Facing Up to the American Dream:
Race, Class & the Soul of the Nation

by Jennifer L. Hochschild,
438 pages,
ISBN: 0691029202

Towards Freedom:
The African Canadian Expirience by Ken Alexander & Avis Glaze

288 pages,
ISBN: 1895642205

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Enlarged Blots, & a Surprising Dream
by Nathan Greenfield

More divides Towards Freedom from Facing Up to the American Dream than the forty-ninth parallel or the difference in their intended readership (the former for high school, the latter for university students). Jennifer Hochschild's book is part of the centuries-old effort to "sweep away the many hoary anthropological fallacies" of racial thinking, as Charles W. Chesnutt, America's first great black novelist, put it. Ken Alexander and Avis Glaze, though they see their work as part of the fight against racism, align themselves with Frances Henry, Cecil Foster, and others who have adopted the Afrocentric belief that blacks have a racially determined consciousness and that Western history is a conspiracy against them.
Towards Freedom, the first general history of blacks in Canada since Robin Winks's a generation ago (a second edition came out last year), highlights much that should be better known. The black newspaper editors Henry Bibb and Mary Ann Shadd (she, the first woman to be such in North America) presaged today's split between Afrocentrists and liberal integrationists. The "real McCoy" was an escaped slave, who invented a device that allowed machines to lubricate themselves while running. William P. Hubbard, who in the late 1800s was elected alderman and served as acting mayor of Toronto, and Mifflin Gibbs, who in the 1860s was a member of Victoria's municipal government and a delegate to the convention that decided that B.C. would join Canada, should both be part of our political folklore. Sammy Richardson, who came second to Jesse Owens in the 200-metre race at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, should be up there with Barbara Ann Scott.
Alexander's and Glaze's metanarrative says that at every turn Canadians have betrayed blacks' interests. They are right to remind Canadians that blacks were enslaved under the French and British regimes, and by Canada's native peoples. But they do a disservice to the country that at the end of the Underground Railroad gave refuge to tens of thousands of runaway slaves, when they write that it is a only a "popular misconception that Canada banned slavery before the United States" because in 1777 "slaves escaping from New France fled into free Vermont."
In 1777, Vermont was an independent republic, the first with a constitutional ban on slavery. In 1791, however, Vermont accepted the U.S. Constitution of 1789, which protected slavery. Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe ended slavery in Upper Canada in 1793; the U.S. in 1865. Upon stepping on Canadian soil, the thousands of slaves who escaped to the Canadas assumed every legal right other Canadians had.
In Alexander's and Glaze's hands, the fact that after the Civil War some 60 to 70 percent of these ex-slaves returned to the United States testifies to Canada's policy of weakening black communities. "Canadian authorities did nothing to stem the tide" which resulted in a "massive depopulation of Canada's black communities" and the relegation of the black community to a "forgotten" status. What should Canadian authorities have done to stem the tide of refugees returning home? The authors' objections here seem inconsistent with their later comments about the cynical reasons why Canada relaxed immigration restrictions in the 1970s (Commonwealth public relations and the desire for cheap domestic labour).
Blots on Canada's escutcheon are not hard to find. In 1911, whites on the Prairies denounced the "Black peril". Sir Wilfrid Laurier all but closed our borders to blacks, who, he wrote, "are unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada." Nova Scotia and Ontario established segregated schools (though not in Toronto). Blacks who wanted to help defend the Dominion during the First World War had to organize their own regiment. In the mid-1960s, Halifax's Africville was destroyed by politicians who hid behind the rhetoric of urban planning.
But nothing in Canadian history warrants Alexander's and Glaze's use of a picture of the 1968 "I am a Man" march. They fail to note that the soldiers with bayoneted rifles at the ready and the armoured personnel carriers were there to protect the marchers from attack. Worse, by asking "Is it [the picture] equally representative of the black struggle in Canada?" they suggest-to high school students-that if you look you'll find that in Canada too, civil rights workers were set upon by dogs, election enumerators killed, and blacks lynched. Indeed, they are so enamoured with American history that they almost lament the absence of Jim Crow laws in Canada, which "made it more difficult for Canadian blacks to unite in common cause."
Alexander's and Glaze's conviction that Canadian history has been at best a benign conspiracy against blacks is evident in their presentation of recent events. They repeat the claim that after testing positive for steroids Ben Johnson went from being a "Canadian athlete" to being a "Jamaican immigrant." In August 1996, Sandra Martin reported in the Globe and Mail that a review of Canada's major media outlets turned up "not a single reference to `Jamaican-born' in any headlines or decks." To support the claim that white Canadians are becoming less racially tolerant, they say that Professor Philippe Rushton's racial theories were opposed by "relatively muted voices". But Rushton was rightly denounced by editorialists, and by David Suzuki and other academics; David Peterson, then the premier of Ontario, called for his dismissal. They write, without citing evidence, that blacks are "being locked" (note how the use of the passive implies that someone is doing the locking) "into low-paying service sector jobs with little opportunity for upward mobility," without adding that for the past ten years this has been the fate of many new entrants into our labour market. They ignore Statistics Canada reports that show that visible minorities are over-represented by their percentage in population in universities and that racial minority graduates with university education perform as well in the labour force as do other Canadians.
Among the book's factual errors is the statement that Paul Robeson was "exiled from his home country." As opera buffs and old Lefties will remember, the U.S. State Department took away Robeson's passport so he could not leave his own country; by allowing an audience to gather on the Canadian side of a park on the Ontario-New York boarder, Canada afforded him a way to break the U.S. ban.
But what is most worrisome about Towards Freedom, written by two Ontario educators for Ontario classrooms, is its attitude toward education. Citing the Ontario Royal Commission on Learning (on which Dr. Glaze sat), the authors argue that our Eurocentric curricula disadvantage today's multicultural students because they do not connect with these students' "lived culture". Some readers will remember that a hundred pages earlier they praised the classical curriculum of the Buxton Missionary School, which taught ex-slaves Greek and Latin, surely subjects far from their lived culture. And Asian Canadian students, whose lived culture is further from Canada's public culture than Caribbean immigrants', outperform all other Canadian students.
Anyone interested in turning out well-educated students would want schools to discuss the impact of the French Revolution on such countries as Haiti. It is fatuous to ask, as Alexander and Glaze do, why black students of Caribbean origin-who now live in a country with political ideals to a great degree shaped by that Revolution, a country that has sent men to die in post-Revolutionary Europe-should take an interest in what is dismissively referred to as "a purely white European uprising."
The extensive review, by Professor Jennifer Hochschild of Princeton, of polling data, studies, and popular culture confirms that despite the grinding poverty of the poorest and the fact that "half of all blacks see more than half of whites as Klan sympathizers," blacks partake fully in the hopes and beliefs known as the American Dream. Indeed more blacks than whites (89 to 70 percent) think it "very important that public schools teach `the common heritage and values we share as Americans'," which includes, as Charles W. Chesnutt wrote, a prohibition on the "denial of rights and opportunities based on racial discrimination" and-as Hochschild synopsizes the American Dream-the promise that "all men and women can succeed."
Hochschild follows moralists like Ralph Waldo Emerson in questioning the American Dream's equation of monetary success with virtue and its equation of economic failure with sin, usually sloth. Her view that it "provides no solace for losers" is not shared by those who have succeeded the least.
The net worth of the poorest fifth of white Americans is $10,300, of the poorest fifth of blacks $0. In 1992, barely a third of black men in America's major cities held full-time jobs. 10 percent of the youth in the nation's capital expect to sell drugs to "supplement their regular job after graduating high school." In the Hobbesian world of Chicago's slums, between 25 and 40 percent of children have witnessed a homicide.
And yet Hochschild found that the members of this group maintain an even stronger belief in the American Dream than do their cousins who have made it into the middle class: 57 to 49 percent. 63 percent of poor blacks believe they can get ahead through hard work. Even more surprising is Hochschild's discovery that the vast majority of these Americans believe they "have control over the means of achieving their aspirations." Indeed, even the small but very destructive criminal element shares these beliefs: a sign in a crack house promises that with "hard work and dedication we will all be rich within 12 months."
Hochschild discovered that the myth of self-reliance, the foundation of the American Dream, is so engrained in Americans-including poor blacks-that it can become an obstacle to the adoption of behaviours that lead to success. In 1990, twice as many poor blacks as poor whites expected that their children would go to college, but a large percent of these children are not worried about the consequences of not getting a good education. This "excessive optimism" is fuelled by personal attributes such as looks, but more often by what can be called institutional fantasies: three times as many blacks as whites (46 percent of young blacks) expect to become professional athletes. Self-reliance can also be distorted into a renunciation of the work ethic and a refusal to submit to the constraints of the modern work place. And, for a very few, it legitimizes the "outlaw culture" of violence.
Hochschild's insight into how the myth of self-reliance prevents the formation of an alternative to the American economic system is telling. Poor blacks take their cue from their wealthier cousins and from the whites whose lives most resemble their own, and bash welfare recipients; indeed, they see them as lazy and immoral. Fully 60 percent of poor blacks blame other poor blacks for being poor. Poor whites come to believe that blacks advance at their cost. A less fertile ground for the formation of class consciousness would be hard to imagine. Not only do the working poor believe that the state-supported poor are "ripping off the system," but most poor Americans are convinced that other poor people are morally flawed, that an internal-not institutional-reason explains their failure in America. In short, there is a myth that divides natural allies.
There is a slight drop in support for the American Dream among the growing number of middle-class blacks: the very group that appears to be living the promise of intergenerational improvement. Unlike other groups, who have more or less climbed out of poverty together, American middle-class blacks have the nightly news from the ghettos to remind them of where they could fall to if they lost their pay-cheque. That, according to Hochschild, makes the issue of racism central to their sense of self; poor blacks report less racism. Blacks who came of age before the Civil Rights revolution of the 1960s "expected little from the larger society" and "were not surprised to receive almost nothing."
Those who remember hearing Dr. King's words, who have formed themselves around not just the dream but the reality of rising, according to Hochschild, are more susceptible to the falling of expectations, especially when the trajectory of public discourse is critical of blacks in general and the programs put in place to help them.
This phenomenon of "succeeding more and enjoying it less" does not mean that middle-class blacks are embracing the Afrocentric beliefs. Rather, they become embittered when they see public officials equating them with "monkeys"; when politicians play the race card, as George Bush did with the Willie Horton ad; when 70 percent of white respondents to surveys say that blacks prefer welfare; when in "downsizing" the public sector no account is taken of the fact that it was there that blacks could get good jobs and advance; when they see the number of whites who would prefer something in between desegregation and strict segregation rise from 48 to 61 percent. Middle-class blacks lose faith in the American Dream in direct proportion to what they think is the closing of doors by American society.
But their loss of faith is a testimony to their continuing belief that the dream offers a desirable prospect.
Hochschild's most daring argument takes dead aim at both traditional racists and Afrocentric separatists (and by extension seeks to bolster the hopes of the still growing black middle class). She reminds us that "race" is not a stable category. At the turn of the century neither the Irish nor the Italians were considered "white" or capable of doing "an honest day's work."
What changed them into "whites" was not an alteration in their looks or their turning away from the central fact of their ethnicity: the Catholic religion. Their status changed for two reasons. First, after several generations they had amassed enough wealth to climb out of the ghettos. Second, the leaders of American society and Americans in general realized that to further exclude them would undermine their own understanding of the American Dream. In a real sense, Hochschild's book is a cri de coeur, not for America's blacks alone, but also for "the only national ideology we've got."
Hochschild's numbers and those parts of Alexander and Glaze's work not tainted by trendy grievance politics (i.e., the biographical sketches of people such as Acting Mayor Hubbard) confirm that blacks are "America's [let us say here, North America's] most native sons and daughters," as Earl Ofari Hutchinson wrote in his recent book The Assassination of the Black Male Image. One can only hope that a century from now we won't still be sweeping away the hoary anthropologies of race.

Nathan Greenfield teaches English literature at Algonquin College in Ottawa and comments on popular culture on CBC Radio.


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