06/07/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Fear and Grieving on the Protest Trail

The recent State of the American Dream Survey by Xavier University's Institute for Politics and the American Dream shows a predictable overall decline of faith that the American Dream can be achieved in our time.

While understandable in this major recession, underlying the numbers are indications that the dim view of the future is deeper than the recession.

Certain numbers are harbingers of something new and possibly disturbing. For example,

1. The core idea of a positive American Dream legacy is in trouble with 68% of us doubting the possibility of American Dream achievement for our descendants.

2. Seventy-four percent believe the world doesn't look up to America the way it used to.

3. A majority of Americans (52%) now believe that the world looks elsewhere for the creation of the future.

4. In the midst of otherwise overwhelming concern about jobs and the recession, only 6% consider "a good job" to be elemental to the American Dream. It's an assumption--not a dream.

This is bigger than the recession.

A positive outlook toward the future is a core aspect of the American Dream because it's based on opportunity. The tension in the country today is oddly disconnected from the future and its energy seems committed to extending the present. It's about maintenance, not improvement. It's not about aspiration; it's about the status quo. The American Dream is not being endangered by the new protest movement. It's being ignored.

While Americans remain confident in themselves, there's deep disappointment in the institutions entrusted with the job of steering our future course. Institutional failures are seen across the board. Political institutions. Corporate and religious institutions as well.

The strongest belief in the American Dream and in the future exists among immigrants, Latinos and African Americans. The American Dream always was and continues persistently to be created and re-created in the imaginations of people on the outside--outside the country or outside mainstream successes taken for granted by those whose families achieved them.

Amidst a very critical view of the American Dream's current status, there is a consistent disparity in outlook between non-whites and whites, immigrants and native-born Americans.

African Americans, Latinos, and first- or second-generation immigrants view the American Dream more positively on nearly every measure in this survey than do white Americans. The part of our society still worse off in terms of social or economic measurements is the same group that is most positive about the American Dream.

African Americans are the only demographic group where a majority believes that reaching the American Dream is easier than it was for their parents. More than 40% believe it will be even easier for their own children to reach.

The United States has 305 million people today (68% White, 15% Hispanic, 12% African American, and 5% Asian as recorded in 2008). Immigration will continue to change America's ethnic and racial makeup. A 2008 Census Bureau report projects that the population will reach 439 million in 2050. Here's the breakdown:

Whites: 46%

Hispanic (of any race): 30%

Non-Hispanic Blacks: 15%

Asian: 9%

In the division between the hopeful and the less hopeful, there is behavioral evidence from a social science point of view that something resembling "grief" is being played out in certain parts of the white community. The sense of encroachment by immigrants and non-whites is not uncommon, but the realization that minority status will soon be applicable to white America has, for some, a desperate finality to it. There is a concerning sense of loss of control and consequent fear.

The stages of grief, usually connected with death, were identified by psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross:


The hopeful prospects seen in the Africa-American and Hispanic communities are partly consequent to the election of President Obama. Similarly, it's not a difficult step to symbolically link Obama's election to a sense of demise among certain parts of the white community. For these, the morning after Obama's election began a period of denial, which now quite obviously has moved to anger.

Denial is the "birther" movement refusing to accept Obama's legitimacy fed by an underlying belief that their country has been stolen from them.

Denial is the irrational refusal to accept reality -- such as the passage of the health care law. At least 10 members of Congress are reporting threats of violence. Racial epithets and spitting on black Congressmen have been televised. These and other incidents are an angry consequence to passage of the healthcare law.

Bargaining has yet to appear but acceptance, perhaps a long way off, is nonetheless inevitable. The question is how extensive and lasting will be the corrosive effects of denial and anger--particularly in the upcoming elections?

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