Melanie E.L. Bush and Roderick D. Bush, Tensions in the American Dream: Rhetoric, Reverie, or Reality reviewed by Bob Barber

(Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2015), 258 pp., $29.95.

The “American Dream” – what does that mean? In a season where it is cited by everyone from presidential candidates to the “Dreamers” (undocumented immigrants from around the world) to people on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, opinions vary widely. It’s dead. It’s thriving. It never existed. It only ever existed for certain groups of people. It existed but does no longer. How can we make sense of these perspectives in any systematic way? Is it, in other words, just rhetoric? Is it a waking dream? Is it real? And what does it mean to be an “American,” anyway?

These and related questions are addressed by scholar/activists Rod and Melanie Bush, drawing on a wide range of survey data, interviews and focus groups as well as their own extensive study of the development of the modern world system. Melanie Bush teaches sociology and anthropology at Adelphi University. Rod Bush was a professor of sociology at St. John’s University. They collaborated on this project from 2006 onward and had completed the manuscript just weeks before Rod’s sudden death; it linked their respective studies on the intersection of race, nation, and the structure of the contemporary world.

I knew and worked with both of them politically in the 1980s in the San Francisco Bay Area. I can attest to their activist orientation and commitment to social and economic justice. Their scholarship continues to inspire and educate me, especially because of their interest in linking the long, 500-year history of coloniality and the present moment of crisis and intensified assertion of Euro/white dominance and male dominance within it. White supremacy and male dominance are, as Rod Bush once put it, “baked into the DNA of US society.”

At a time when those concerned with issues of equality, peace and justice desperately need systematic ways of addressing multiple crises in the US and globally and, most especially, the emergence of ever more virulent forms of white supremacy in politics, the economy, and culture, the work of these two authors, both individually and together, is indispensable.1  Their previous scholarship and activist experiences lay the theoretical and methodological basis for Tensions in the American Dream. It is a mixed methods project, involving historical material, contemporary scholarship and ethnographic data.

The authors argue that we must recognize simultaneously the temporality of the here-and-now crisis and the long historical arc of capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy. US hegemony is the most recent articulation of those systems. Social transformation depends on challenging not just one of them, but all simultaneously.

Tensions is framed in several key observations about the history and nature of the US as a nation-state. Nation-states are typically thought of as a vehicle for inclusion, but they exist also for the purpose of exclusion. At a time when the US has a growing foreign-born population and immigration is in the daily headlines, the question of “who belongs” is hotly contested. The official ideology has always been one of “American exceptionalism,” also expressed in the phrase “a city on a hill.” But deep contradictions exist between the rhetoric of democracy and justice and the US role in the real world as a militaristic opponent of social change. Anti-egalitarian and undemocratic ideas have shaped and undergirded US political culture from the start – with critical distinctions made between segments of the population from the very beginning.

This is most clearly demonstrated in the system of slavery and the use of race and racism to define democratic citizenship as something reserved for those of European descent. The US economy was built upon this presumption, and the social, economic and political hierarchy is premised upon it. Furthermore, the realm of civil society and the realm of the market have been separated in theory and in practice, so that only after concerted struggle can marginalized populations such as women and people of color become “equal,” and, even then, only in the formal sense, while remaining profoundly unequal in the economic and social order.

Tensions draws on interviews with over one hundred people, individually and in focus groups, as well as surveys both by the authors and by other researchers. Demographically, interview and focus group participants constituted a representative sample of the US population as indicated by census data along lines of gender, birthplace, racial self-identification, age and income.

The authors provide substantive passages directly from their participants’ reflections so that the reader hears their voices and not only those of the authors. The Bushes cluster these reflections three ways: some express the American Dream as an aspiration, some as a Global Dream not just an American one, and some question the idea itself and “whether it is a ruse to elicit compliance with an unequal and unjust system. Regardless, most participants believe that we are in the midst of a crisis and that change is coming, whether for the better or the worse” (130).

With issues and questions this complex and intertwined, a brief summary or review of the responses given is difficult. Respondents’ reflections are not uniformly divisible by race, gender, or social status. But the responses leave little doubt that many people in the US have a fine-tuned sense of the concept of “American-ness” whether they feel it includes them or not. Certain comments leave one thinking how deeply ingrained this is. Why are there all the “hyphenated Americans” – which can only be understood as emphasizing their otherness compared to “real” Americans? Why do people of color learn to use “American” names to make dinner reservations? Being “proud to be an American” these days is certainly complicated!

Quoting the responses at length, as the authors do, is so much more illuminating and respectful than the sound-bite pieces so often found in the media, textbooks, and journalism. This format strengthens the book’s purpose, which is to engage both the theory of world systems and the lived experience of people in the present-day United States.

The Bushes offer a way to think about how people experience the tension of living in a moment of historical crisis. Individuals reflect on the contradictions and cracks in the armor of the US nation, white supremacy/Euro-dominance, and world capitalism. This is apparent in their questioning of the meaning of patriotism, of freedom and equality, of upward mobility, and of the paradoxes of empire and war. Participants face quandaries when attempting to reconcile noble ideals of democracy and freedom with their own life experiences or with what they observe in others.

How does “world systems theory” play out in people’s lives? Tensions in the American Dream reminds us that the most important insights into the current state of affairs in the US lie not with the media or ruling political and economic circles, but with people themselves. The historical crisis is reflected in the struggle to reconcile dominant ideology with lived experience. The voices shared in this volume speak of that challenge loud and clear.

Reviewed by Bob Barber
Community activist
Albany, California
bbarber@efn.org

Note

1. Roderick D. Bush, We Are Not What We Seem: Black Nationalism and Class Struggle in the American Century (New York: New York University Press, 1999), and The End of White World Supremacy: Black Internationalism and the Problem of the Color Line (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009); Melanie E.L. Bush, Everyday Forms of Whiteness: Understanding Race in a “Post-Racial” World (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield., 2011).

 

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