As White Americans Give Up on the American Dream, Blacks and Hispanics Embrace It

A poll finds a split between those who fear the nation’s best days are behind it, and those who still believe better days lie ahead.

Jonathan Ernst / AP

If you scanned the headlines over the last year, it would be easy to assume a deep level of pessimism and anxiety among African Americans and Latinos, particularly compared to white Americans.

Young black men are being slain by police officers, seemingly on a weekly basis, leading to protests in cities from Ferguson to Baltimore and an uncomfortable national debate over the extent of racial progress. The unemployment rate for African Americans remains nearly twice as high as for white Americans and only recently dipped below 10 percent. Latinos have seen their push for immigration reform stymied in both Congress and the courts, and they remain targets of choice for prominent Republicans.

Yet a recent poll finds that for all of the challenges they face, African Americans and Latinos are far more likely to be optimistic than their white counterparts, both about their personal station in life and the future of the country more broadly. The poll of nearly 2,000 adults was conducted in mid-June by Penn Schoen Berland for The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute. The findings overall suggest that the concept of The Dream is in trouble: Seventy-five percent of respondents said The Dream was “suffering,” while just one-quarter said it was “alive and well.” Break down the results by age and race, however, and the more startling finding is that in the age of Obama, white Americans—and in particular those under 30 or nearing retirement age—have all but given up on the American Dream. More than four out of five younger whites, and more than four out of five respondents between the ages of 51 and 64 said The Dream is suffering.

By contrast, 43 percent of African Americans and 36 percent of Latinos said The Dream is alive and well. The same two groups, along with Asian Americans, were also more likely to say that The Dream was still achievable for those who are willing to work for it, and they reported being more optimistic than white Americans about their own future. When it came to the state of the country, barely one in four whites believe the nation is on the right track, while nearly two-thirds of African Americans do. And the poll found a similar gap in perceptions about the country’s future: Less than half of white respondents said America’s “best days” were ahead of it, while fully 80 percent of African Americans said they were.

“Reading the news, it’s almost shocking,” Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University, said about the poll.

In some ways, the racial and ethnic disparity in views about the country reflect the longstanding gap in views about the man twice elected to lead it. While African Americans have remained overwhelmingly supportive of the first black president, Barack Obama won just 39 percent of the white vote in 2012 and 43 percent in 2008, according to exit polling. He earned more than two-thirds of the Latino vote in both elections.

Zelizer said the findings could present an opportunity for Democrats in 2016, since although Obama won’t be on the ballot, key portions of their base report surprising optimism about the direction of the country. “Everyone is aware of the problems,” he said, “but if there is some sentiment in the electorate that things are still moving in the right way or there’s some optimism that things can get better, then I think Democrats can clearly connect that, or try to connect that to the president in power.”

The results also reflect the romanticism associated with the American Dream and the American middle class—it has always held great meaning to immigrants and the strivers, to those on the outside looking in. Despite the intense political focus on income equality and the decline of the middle class, between 64 percent and 77 percent of respondents across all age and race groups said they considered themselves middle class, which is consistent with historical findings. Zelizer noted that even in the midst of the Great Depression, most Americans identified as being part of the middle class. “No matter how bad things got in this country, people still conceived of themselves as with those who were doing ok, and with those who were part of the American Dream,” he said.

The American Dream may be “suffering” to a lot of people, but it isn’t dead; nearly two-thirds of respondents said it remained achievable for those who work hard. It may not be reflected in the headlines, but it seems to be enduring as a symbol of hope not for the whites who have long dominated the country, but for the African American and Latino populations who have historically been marginalized.