The Protestant Work Ethic (PWE) – it's a commitment to painstaking labor and dedication as the means to success. And it's a cornerstone of the American dream. The idea that it's always possible to attain success in life, no matter where you start, is a familiar one to most of us. Given how deeply entrenched it is in our culture, we wouldn't expect Americans' belief in the PWE to be easily changeable. But a recent study suggests that it can be, especially among people who have had their faith in American ideals shaken—in this case, by Hurricane Katrina.
Sheri R. Levy and colleagues at SUNY Stony Brook and UC Berkeley looked into possible differences in the PWE and how it changed among European-Americans and African-Americans in response to Katrina. As the government responded to the crisis in New Orleans, many people felt that its response was too slow. This response convinced some, such as rapper Kanye West, that "The government doesn't care about black people."
One semester before Katrina, three weeks after Katrina, and one semester after Katrina, the researchers measured agreement levels among European-Americans and African-Americans with these premises: "PWE-general," that if people work hard they can get a good job; and "PWE-equalizer," that PWE allows members of different groups to be more equal because it takes individual abilities into account.
Soon after Katrina, African-Americans agreed less with PWE-general and PWE-equalizer than European-Americans, but the difference had disappeared by the following semester. The causality between the hurricane and PWE agreement was further confirmed by a third study that reminded half of its subjects of Katrina; African-American members of that group were less likely than their European-American counterparts to agree with PWE-general and PWE-equalizer, but there was no difference for those without the reminder.
Of course, Katrina affected much more than PWE. As the researchers noted:
It remains to be seen how prevalent markers of Katrina will be in people's everyday environments in the future…the rebuilding of the afflicted areas is still underway and is likely to take years, perhaps a decade. Even after Katrina fades from the headlines, it may have a lasting impact as a cultural talking point.
While it seems that an event like Hurricane Katrina can undermine one's faith in the PWE, there is a bright side: the shift seemed fairly reversible. Devastating as such events are, the subjects' fairly quick recovery offers us hope about our own resilience.
Reference: Levy, Sheri R; Freitas, Antonio L; Mendoza-Denton, Rodolfo; Kugelmass, Heather. Hurricane Katrina's Impact on African Americans' and European Americans' Endorsement of the Protestant Work Ethic. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy. Vol.6, No.1. 2006. Page 75-85.
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About The Author
Nalini Padmanabhan is a Greater Good editorial assistant.