Category Archives: Lesson 7. Race, Immigration and the American Dream.

Lesson 7. The American Dream, Class, Race and Immigration (over two weeks).

Nimen Hao,

for this (two week) lesson we are doing two things.

First, you worked on an exercise on the Robert Putnam readings.

I will give some feedback and guidance, and talk about the critical thinking in another inequality reading.

Then I will tell you a little more about the American Dream, this time from the perspective of the immigrants and Black Americans who may or may not see American as a land of welcome and opportunity.

Inequality and the American Dream (continued)

Reading Putnam group exercise.

Finish reading Robert Putnam’s chapter. Summarize the reading.

1. What are his main themes, what is he saying, how does he say it?

2. Consult the list of critical thinking standards. What aspects of critical thinking does his passage meet?. Be specific and show how he meets the standards.

3. Briefly comment on whether you found the questions in this exercise difficult or easy. If difficult, say why.

Write your group’s result on a piece of paper. Put your student numbers, Chinese and pinyin names, as well as English names if you have them.

Inequality Homework.

To think further about inequality and the American Dream you may read “Class in America” by Gregory Matsios from Rereading America (665-697). Pay careful attention to the aspects/standards of critical thinking the author employs.

Revising the Readings

OK, let’s do some revision on the critical thinking  in the Putnam and Matsios readings together.

First, the Putnam reading and your summaries.

In the exercise last week I asked you to answer three questions, the first of which was:

1. What are his main themes, what is he saying, how does he say it?

We could start with the first part of that question. We might want to put it into other words (to suit our way of thinking and explaining). For example, we could ask ourselves:

  • What is the heart of the matter?
  • What is the most significant idea in Putnam’s reading?
  • ‘What is Putnam basically saying’?

We could do that with many readings right? What is the author the basically saying?  What is her main point? What is the heart [or crux] of the matter?

Tip1: When reading critically, it is a good idea to read the introduction and the conclusion first (before reading the whole thing). We can often find the author’s main ideas in the introduction and conclusion.

Application for our own writing.

And we could keep this questioning in mind for our own writing. What am I basically saying? What is my main point/my main idea? Have I clearly stated it/them in the introduction and conclusion?

Putnam’s main idea: your explanations.

For the Putnam reading, one of your groups started with this point, and correctly identified it:

The American Dream was much more possible in the 1950s than it is nowadays”.

Then some of you correctly identified how Putnam refined (further defined, elaborated) his main points in two key ways:

1. The change has been a great decrease in absolute and relative social mobility. The second of these is particularly important in terms of his theme of equality: low relative inequality means little opportunity to pursue the American Dream of upward social mobility.

2. Although there are some limits in terms of racial and gendered equality of opportunity, the major obstacle is class difference. Nowadays, poor people have much less opportunity for pursuing their American Dream than did poor people in the 1950s.

Once we have included Putnam’s elaborations of his main point, we can restate it (re-summarize) more precisely:

Putnam is measuring and analyzing changes in equality of opportunity and he suggests that while racial and gender have improved,  class inequality has drastically worsened since the 1950s.

Tip 2: Reviewers often start their reviews by summarizing the main ideas/arguments/themes of a book. So you might choose to read a review or two to get an overview before reading an authors chapter/book.

Now let’s look at the second part of that question,

1. What are his main themes, what is he saying, how does he say it?

We could put this part of the question into other words (to suit our way of thinking and explaining):

  • How does he elaborate his main themes and ideas?
  • How does he make his argument?
  • How does he support his argument?

Several of you identified key aspects of the ‘how’ of Putnam’s chapter.

1. He takes a specific example (the people of Port Clinton), argues that the example is indicative of wider trends (it can be generalized from, it is not exceptional).

2. He compares and contrasts (1950’s Port Clinton, current Port Clinton).

3. He identities key aspects of his theme of equality (class, race, gender).

4. He uses a series of narrative examples to flesh out (elaborate) his themes (the stories of Don, Frank, Libby, Cheryl, and Jesse, in the 1950’s; the stories of Chelsea and Dave in current times).

5. He connects the specific findings of changing equality of opportunity in Port Lincoln with national trends, using credible statistic data.

6. He uses these comparisons and connections to support his propositions that class inequality has greatly increased in America,.

Critical thinking in Putnam’s chapter.

OK, let’s review our ideas about the use of critical thinking in Putnam’s passage.

Clarity: Putnam elaborates his points, giving examples and refining  his concepts. His examples illustrate his ideas about changing equality of opportunity.

Accuracy: The examples are based on interviews and surveys; he also uses statistics. All of these can be checked and compared with other examples and statistics.

One way to check would be to compare and contrast with other locations (for example, Port Clinton and Brooklyn New York).

Another way would be to take other examples of equality and inequality from his themes. One that might be worth doing would be to cite 1950s generation equality stories and statistics for other black people. We could ask the critical question: are Jesse and Cheryl’s stories really typical of equality of opportunity for black people of that generation?

Precision: Putnam’s passage is specific, detailed and exact.

Relevance: Putnam’s example of Port Lincoln is, he argues, indicative of broader trends in equality of opportunity. His historical comparison is well-fitted to his argument and helps the reader reflect on the main trends and particular aspects of the issue (fall equality of opportunity).

We could still question the relevance in some aspects.

  • Is it really reasonable to generalize from this one small town in the rust belt? Is Port Clinton really relevant to the wider themes of social mobility and equal opportunity?
  • Are the narratives he gives really indicative of the trends he identifies (supported by statistics)?
  • Are there other trends and examples that might change the way we can reasonably think about inequality of opportunity (for example, is race really less important than class)?

Depth: Putnam’s chapter achieves it’s depth by engaging with the complexity of the problem of growing inequality. The chapter does this through its historical comparison, well-elaborated examples, use of conceptual categories (class, gender, race; equality of distribution, equality of opportunity, absolute and relative social mobility), connecting of the particular to the general.

Note, the chapter is only an introduction to the book, so adequately judging how well Putnam deals with the complexity of the issue he discusses would have to wait until we read the whole book.

Breadth and fairness:

By examining equality from the point of view of people of different races, genders and classes, and engaging with them sympathetically (he thinks of them as ‘our kids’), Putnam gives quite a lot of breadth and fairness.

Other writers might take different approaches to the problem, and we would (again) need to read the whole book to see if Putnam gives room for other critical views.


The chapter makes sense. Putnam proceeds from stating his main idea to elaborating his examples and then generalizing by connecting to broader national trends. His historical comparison develops logically (1950s/present) and his concluding section summarizes well (as well as raising other theoretical/methodological issues more relevant for the rest of the book).


The American Dream is the key social myth for American society, and an important aspect of the dream of opportunity is that it should be equitable. So Putnam’s subject could be said to be highly significant for Americans (and anyone interested in America).

Whether a reader thinks  his wider argument about civil society is as significant as the problem he identifies might be more questionable (is community spirit or the lack of it. really the most significant issue? What about the political economy, neo-liberalism, racism?)

Points about your critical readings.

  • Some of you identified the main ideas and summarized them well. Others did not.
  • Some of you tried to summarize his ideas on the basis of just half the story (i.e., the 1950s/the present).
  • Some of you described what you had read thoroughly, others did not (for example, you only covered some of the examples, like the later comparison between David and Chelsea).
  • Some of you got side tracked by minor themes and missed the most important ones.

Identifying how Putnam meets the critical thinking standards

  • Some of you did well identifying how Putnam’s passage meets the standards.
  • However, some of you were not accurate enough and need some more familiarity with the standards and practice using them.
  • A few people said some of the categories seem to overlap, so let’s have a discussion about that (I’ll put them up on the board now).

“Class in America” by Gregory Matsios from Rereading America (665-697).

Let’s briefly reflect on the main ideas in this reading, and how the author makes his argument.

Matsios argues that the idea that class inequality is not important in North American society is a myth (in the rationalist sense, myth as a lie).

He identifies four forms of that myth and counters them with statistical evidence.

Matsios’s critical thinking is well structured.

I. Set’s up a proposition (his myth)

class distinctions are not relevant to U.S. society


Tells us he is going to show how its false (how we mistakenly hold a set of beliefs that obscure the reality of class differences and their impact on people’s lives).

2. Outlines the four aspects of the myth and forms questions to test them.

He tests them against some well-chosen (relevant) statistical evidence, uses some illustrative examples (Eiffel tower for wealth distribution, biographies of Harold, Bob and Cheryl)  and provides a series of summations (he calls them ‘realities’ 1-10) that counter the myths.

Myth a. We are a middle class nation.

Question: Are there significant class differences among Americans? If these differences do exist, are they getting bigger or smaller?

Myth b. Class doesn’t really matter in the United States.

Question: Do class differences have a significant impact on the way we live?

Myth c. We live in a land of upward mobility.

Question: How much upward mobility is there in the United States?

Myth d. Everyone has an equal chance to succeed.

Question: Does everyone in the United States really have an equal opportunity to succeed and an equal voice in our democracy?

3. Concludes by arguing that North America is highly inequitable in terms of class and that the American capitalist system involves ongoing class exploitation, in line with racial and gender discrimination

The article demonstrates good critical thinking including reasoning with evidence, a logical structure based on questioning, investigating, complexity (including depth and breadth), accuracy, specificity and precision.

The Immigrant’s American Dream.

Its time we begin to think critically about the immigrant’s “American Dream,” one expression of which is the song I want to live in America from the 1960s musical, West Side Story.

Founding myths again (1): the American Dream for immigrants

In American mythology, the U.S. is, as the national anthem puts it, “the land of the free / And the home of the brave!”

It’s a land in which in which all citizens are thought of as being equal and free. As Thomas Jefferson wrote

We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  (Declaration of Independence, 1776).

The American dream is encapsulated in the idea that every individual American should have an equal right right to become her or his best self. Citizen’s have the right to try to realize their hopes.

Give Me Your Weak Quote Give Me Your Tired Your Poor Your Hudd Emma Lazarus Like

Historically, a key element of the American myth of a land of hope and freedom is the idea that America gave welcome to the world’s migrants. For many foreigners, the idea of American freedom has been a magnet attracting them to migrate to the United States.

New York’s Statue of Liberty is a famous icon that represented welcome to the 19th century immigrants who later became American citizens.


For generations, America has served as a beacon of hope and freedom for those outside her borders, and as a land of limitless opportunity for those risking everything to seek a better life. (U.S. Congressman Spencer Bachus).

Some would argue that the Congressman’s story of American welcome is a myth (in the rationalist sense, i.e., its a lie). Chinese people might have thought that, historically. For example, just as America was welcoming masses of European migrants in the 19th century, it designed measures to exclude Chinese migrants, including most famously the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882). So the idea that all men were created equal didn’t include Chinese people (until 1943).

Just as the Statue of Liberty is an icon of the myth of welcome to the land of the free, San Fransisco’s Angel island immigration prison is a historical symbol of one of the gaps in American equality.

Chines women in an immigration holding cage, Angel island.

In recent years, political talk about migrants has made the American Dream for migrants seem mythical (in the rational sense, i.e., a lie).


Making American Great Again: some strands of Trump’s political discourse


  • “When Mexico sends it people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people” (Trump, 2016).
  • Trump blames undocumented (Mexican) immigrants for “the American family that loses their jobs, their income, or their loved one”.
  • At rallies and in TV interviews, Trump charged that Gonzalo Curiel, the Indiana-born federal judge presiding over the Trump University fraud case, was incorrigibly biased against him because “we’re building a wall. He’s a Mexican.”

Trump, Muslims

The American Dream and racism

Background: Slavery in the U.S.

Slavery in the United States was the legal institution of human chattel enslavement, primarily of Africans and African Americans, that existed in the United States of America in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Slavery was based on racism “the division of people in a “race system”( like Apartheid) where certain races are biologically subordinated others. For the dominant race, the purpose was economic.

A slave was treated as a legal form of property and could be bought, sold, or given away like other personal property. Like a horse, a capable slave could be worked or bred.

Slavery had been practiced in British America from early colonial days, and was legal in all Thirteen Colonies at the time of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and their revolutionary colleagues in the Congress of 1776 grounded the new nation’s independence on the declaration “that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

It lasted in about half the states until 1865, when it was prohibited nationally by the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

That’s known as emancipation (freedom from slavery).

That amendment meant that slavery could only be practiced as punishment for a crime. What actually happened was that, in the Southern American states at least, slavery was largely replaced by sharecropping and convict leasing. Large numbers of African Americans were defined as criminal in some way, and the southern economy was thereby, in practice, able to reneslave them.

] During and immediately following the Revolutionary War, abolitionist laws were passed in most Northern states and a movement developed to abolish slavery. Northern states depended on free labor and all had abolished slavery in some way by 1805 (some Northern states adopted immediate emancipation, and others had gradual systems of abolition). The rapid expansion of the cotton industry in the Deep South after the invention of the cotton gin greatly increased demand for slave labor to pick cotton when it all ripened at once, and the Southern states continued as slave societies. By 1850, the newly rich cotton-growing South was threatening to secede from the Union, and tensions continued to rise.

When Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 election on a platform of halting the expansion of slavery, seven states broke away to form the Confederacy. Due to Union measures such as the Confiscation Acts and Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the war effectively ended slavery, even before ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865.


Contemporary Racial inequality in the U.S.

According to a Census Bureau Current Population survey, for every $100 in income earned by white families, black families earn only $57.30, and for every $100 of wealth held by white families, black families have only $5.04.

African-American communities suffer entrenched and ongoing disadvantages in education, health, housing, labour, income and criminal justice.  (Krivo and Peterson, 2010).

Black Americans are far more likely than white people to be stopped, frisked, arrested, jailed, shot and executed by the state, while the racial gaps in unemployment are the same as 40 years ago, the racial disparity in wealth and income is worse than 50 years ago. They have the right to eat in any restaurant they wish; the trouble is, many can’t afford what’s on the menu.

(Gary Younge, “Remember this about Donald Trump. He knows the depths of American bigotry”, The Guardian, 2017/09/26).

25 per cent of the people in the world who are incarcerated are incarcerated in the U.S. Yet the U.S has just 5 per cent of the world’s population.

Today the prison population is more than 2 million. The majority of those imprisoned are African Americans, but African Americans are a minority of all Americans.

Criminal courts sentence black defendants more harshly than white defendants. Many black defendants accept a plea (plea guilty) because they cannot afford competent legal representation.

US leads world in fatal police shootings


Fact: In the first 24 days of 2015, police in the US fatally shot more people than police did in England and Wales, combined, over the past 24 years.

Behind the numbers: According to The Counted, the Guardian’s special project to track every police killing this year, there were 59 fatal police shootings in the US for the days between 1 January and 24 January.

According to data collected by the UK advocacy group Inquest, there have been 55 fatal police shootings – total – in England and Wales from 1990 to 2014.

The US population is roughly six times that of England and Wales. According to the World Bank, the US has a per capita intentional homicide rate five times that of the UK.

Police shooting victims disproportionately black

Young black males in recent years were at a far greater risk of being shot dead by police than their white counterparts – 21 times greater i, according to a ProPublica analysis of federally collected data on fatal police shootings.

The 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 captured in the federal data show that blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police.

Who is killing all those black men and boys?

Mostly white officers. But in hundreds of instances, black officers, too. Black officers account for a little more than 10 percent of all fatal police shootings. Of those they kill, though, 78 percent were black.

What were the circumstances surrounding all these fatal encounters?

There were 151 instances in which police noted that teens they had shot dead had been fleeing or resisting arrest at the time of the encounter. 67 percent of those killed in such circumstances were black.

There were many deadly shooting where the circumstances were listed as “undetermined.” 77 percent of those killed in such instances were black.

Data show From 2005 to 2009, “officer under attack” was cited in 62 percent xxxvii of police killings.

Black Lives Matters

BLM is a protest movement against police brutality, including the unlawful police killing of black people.


Some protesters draw historical parrallels with current murders by police and historical abuses. A famous and typical case was the murder of Emmett Louis Till (July 25, 1941 – August 28, 1955). Emmet was a 14-year-old African American who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, after being accused of offending a white woman in her family’s grocery store. The brutality of his murder and the fact that his killers were acquitted drew attention to the long history of violent persecution of African Americans in the United States. Till posthumously became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement.[1]

The American Dream in sport and advertising (again, this time in relation to racism)

Let’s have another look at some contemporary sports advertising and film as discussion texts to think about the American dream in some of its current forms.

We looked at Colin Kaepernick, Quarterback for the San Fransisco 49ers. Nike chose him as the face of their Just Do It advertising campaign.


Have another look at this recent Nike commercial starring the footballer.

We talked about Nike’s Just Do It campaign in relation to the American dream.

  • Described the representations in the commercial: what happens.
  • We described who the actors are and what do they do.
  • We talked about the messages being communicated and how do they relate to the American dream?

Actually, Nike’s commercial is deliberately controversial in its choice of Colin Kaepernick, as he is famous not just for being a great footballer, but for the being one of the leaders of the Bend the Knee campaign in American football, which is strongly linked to the Black Lives Matter campaign.

We’re going to talk about how these three things, the American Dream, Bend the Knee and Black Lives Matter are connected.

Black Lives Matter and the Bend the Knee Campaign: confronting racial inequality and police brutality

Let’s watch a short video giving a little about social context. What is “bending a knee”? Why are Colin Kaepernick (and many others) doing it?

What are the links between Bend the Knee and Black Lives Matter?

Well the Black Lives Matter campaign is all about police brutality (including shootings) of black people in the US.

Let’s watch a fictional representation to get an idea of the sorts of events that people are protesting about (Clip, The Hate U Give).

  • Black Lives Matters = campaign against police brutality (against Black Americans)
  • Bend the Knee = sporting protest; sportswomen and spectators stand for the national anthem at sports events; the campaigners kneel down instead to protest against discrimination against Black Americans (especially police brutality).

Kaepernick, in the interview above, goes on to say that ‘cops are getting paid leave for killing people… that’s not right by anyone’s standards’.

Let’s watch one more video to help us think about the relationships between the American dream, Nike’s Just Do It advertising campaign and the two anti-racist campaigns. This one discusses some of the reaction to Nike’s decision to use the spokesman of the Bend the Knee campaign as the face of its Just Do It campaign.

Trump’s view on Kaepernick’s Bend the Knee Protest:

  • I think it’s a terrible thing, and you know, maybe he should find a country that works better for him, let him try, it’s not gonna happen.”

Class Discussion.  (in your small groups then together)

Plan a group essay.

  • What do you think?
  • Is Colin Kaepernick right to bend the knee? Or, is his protest unpatriotic?
  • Is the meritocratic American Dream (of equal opportunity for all) damaged by racism, or are criminalized Black Americans responsible for their own situation? Could they succeed through hard work and talent?
  • Do you have any other critical reflections on the American Dream, race/racism and protest in America?
  • How will you make your argument/provide your analysis?
  • Use the critical thinking standards as a checklist and show how you can plan to make your work meet the requirements.


You should have started reading Ta-Nehesi Coates, Rereading America (1112-1162). Pay careful attention to the aspects/standards of critical thinking the author employs. The reading is quite long, so you can read it over two weeks (you need to have finished reading it by then).

ta-nehesi coates