing 'us' from 'them'[2]. It is a process (Wellman 1977; Roediger 1991; Frankenberg 1993; 1997; Brodkin 1998; Ignatiev 1995; Jacobson 1998; Ware and Back 2001) that is intermingled with the processes of American national identification (Ringer 1983; Omi and Winant 1994; Olson 1998; Roediger 1998; Tuan 1998). This intermingling produces an axiomatic relationship between 'whiteness' and American-ness (Du Bois 1903 [1989]; hooks 1990; Morrison 1998). What will be examined here is how 'whiteness' is represented, in the collective symbolic idea of the American Dream. It explains how the American Dream may symbolize 'whiteness' by utilising Cohen's (1985) model of community, which is derived from Victor Turner's work (1969): the public face of the American Dream symbolises a sense of 'us' that binds all Americans regardless of ethnic and racial difference; however, in private diverging interpretations are exposed revealing the ethnic and racial differences[3] dividing 'us'.

What is the American Dream?

2.1 This question was asked by a contemporary American television news presenter, Dan Rather, in his collection of American individual narratives aptly titled The American Dream (2000). Although he feels he has achieved the American Dream, he questions its meaning because he recognises that times have changed. This awareness has led him to collect views of the American Dream in order to determine what it means at present. His collection of stories resembles an attempt made by Studs Terkel over 20 years ago in American Dreams: Lost and Found (Terkel 1980). Perhaps, the most significant finding of both works was the variety of perspectives that they collected on the American Dream. They both found it was not about a typical American Dream, but more appropriate to talk of American Dreams.

2.2 Despite being identified as a multifaceted concept, there is recognition of a 'straightforward' American Dream that symbolizes 'the modern Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches' story (Rather 2000:xxi). His 'personal version' of the American Dream typifies this traditional interpretation of the collective symbol. He claims he was a poor kid who has become successful and famous. Through liberty, hard work, and education, he believes success can be achieved. Not just Rather, but also many Americans indulge themselves in this view of the American Dream, to the extent that it may be considered the 'official' interpretation of the idea. This official representation, using Cohen's (1985) terminology, is the public face of the American Dream.

2.3 Individualism underlines the 'official' meaning of the American Dream. Success and failure are determined on an individual basis (Bellah et al. 1991; 1996; Sennett 1998). Success, whatever it may be, is achieved through an individual's perseverance and hard work. By linking success to an individual's achievements, failure is perceived to be the result of an individual's faults. It is not society's fault that an individual cannot achieve her or his American Dream. It is the fault of the individual. As Bellah et al. (1991:90) recognise:

If one believes that 'in America you can do anything you want', as almost all Americans of whatever class and race do, and then you find yourself at the bottom of the heap, out of work, or with a miserable job, living in unpleasant or dangerous surroundings, it is natural to think you have no one to blame but yourself.

2.4 If inequities of power in racial relationships were eliminated, then perhaps a liberal individualist ethos would suffice. However, the ideal of the American Dream is transformed and distorted by 'whiteness'. With 'race' taken into account, the versatility of the American Dream as a symbol becomes exposed. Its meanings stretch from the very positive, such as in Dan Rather's portrayal, towards being likened to a nightmare (Hochschild 1995).

2.5 Hochschild's work (1995) is highlighted here because she set out to examine the racial implications of the American Dream. She sees the American Dream as the achievement of success, whatever it may be. An official interpretation - success through individual effort - is at the centre of the competing meanings, or vernacular interpretations, attached to the national symbolic idea. In regards to 'race', the understanding of the American Dream as a symbolic construct helps explain the paradox that blacks, Latinos, and whites living in the same national community view it differently. This symbolic idea of national community marks the borders of inclusion and exclusion, between 'us' and 'them'. Hochschild seems to be in agreement with this point when she argues that the marginal status bestowed to people of colour within the national collective is the norm. For the marginalized, acquiring a sense of belonging and investing in the American Dream are difficult to achieve when 'whiteness' is intermingled with notions of national identity. Although she touches on a relationship between 'race' and national identity, she fails to expand upon it. Despite this, Hochschild, at least, addresses the issue of 'race' in attempting to comprehend what unites Americans as a nation.

2.6 She sees a dichotomy between success and failure as having some bearing on notions of 'race' and national identity. This is significant considering that success is equated with achieving the American Dream. There is no provision for failure in the symbol. There is provision to start over when one has failed (Jasper 2000) in order to gain success, but this willingness to start over is up to the individual. As touched on earlier, failure in the context of the national collective is recognized to be the fault of the individual (Bellah et al. 1991; 1996). Since it is perceived as such, failure is not openly discussed. As Sennett (1998:118) points out, 'Failure is the great modern taboo'. This has racial implications 'when patterns of group success rather than the idiosyncrasies of individual success are at issue' (Hochschild 1995:32). Jenkins' (1997) thoughts on social categorization and how one group marks Others, reinforcing ethnic difference, are applicable here. Those who are believed to have achieved the American Dream assume the right to categorize those who have failed. This reinforces the categorizers' image of themselves as winners and the spokespersons of the American Dream. Perin (1977; 1988) has elaborated on the impact this has on the identity of those who have achieved, as well as its racial implications:

The low cultural rating bequeathed to renters, minors, women, blacks in central cities sharpens the definitive achievements of their opposites and makes more crisp the attainments of the categories: owner, adult, male, white, and suburb, sweetening the struggle to achieve in so categorizing a world (Perin 1977:125).

2.7 Simultaneously, the process of social categorization also reinforces the identity of those who have failed. As Hochschild recognizes:

Members of a denigrated group are disproportionately likely to fail to achieve their goals; they are blamed as individuals (and perhaps blame themselves) for their failure; and they carry a further stigma as members of a nonvirtuous (thus appropriately denigrated) group (1995:34).

The Study

3.1 An objective of the research was to identify commonalities binding the nation together, and the ways in which they are implicated in 'race', and shaped by 'race'. Americans have varying interpretations as to what binds them into a national community. Although respondents' meanings and attachments to the 'cultural stuff' (Jenkins 1997) are sometimes contradictory and divergent, they still identify themselves as American.[4] The notion of the American Dream is an element of the 'cultural stuff' that serves as homogenising/alienating agent, unifying/dividing the nation. Like the American Dream, 'whiteness' may also be a part of the 'cultural stuff'. 'Whiteness' is a process that informs a sense of American national belonging. It is this process that helped immigrant Irish (Ignatiev 1995) and Jews (Brodkin 1998) acquire a sense of American-ness. Thus, this study is not about examining a black-white dualism (Mac an Ghaill 1999). It is about how 'whiteness' is negotiated by different racial and ethnic groups.

3.2 To explore this, fieldwork was conducted in the United States between July 2000 to August 2001. It was centred in a particular area along the California central coast. To examine the hegemony of 'whiteness' and its relationship to individual perceptions of national belonging, I chose to have the research revolve around life-history interviews with military Veterans. Military Veterans have social standing (O'Leary 1999) in determining what is and what is not patriotic. Having social standing, they, in essence, help to define the boundaries of national identity and what it entails (Marvin and Ingle 1999; O'Leary 1999). Twenty-five Veterans were interviewed. At the time of the fieldwork, all respondents lived around the central coast. Other than settling in this part of California, being male[5], and being military Veterans, there are not many commonalities between any one of them. Ten of the respondents were white, nine were black, and six were Latino. They varied in age, from twenty-eight to eighty-five years old.

3.3 All respondents knew of my interest in examining American national identification and what binds 'us' as a nation. However, they were not aware of the central interest of 'race' in the study. This indirectness was deliberate. The research was designed to examine the implication of 'whiteness' in taken-for-granted notions of American identity. In order to acquire data on how a sense of American-ness and racism may intertwine, I decided it was necessary to be less than completely open about my intentions. I tried to avoid asking questions directly related to 'race'. I did not want respondents to have any suspicions that I was interested in issues of 'race'. My desire was not to contaminate or influence the everyday. It is in the everyday perceptions of American-ness that 'whiteness' is sought. This is the sole reason for choosing an indirect research approach. Although not completely open about research intentions, I do not consider my approach along the same lines as covert research. A distinction has to be made. Covert research usually involves a researcher hiding the truth about oneself from those being researched (Bulmer 1982; Holdaway 1982; Burgess 1984:186-189). In contrast, the indirect approach I chose gave me the opportunity to not conceal my identity or my research. All respondents were aware I was a research student. They all knew of my research interest in American identity. The only thing they did not know was of my interest in examining 'race'. This was researched indirectly.

White perceptions of the American Dream

4.1 The diversity in responses from this sample group is representative of the multifaceted meanings of the American Dream. Despite the range of interpretations, a majority of them identified an official, popular conception of the idea, in which home ownership and acquiring material items symbolised the fulfilment of the American Dream. For instance, as one respondent described, it is about, 'House, home, family, good job, good place to live, a clean environment, no smog, not worried about where your next meal is coming from, own some property (45)[6]'. This understanding of the American Dream is typical of many of the respondents interviewed. However, with this understanding in-hand, respondents did question its meaning and offered alternative interpretations of the idea.

4.2 One respondent (55) contended that it was a matter of fact in his life, not actually a 'dream'. He believes its symbolic meaning pertains to the 'traditionally underrepresented communities in California', such as people of colour or newly arrived immigrants. In claiming the American Dream to be a matter of fact in his life, he implicitly distinguishes his belonging within the national collective from those who are marginalized. It is a fact for him and a dream to them. In stressing his commitment to the university where he is employed as an administrator, he feels he is a part of an organisation that assists 'them' to achieve the American Dream. Education, in his opinion, allows one to 'get a piece of that American Dream and then drive on from there'.

4.3 Another respondent (69) understands the American Dream in a similar light. He portrays the pursuit of the American Dream as a quest of the 'traditional' outsiders, in particular newly arrived immigrants. He cites his parents as examples. He describes how his parents, who emigrated from Germany to New York City before WWII, achieved the American Dream. Instead of education as a means to achieve this ideal, he witnessed his parents realize it through 'hard work':

My father was a plumber. My mother, we lived in a five-story tenement in New York. She was superintendent. So, every week, she had to mop down the staircase. It was a walk-up apartment and they would have to take care of the building. He was a plumber and he eventually went into his own business and eventually we moved out of the City and moved to Yonkers. It was a nice residential area, a suburban area. That's the whole American Dream. So, really as immigrants, they made it.

4.4 Aside from thinking that the American Dream is symbolic of hard work or an ideal sought by the 'traditionally undeserved', other white respondents held different views of the symbol that are hardly consistent with traditional notions of the American Dream. One respondent (55), for instance, is proud that he has achieved a college degree. However, when asked about his thoughts on the American Dream, he associated it with being a voluntary chef at the local American Legion post (a military Veteran organisation). Asked what motivates him to be a volunteer chef, his response was, 'I get recognition for it... that is what counts'. The recognition comes from his peers within the Veteran organisation. Receiving praise is an indication of success for this respondent. However, this conception of the American Dream is not what many, such as previous respondents, had in mind. Brady's conception pushes the boundaries of the meaning of the American Dream.

4.5 The meaning of the American Dream is stretched even further when it is associated with notions of freedom. One respondent's (84) initial view of freedom is attached to the era of Prohibition when the selling of alcohol was outlawed in the 1920s. He considers this era in American history to be a time when the Dream was questioned, with freedom of choice being denied. As discussion on the matter continued, he argued that the freedom to participate in democracy, such as voting, is the most important aspect of the American Dream. He even recalled memories of the Civil Rights era and stated, 'Africans should vote'. When asked to explain his position, he stated:

Well, I feel that I have [the American Dream]. I am proud to be a citizen. I am delighted to stand up for citizens' rights. I vote. I voted since I was twenty-one. And I am tired of people who complain but don't do anything. I don't like them. They should do something about it. The American Dream is spoiled by people who are only interested in their own selfish little thoughts and expectations.
His view of it is not based on individual success or having a strong work ethic. It steers away from the individual and uplifts the idea of collective responsibility. In his opinion, pursuing individual desires is selfishness. This is contrary to traditional notions of the American Dream where individual success is praised.

4.6 Among those who expressed affirmative attachment to the idea of the American Dream, there are a couple of respondents who are not only critical, but attempt to dispel the idea from their lives. There is one respondent (58) who does not hold the idea of the American Dream in high esteem. However, in criticising the idea, he claims that he has once associated with the idea in his past:

I lived the American Dream because of what I have. Yeah, I had a wonderful childhood. I have a good marriage. I have a good job. I own a house. I own three cars, five televisions, one in every damn room! I have five televisions, one in every bedroom, one in the kitchen, one in the living room, completely conspicuous consumption... There are three of us and we have forty chairs in our house. If we all moved five, ten times a day, we couldn't sit in all the chairs. That's the American Dream! In a lot of ways, it is very conspicuous consumption.

4.7 He sees official, popular notions of the American Dream, such as home ownership, as conspicuous consumption. With this understanding, he states, 'You almost have to pray for forgiveness for having it all'. He is uncomfortable about his material wealth, identifying greed, not the idea of the American Dream, to be 'The only thing that hold us (the nation) together'. So, in his view, the pursuit of the American Dream is an individual pursuit of greed that hinders chances for fellowship and community. As he says, 'Making money, having babies, living a good life that's the American Way. As for helping other people, I don't see it'.

4.8 This pessimism is shared. Another respondent (59) admits that he used to subscribe to the idea when he was younger. However, his stint in the Vietnam War changed his perspective. It also caused him to take a detour away from his pursuit of the American Dream that entailed a career in law:

I was a poor boy that kind of made good. I was a military officer. I have been in graduate school. I was going to get out of the military and resume my career which at the time I thought I was going to be a lawyer and in the criminal justice system, maybe. It was OK. It was good. But, then, I realized after I came back from Vietnam, I couldn't trust anything that I had been taught. I suspected everything had been coloured by privilege, materialism, expansion, and basically theft. It was like shocking because it meant to my family I was a radical. And, I didn't feel radical. Actually, I felt like I was asking legitimate questions [about the Vietnam War]. My family virtually disowned me.
This respondent accepts his marginality from his family and mainstream America. At the time of the interview, he was a full-time peace activist living alone in a rented trailer. He refuses to succumb to the American Dream ideal because of its association with greed and materialism.

4.9 It is evident that most of these respondents are aware of a popular, official interpretation of the American Dream, in which achieving success, whatever it may be, stems from one's ability and work ethic. The responses listed here echo Hochschild's conception of the idea. For instance, the majority of the respondents described their own achievement of the American Dream in terms of reaching some threshold of wellbeing or becoming better off than some point of comparison (Hochschild 1995:142). At the same time, several of them were able to distance themselves from traditional notions and attach other meanings. This is an indication of the symbol's multifaceted meanings. As explored here, a number of respondents who uphold the idea associate it with foreigners achieving success or with notions of freedom. Engaging in discussions on issues of racial and ethnic difference was not envisioned with respect to this topic; but, as evidenced here, a couple of respondents unexpectedly did touch on it. For instance, one respondent (55) marked the exclusion of the 'traditionally under-represented' from the American Dream, and another (84) associated the idea with 'Africans' exercising the freedom to vote. This is significant. Two out of the ten white respondents tied in issues of 'race' and ethnicity into their responses. By involving 'race' in their understanding of the American Dream, these two respondents recognise 'whiteness' in taken-for-granted notions of American national identity.

Black perceptions of the American Dream

5.1 The commonalities found within the white sample are also apparent within the black sample. Like the majority of white respondents, most black respondents identified an official interpretation of the American Dream. They associated the symbol with the acquisition of things (i.e. home, car, etc.) or achieving goals such as higher education. For instance, one respondent, who was raised in the rural South amidst poverty, is a strong advocate of individualism and the pursuit of the American Dream. He does not believe one's social class should be a barrier to one's dreams. As he says, 'Because you were born poor doesn't necessarily mean that you have to live that way. But, if you choose to live that way, then that is entirely up to you'. Thus, he contends that all can accomplish the American Dream. Defining the American Dream as accomplishing goals despite obstacles, he cites himself as an example. He feels he has achieved most of the goals he had set for himself. His accomplishments so far have been retiring from the military with the realisation that 'Less than 5% of the people that go into the military retire'. Another achievement he mentions is being the only one from his family to have graduated from a university. His final goal is to own a home. However, he just needs to 'get that job and make big money'.

5.2 Only a minority of black respondents subscribe to and uphold an official interpretation of the American Dream. A disproportionate number of black respondents criticised the official, popular, traditional notions of the American Dream. In criticising it, these respondents were compelled to define popular notions of the symbol beforehand. As one respondent stated, 'I heard that it is having a house, a car, and 2.3 children, a wife (45)'. Another stated, it is about a 'big house, big car, big backyard, or big-screen TV (28)'.

5.3 By beginning their responses acknowledging popular, official conceptions of the American Dream, these respondents laid out a foundation for their own interpretations. For instance, after defining traditional notions of the idea, one respondent (49) describes his desire for social justice and examines the harshness of individualism. Pondering the American Dream, he believes every family should be able to afford a house, not an apartment, and argues for more opportunities to open up for the poor so they can have a crack at achieving success. Although desiring social justice, he understands it is difficult to achieve when Americans are driven by individualism, selfishness, and competition: 'They don't appreciate what they got. If you and I were neighbours and you bought a brand new car, there is no need for me to buy one just because you bought one'. His understanding of the idea is highlighted because it is representative of the majority of black respondents who included the pursuit of social justice in their conceptions of the American Dream. While this respondent emphasised the injustices of class difference, five out of nine black respondents stressed racial injustice.

5.4 Describing their views of the American Dream, many opened up and pointed out how racism still pervades the national collective self-image. For instance, one respondent (48) dismissed traditional notions and linked his vision of the American Dream to improving 'race' relations:

Really, my American Dream... is getting along with everybody no matter who you are. That's the way I grown up to get along with everybody and anybody. There is no such people that I wouldn't try to get along with. I got a lot of Mexicans friends. I got a lot of white friends. I got Indian friends...

5.5 When questioned about his views of the collective idea, his immediate response was a vision for racial harmony. He could have responded in many different ways to the question considering the multiplex nature of the symbol. Instead of describing the American Dream in narrow official terms such as home ownership and achieving higher education, he highlighted issues of 'race'. He is not alone. Other black respondents echoed this response when prompted by the question about the American Dream. One of them (70) stated, 'The world would be at peace is one thing. And, all the races would get along well with each other and [you can] go where you want to go and do what you want to do. That's my dream'. Another respondent stated:

I lived the life where it was for coloured people only in the back of the restaurant and separate water fountains. I didn't have to read it in a book. I lived it. So, when we talk about the American Dream, it is kind of subjective to the individual. I was brought up with a real strong work ethic. I told you I bought a house at nineteen-years-old. I worked two shifts for over a year and I got turned down so many times because of my ethnic background. We were from a small town and nobody wanted to take a chance on you. It's all about, as far as I am concerned, determination and not giving up. (44)

5.6 Having memories of Jim Crow, the previous respondent is aware that his view of the American Dream is unique. Yes, he does attach the symbol to home ownership and having 'a real strong work ethic', like a majority of the respondents throughout the study. However, he mentions his accomplishments in the same breath of being discouraged with the lack of opportunities and restrictions placed on him due to racism. Like other respondents, he wanted to address 'race' in discussing the American Dream. But why does he feel compelled to do so when defining the American Dream? A possible answer to this question is that he acknowledges a contradiction between popular, official notions of the American Dream, which in principle apply to all, and the fact that American-ness is, axiomatically, white.

5.7 Another respondent (45), in addressing the American Dream, provides a similar answer to the question. In fact, he does not even associate the idea with blacks in America. He associates it with recent immigrants:

I kind of look at the American Dream with scepticism and I actually found this with foreigners. They have a completely different impression, the streets flowing with milk and honey. Then, they get here and it is not flowing with milk and honey. But, they do appreciate the fact that they are living a hell of a lot better than they would have in their country.
His interpretation of the American Dream is no different from white respondents who linked the American Dream to recent immigrants. But, it does depart from white responses with the issue of 'race' being at the centre of his explanation. Unlike other black respondents who shared a vision of an American Dream that brought forth racial harmony, he dismisses the notion on the grounds that the collective idea is not applicable to the black experience: 'That's right because I look at it as a black male born in the city. I understand the legacy of slavery'.

5.8 The black response to the American Dream is an indication that some ideals of national collectivity are inseparable from notions of 'whiteness'. By addressing 'race' in their explanations, these respondents marked their racial difference. A possible reason for doing so is because they see the American Dream as a 'white' dream. A number of writers have already commented on this relationship. For instance, Perin (1988), Massey and Denton (1993), and Brodkin (1998) have all suggested that owning a home in a nice neighbourhood in close proximity of a well-regarded school is representative of a suburban lifestyle that is representative of achieving the American Dream (and which at the same time implies 'whiteness'). Although many respondents acknowledged the racial implications of the collective idea, they still held unto the belief that hard work achieves success. They still maintained this tenet of the American Dream. They pursued their goals despite the racial obstacles they were forced to confront.

5.9 Why did they pursue such goals? A possible explanation is that these individuals, like all Americans regardless of 'race', desire community and fellowship but feel they have to prove their worth in order acquire a sense of belonging. As Sennett and Cobb recognize in their study (1972:56), Americans desire community with others but feel they have to earn the right to communal respect by showing others that they can totally take care of themselves. They do not want to be categorised by others as failures. They want to be seen as virtuous citizens within the collectivity. Unfortunately, this desire may be difficult to achieve when 'whiteness' is taken-for-granted in notions of American-ness. And, as illustrated here, this does not go unnoticed.

Latino perceptions of the American Dream

6.1 In contrast to white and black interviewees, all Latino respondents subscribed to and upheld official meanings of the American Dream. Although interpretations may have been varied, they all expressed a fondness for the American Dream. One Latino respondent (28), for instance, is adamant about the belief that having a strong work ethic leads to achievement of the American Dream. Indicating that he was not earning much a few years ago, this respondent considers himself a living testament. He now owns two homes, one of them valued at $750,000 within the confines of Silicon Valley. In regard to the acquisition of this property, he contended that it is the result of the strong work ethic displayed by him and his wife:
We never saw that coming to us. We work hard. That's why I am flat out not lying when I say that you work hard for what you want, period. If you can't do that thing, do the next best thing to it. Then, you work yourself up to that big thing. That is what it comes down to.

6.2 He is aware of the low likelihood of someone of his background, who was raised by immigrant parents in the barrio, owning property in his late twenties. He considers himself unique in comparison to his friends who still maintain ties to the barrio. He says, 'All my friends I grew up with, none of them own a single house. That is what it comes down to. You work hard for what you get'. He cites himself as an example of someone who has achieved the American Dream through his own hard work. At the same time, he questions his barrio friends' achievements and their work ethic. This thinking perpetuates the association between individualism and the American Dream. As Hochschild has recognised, this association distinguishes the virtuous and the sinners (1995:30). The respondent (28) perceives himself within the former and categorises his friends amongst the latter.

6.3 Although Latino responses as presented here associate individualism with the American Dream, they also exhibit a heavy emphasis on family commitment. For instance, the previous respondent is a strong advocate of the idea that an individual's work ethic determines success. However, he also equates the American Dream with his family's happiness, 'If I can make my wife happy and my family happy, I am living the American Dream right there'. He knows that he could 'shoot higher, higher, and higher' in regards to earning more money and purchasing more property. But, he restrains himself because of what he has learned from his father's example of placing family first:

He would not work that extra hour just to spend time with his family. I wouldn't take that extra $60 that day, that hour. I would rather be with my family. That's me right there. My family comes first. And, the money will be there. (28)

6.4 The statement he makes here is interesting because throughout the entire interview he stresses the notion that a strong work ethic leads to achieving the American Dream. Yet, he recognises restrictions on pursuing individual success, due to family commitments. A balance needs to be established. He is not the only respondent who discusses the push and pull between an individual's desire for personal success and a desire for family. Another respondent (68) also touched on the dichotomy. Like all Latino respondents, he upholds a conventional understanding of the American Dream, placing home ownership and a strong work ethic at the centre. Nonetheless, he also considers family commitments when pursuing success. He is aware that the ill effects of individualism, greed and selfishness could lead to a break down in family. With this understanding, he advocates a balance:

I think what is happening now is that we are not satisfied with just one TV. We got to have a TV in each room. We are not satisfied with one car. Everybody has to have a car. There is nothing wrong with that. But, there has to be a balance. (68)
In discussing family commitments in defining the American Dream, these respondents have set themselves apart from white and black respondents. Yes, Latino respondents do share and invest in traditional, popular, official understandings of the symbol that stresses individualism. But, in the same breath, they mention their commitments to their family.

6.5 As well as touching on the dichotomy between their own individual needs and their family commitments, these respondents associated the American Dream with immigration. As one respondent stated about his Mexican immigrant parents, 'My folks came over here for the Dream' (71). Another respondent (64) makes this association as well. Like the others, he does believe in official notions of the American Dream in which a strong work ethic determines success. However, unlike the others, he is aware of, and makes a distinction between, official meanings and his own view that the American Dream has more resonance with recent immigrants than with him and his Texan heritage. He argues that the American Dream was not a 'dream' for him as it would be for recent immigrants. As he states, it is 'a nice idea. For me, it is just normal. It is not an American Dream. Well, yeah, you dream about it. But, I didn't dream. I knew I had to work hard for it. So, I got it'. For him, it is 'normal' to achieve the American Dream. But for others, like recent immigrants, the notion is not normal. He continues:

...people who come from other countries. I didn't come here. I was raised here. But, people who come here from another country call it 'the American Dream.' They can be somebody from another country who doesn't have freedom or whatever. Over here, you have all the freedoms to get a job according to your ability, to build a family, to build a home, or whatever. (64)
His opinion on the matter is not at all different from the white and black responses that have already been examined. In echoing these sentiments, the respondent marks his belonging to the national collective. The American Dream is 'normal' for him. For recent immigrants, it is not. It remains a dream.

6.6 He was not alone in distinguishing himself from recent immigrants. This tendency was shared by many of the Latino respondents. By holding on to official notions of the American Dream, these respondents were compelled to categorise and criticise recent Latino immigrants who fail to achieve success. Another respondent (28), for example, expresses disappointment with his friends who continue to live in the barrio because he holds to the idea that 'you work hard for what you have and that's it. There is no other "ifs" or "buts" about it. If you want that, you are going to work hard to get it'. Many Latino respondents refused to be categorised with recent Latino immigrants. This confirms a recent finding that native-born Latinos try to disassociate themselves from immigrant sectors of the community (Bedolla 2003). They were adamant about their ties to American-ness, to the extent of downplaying their own Latino-ness. For instance, one respondent (71) is against bilingual education policies aimed at native Spanish speakers. He argued that he did not need these policies to achieve the American Dream.

6.7 In addition to discussing the American Dream in relation to family commitments and immigration, these respondents did perceive the symbol in other ways. For instance, one respondent (70), who, like the others, parallels the American Dream with success, also understands it to be a specific place and time in history. He associates the symbol with the Long Island suburbs of New York between 1954 and 1970. This was when he witnessed the migration of many military service families from the cities to the suburbs:

From '54 to '70, the time of the American Dream, all the servicemen getting an education... getting into the suburbs, the house with white picket fence and two children and a dog. I was all part of that dream. (70)
Having served in the military within this era, he was able to move from Spanish Harlem to the suburbs of Long Island. He was able to acquire the necessary education to teach at a suburban high school and to pursue graduate studies.

6.8 Another respondent's (71) conception was not as straightforward. It was multifaceted. His response, on its own, represents the versatility of the symbol. In one instance, he is associating the American Dream with home ownership and achieving success. In another instance, he links the symbol to overcoming personal challenges, such as taking on a simulated rock-climbing wall in the local community centre at the age of seventy. Pointing at the wall during the interview, he proudly exclaimed, 'I climbed that. See, that is the American Dream'.

6.9 The interpretations of the previous respondents appear off the mark in relation to other Latino responses, with the former associating the American Dream with an era in history and the latter associating it with his own physical feat. Although their responses seem awkward, they are still centred upon an official version of the American Dream that was shared and articulated by all Latino respondents. Success can be achieved by one's work ethic.

6.10 Although a lot of these respondents stressed the idea that having a strong work ethic can lead to attaining the American Dream, some of them also emphasised their commitments to their families. This emphasis on family, as stated earlier, is what distinguishes them from both white and black respondents. They recognise the limitations of 'working hard' by placing their family commitments first. Another exceptional finding in their responses is the attempt to distance themselves away from their Latino-ness. These sentiments were expressed in linking the American Dream with the arrival of recent immigrants. As long as recent immigrants establish a strong work ethic with the goal of achieving the American Dream, they will gain approval from these respondents.


7.1 As evidenced here, there were a variety of interpretations of the American Dream. The symbol is multifaceted, versatile and open to interpretation. Or, as one black respondent (45) stated, 'the American Dream means whatever the American Dream means to people'. Although multifaceted, the American Dream has an official, public face (Cohen 1985) that provides a sense of similarity between respondents. It makes them appear to be united and undifferentiated. Latino, black, and white respondents in this study show that most Americans are all able to identify with the collection of Horatio Alger rags-to-riches stories gathered by Rather (2000) and Terkel (1980). The public face of the American Dream provides a sense of 'us', a sense of universalism or what some may refer as a sense of civic culture (Kohn 1957; Walzer 1996), where ethnic and racial differences are and continue to be not recognised (Young 1990; Guttman 1992; Taylor 1992). It is here where 'whiteness' is invisible (Frankenberg 1997).

7.2 The American Dream was understood by a majority of the respondents, regardless of ethnicity, as linked to success. Synonymous with the American Dream, success is open to interpretation as well. However, many respondents identified home-ownership or the acquisition of material things as indicators of success. For instance, nearly half of the twenty-five respondents associated owning a home with the American Dream. Aside from it being associated with home-ownership, the American Dream is also associated with having a strong work ethic. This means that how one achieves success is just as significant as the achievement itself. The majority of the respondents uphold the notion that a strong work ethic determines one's success. Only a few commented on the structural economic factors that may impact on one's ability to achieve success. Despite having this awareness, they still believed that 'hard work' was a contribution towards grasping the American Dream. Holding onto this belief, these respondents believe that an individual's success or failure is of their own making. This means that an individual who lacks the finances to purchase a home is to blame for her or his misfortune. Success is achieved by the virtuous - those individuals who work hard.

7.3 Something else that is shared by many of the respondents is the association of the American Dream with immigration. This association, perhaps, stems from the notion that working hard determines success. The only way most respondents see recent immigrants acquiring success is through a strong work ethic. Some of the Latino respondents credit their immigrant parents' work ethic for their own family's success. A few respondents, regardless of ethnicity, even expressed the idea that the American Dream was more applicable to recent immigrants than to themselves. It did not apply to the respondents themselves because they perceived the American Dream to be 'normal' in their lives. While they considered it to be 'normal' in their lives, they believed it to be enchanting for recent immigrants. This is because as one black respondent (45) recognised, 'They are living a hell of a lot better [here] than they would have in their country'.

7.4 The public face of the American Dream leaves whiteness unmarked and invisible. It is this invisibility that writers like Du Bois (1903 [1989]) and Morrison (1998) see an axiomatic relationship between 'whiteness' and American-ness. Yes, the American Dream unites all Americans. But, it also divides them as well. This division is apparent in the private face (Cohen 1985) of the American Dream, within the confines of the collective. Aside from the commonalities that are listed above between respondents, there were contrasting perceptions of the American Dream according to 'race' and ethnic difference. For instance, some Latino respondents who felt strongly about the idea that an individual's work ethic determines success also conveyed the importance of family life. They were aware of the dichotomy between their own individual pursuits and their family commitments. It was even suggested that a balance must be struck. This finding is highlighted because not one white or black respondent considered family life in their conceptions of the American Dream. This can suggest two things. First, that devotion to family is a distinctive Latino characteristic: by describing their family devotion in addressing the American Dream, they were marking their Latino-ness in the face of 'whiteness'. Or, second, the pursuit of the American Dream with its emphasis on individualism is contrary to Latino ideals of family.

7.5 Although a number of Latinos shared a commonality and addressed family commitments in their responses, others held different views of the American Dream. For instance, one respondent (64) perceived the American Dream as being 'normal' having been born and raised within the US. Another respondent (71) associated it as the reason his parents emigrated from Mexico to the US. These differing views held within the Latino group are another indication of the multifaceted nature of the American Dream. Moreover, these diverse views may demonstrate how the process of 'whiteness' is negotiated differently within the Latino experience.

7.6 The white response is almost similar in this regard. Despite identifying the public face of the American Dream, the white response was quite dispersed in private. The range of interpretations stretched from the symbolic ideal being linked from the freedom to vote to conspicuous consumption. The difference between the Latino and white response, however, is that the latter had two respondents who touched on issues of 'race' in their conceptions of the American Dream. In other words, they marked 'whiteness'. As stated earlier, that even two white respondents did is significant as well as surprising. This is further evidence that 'whiteness' is embedded in notions of American identity

7.7 Perhaps, the most significant finding is with respect to how black respondents addressed the question of the American Dream. The black response, overwhelmingly, suggests that 'whiteness' is taken-for-granted in the symbolic ideal of national collectivity, as more than half of black respondents stressed racial injustice in their interpretations. It is not, as Hochschild (1995) suggests, a paradox that white and black America have diverging attitudes towards the American Dream. Their diverging attitudes, as argued here, can be attributed to the fact that American-ness is, axiomatically, white. They made the invisible visible by describing how racism has shaped their understanding. It should be emphasised again that these black respondents voluntarily discussed issues of 'race'. They were asked about their opinions of the American Dream, not about their views on 'race'. With this in mind, it should be highlighted that four black respondents did not touch on issues of 'race' in describing their view of the American Dream. Three of them upheld official meanings, attaching the symbolic ideal to home ownership and immigration. Another respondent (49) discussed it in terms of achieving social justice through redistribution of wealth to the poor. Of course, this is indicative of the multifaceted nature of the symbolic ideal. But, more importantly, it also reflects how 'whiteness' is negotiated differently within the black experience in the US, as some marked it and others did not.

7.8 Although the argument and evidence presented here will not, to some, be new, they do, however, confirm that there is an axiomatic relationship between whiteness and American-ness. It builds on the work of many notable analysts (Frankenberg 1993; Omi and Winant 1994; Ringer 1983; Wellman 1972) to argue that when others talk of American identity, whiteness should be considered.

7.9 The diversity of responses in addressing the American Dream show that individuals maybe divided by 'race' and ethnicity. However, at the same time, individuals still recognise themselves as being American. This builds on the work of Cohen (1985) and Turner (1969) in that a sense of 'we-ness' can still be attained even with recognition that 'race' continues to differentiate. It shows that similarity and difference go hand-in-hand in comprehending America's national community. This is the beauty of Cohen's (1985) conception of community. It is symbolic, subjective, and ambiguous to the extent that it encapsulates senses of both sameness and difference. There is a public face of American-ness that marks whites, blacks, and Latinos as in some sense the same. But, beneath the public face, there is a private tension over the meanings of American-ness throughout the collective.


1 Inverted commas are used for 'whiteness' to stress, like 'race', that it is a social category. The process of social categorisation takes into account power and hierarchy in ethnic relationships where social categories are identified, defined, and delineated by others. This process is in contrast, but implicated, to the process of group identification where social groups define themselves, their name(s), their nature(s), and their boundar(ies) (Jenkins 1997:75).

2 As long as there is a 'them', or Others, to identify against, there will always be a sense of American community. This 'them' can reside outside the territorial borders of the US, such as the Soviet Union during the Cold War. However, Otherness can reside within America itself. This is why Cohen's (1985) notion of community is significant. Community is a multifaceted concept sheltering, like an umbrella, differences and a sense of sameness simultaneously. Individuals are aware that their lives are structured by caste, class, or race, however there remains a sense of communitas - an undifferentiated unstructured sense of 'we-ness' (Turner 1969:96; Jenkins 1996:145).

3 It is understood that ethnicity and 'race' are of a similar vein in that they both mark difference (Fenton 2003). However, these two concepts can be distinguished with Jenkins' (1997) idea that ethnicity is a first-order social identity while 'race' is second-order identity. This ordering is based on the notion that ethnicity, the social interaction between 'us' and 'them', has been around since humans have lived in social groups. In contrast, 'race', being an 'allotrope' of ethnicity, is a product of a specific historical circumstance (Jenkins 1997:59). 'Whiteness', as understood here, is a product (Allen 1994; Olson 1998) of American colonialism. Throughout the article, the terms 'race' and 'whiteness' are used interchangeably.

4 Depending on time, place, and context, I find myself either at the centre or at the margins of American society. Being a son of Filipino immigrant parents in the US, I have always been racialised. I am swayed to believe that being American means being 'white' or vice versa. Nevertheless, when the opportunity arises, I am eager to make known to anyone who questions my American authenticity that I do belong. This constant negotiation between my attachment to all things American and my awareness of my racialised identity is an ongoing daily exercise. My contradictions are representative of contradictions that many Americans share in their attachment to the nation. There are many differences between Americans: gender, religion, ethnicity, race, class, etc. But, amidst the differences, there are commonalities that bind the nation together into a cohesive whole. The research was designed to seek out these commonalities. My aim was to know how individuals identify with America and how their identifications concern issues of 'race'. I knew going into the field my racial position was going to be a factor. I understood I had a 'standpoint' to explore the effects of whiteness due to my difference (Harstock 1987; Memmi 1990). However, I was also aware that this 'standpoint' is limited in its insight into commonalities between the researched and the researcher (Back 2002; Wellman 1977).

5 Although women were approached to participate in the study, only a few of them were interviewed (too few to be a part of my analysis). Men were more likely to participate in the study. I did not envision prior to field research that recruiting respondents on American patriotism would produce a gendered effect. I was surprised to find that when women were approached to be interviewed they usually referred me to someone male, such as their husbands or male friends who at one time or another were in the military. This is a reflection upon some of the literature on gender and patriotism. Men sacrifice their lives to refresh the borders of a sense of nationhood while women remain at home biologically reproducing members within the borders (Macdonald 1987; Yuval-Davis 1997; Marvin and Ingle 1999). However, there is literature (Enloe 2000) that stresses women do participate in warfare. Enloe (2000) details military reliance on women and touches on how the effects of late modernity, such as the internationalisation of militarising processes, inform notions of patriarchy and femininity.

6 To maintain the anonymity of the interviewees I give only their age.


The article is derived from my PhD research, funded by a UK Overseas Research Scholarship Award, at the Department of Sociological Studies, University of Sheffield. I am grateful to Professor Richard Jenkins, Dr Sharon Macdonald, and three anonymous referees for their comments.


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