Skip to content
March 5, 2009 / JV

Consuming Equality: Who Gets to Buy Into the American Dream


Okay, let’s get into consumption and culture and black folks for a minute. Came across some interesting stuff the other day, and I’m looking to see what yall think. i’ll try to keep it somewhat organized.

Differentiating between black folks and other “ethnic” americans (is this the right term? i feel weird about it). black americans (vs. blacks from recent immigrant families – refer to barack obama NOT falling into the former category for further context) have a different relationship to the land. this is because black americans don’t come from a history of willing migration, but instead from one of kidnapping and chattel slavery. america for them has never represented a land of faraway dreams and possibilities, a situation which is only on some level comparable to that of american indians. black folks have been here just as long as, if not longer than most white people. yet, we are decidedly reluctant to call america our own. and are routinely excluded from discourses on ‘american’ culture, history, and so on.

our history in the country has been one of violence and various manifestations of white supremacy. because of this, there’s been a semi-steady talk of “equality”. and for many people, this is something we (oppressed people only of course) have been striving toward. but what have been the available modes of achieving this ‘equality’? and what exactly does it mean? to be seen ‘equally’ in the eyes of whom (corporations, government)? and equal to whom?

i want to look at black consumption of ‘mass’/white culture in the U.S. for some insight into the psychology and politics of black consumption. largely after the great gift of integration, black folks went from consuming in black communities to consuming at (some) white businesses. this transition of consumption entailed a certain symbolism, signified not only by the possession of physical products but by the chance to feel a part a dream.

the regional migration of blacks to the north and midwest also meant migration into white space, which has for some reason been constructed as more “public” than black space. however, parameters on consumption were not by any means diminished. smaller businesses could still typify the de facto segregation (and discrimination) that has persisted since it was technically outlawed. (if i’m in greenleaf, idaho for example, you can bet your pretty boot i’m not going into the local ‘convenience store’ looking for some kombucha). the big department stores on the other hand were generally representative of a place people of color could shop. that is, they represented a “relative equality” for blacks, whereas for italian, jewish, etc immigrants, they represented a threat to their respective small businesses and communities. but these were places where blacks were, to some extent, accepted — as consumers.


Within the realm of consumption, in american society at large (if such a thing exists, vs. the local discount bill’s), we are all equal. if you can buy, you can be and you can BECOME. but in this way, we are a population of consumers, as opposed to a people of citizens. thus, the symbolic “inclusion” that came with integration. after a point, black folks could sit in the white theatre and consume the same fantasies of being white and spending money and getting the girl. in digesting the same narratives, in purchasing the same hand sanitizer, in BUYING, black people could feel a part of this highly manufactured ‘american dream’.. one that is ultimately raced, classed, and sexualized.




Leave a Comment
  1. mb / Mar 5 2009 5:17 pm

    right and this is true of how the mainstream gay rights movement imagines marriage as some worthwhile goal for queer folks to invest in (pun intended). How do we disrupt capitalism hold on so many? Is the solution to completely divest, become dirty dumpster divers living off the grid? or does it necessitate the overthrow (which will be unavoidably violent?) of the system as is? Or are the Russians right and the American dream is scheduled for dissembly in just a year’s time?

    • the black scientist / Mar 5 2009 6:11 pm

      right! and gay marriage is totally one of those covert class issues. for which lgbtq folks is marriage a more urgent concern than housing, for example? i’m personally not one for the dumpster diving approach (although i do get down with buying land).. and i also wouldn’t invest much faith into violent uprising at this point in this country. unless somehow the entire middle class were to get behind that (power in numbers). but still, i don’t think we have the kind of regime that can be destroyed by nailing a few people. if the american dream is at all indicative of the empire, that shit is definitely over. we can kiss being cooler than sweden goodbye (although i think somehow we will always retain our image as a country of dreams). and unfortunately, we don’t even have the comforts of health care or education to fall back on.

  2. Ron / Mar 5 2009 5:39 pm

    This is a really interest idea you’ve touched upon and there’s a lot to unpack there. No doubt about it. I think the problem is, would it be a granular discussion about blacks in urban, inner cities versus say, blacks who’ve “moved out” to get their “piece of the pie?”

    I mean, it just seems like it’d be a far less exacting study than what could’ve been 20-30 years ago or more, due to the dispersed populations.

    • the black scientist / Mar 5 2009 6:15 pm

      you bring up a really interesting point that i’ve been thinking about and that is how we seem to only think about blackness in an urban context. suburban and rural blacks almost don’t exist. what kind of study are you imagining though? :)

  3. farmgirl / Mar 5 2009 8:00 pm

    I’m not sure how closely this relates to your vision of the topic, but I was reading recently of a study done on consumption patterns based on socio-economic status. (Can’t remember where, sorry.) What I found fascinating was the finding that the group just above most-basic-needs-poverty are very concerned that others not perceive them as beng poor, so they counter this by spending disproportionately on status-marker items, like clothes with visible designer insignia, bold jewelery, and elite car brands. Unfortunately for them, in higher socio-economic strata these items signal insecurity more than they do economic confidence.

    • the black scientist / Mar 7 2009 8:24 pm

      that is really interesting. i’d be curious to see a study like that. that relates to another blog i’ve been longing to write about black folks’ need to assert their class status (or assert a particular class status, even if it might not be theirs). maybe it’s more of a class-based performance though. i find it very interesting.. status symbols.. ‘anti status status symbols’ .. strange, strange..

      • dilettante / Mar 30 2009 8:48 pm

        (& farmgirl)

        “Since strangers tend to lump people together by race, the lower your racial group’s income, the more valuable it is to demonstrate your personal buying power….African Americans don’t necessarily have different tastes from whites. They’re just poorer, on average. In places where blacks in general have more money, individual black people feel less pressure to prove their wealth.” The Atlantic “Inconspicuous Consumption”

        Also NBER from 2007 NBER we emphasize instead a model of status seeking in which conspicuous consumption is used to reflect a household’s economic position relative to a reference group

        p.s. Love your blog.

        • the black scientist / Apr 2 2009 1:05 am

          dope! thank you for the links, i will definitely check those out. and thank you (about the blog). please do stick around :)

  4. nails / Mar 7 2009 1:24 am

    “this is because black americans don’t come from a history of willing migration, but instead from one of kidnapping and chattel slavery. america for them has never represented a land of faraway dreams and possibilities, a situation which is only on some level comparable to that of american indians.”

    I dont know about this, women were property for an extremely long time. Rape used to be a property crime, back when men were not legally able to rape their wives.

    The bullshit ideal of ‘equality’ is certainly an issue in discussions of racism and sexism. Its a poor substitute from liberation from social constructs like race and gender, and all the equality that is supposedly the goal is doled out on old white guys terms anyway. Who can really call it freedom to function freely in a system that operates off of racist patriarchal principles? White men have identities that are controlled and molded to fit an ideal too, becoming the same as them doesn’t make for freedom at all. The fact that everything that does not fit into the white guy ideal is devalued is totally the problem if you ask me.

    • the black scientist / Mar 7 2009 8:35 pm

      while it’s true that women were considered property for a while in this country, i don’t think it’s really comparable to u.s. slavery. in most societies slaves are always considered the lowest caste, below women and servants. but with this country in particular, slaves weren’t even seen as human beings. which is really on another level. it’s not just that they could be owned, but their lives were literally worth nothing. also, women don’t have a shared relationship to the land.

      yeah, i’ve always found equality to be a troubled term. freedom is an interesting idea as well.. somewhat challenging to delineate in the midst of being unfree.

  5. RDub / Jul 15 2009 8:05 pm

    I know this isn’t really as much of consumerism, but is it about the “American Dream”.

    I understand how the American dream is a big idea for those who come from families who recently (by that I mean those that had migrant family members alive during their childhood) understand the American dream. They would learn about not living it from those family members.

    But to say African Americans “don’t come from a history of willing migration, but instead from one of kidnapping and chattel slavery.” shouldn’t really separate them from any peoples who had ancestors hundreds of years ago come willingly. They were never forced into America any more than any other American born in this country.

    Not saying that it wasn’t the cause of racism we see today, but you yourself were not forced to till the soil, so the American dream is only not realized by those who don’t know what it’s like without it. Those born in America and those who weren’t taught by those who experienced times where the dream was a goal to meet.

    Sorry if it’s a little jumbled!

  6. RDub / Jul 15 2009 8:12 pm

    OH! I just kept reading into the rest of your site and found the story “raise your had if your grandfather was a slave”. Helps out my point a lot! Thanks!

    • the black scientist / Jul 16 2009 10:25 pm

      oh i’m glad that post helps out a little. i think i understand what you’re saying in your comment but please clarify if i’m totally off base :) i basically feel like it’s not about whether or not one did the manual labor of slaves. it’s more about being a part of a history, and acknowledging that one’s history affects the present. although i may not have personally crossed the atlantic ocean, i’m here because my ancestors were forced to. this changes my relationship to america. i certainly agree that people from families of recent immigrants (on average) have a different relationship to the american dream than people whose families have been here. but i’m not sure that we can lump together people whose families have been here. i think how a person relates to their country is generally contingent on their historical relationship to it, i.e. forced migration, political asylum, chasing a dream, whatever.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: