...Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience — as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.Here is a thumbnail sketch of the history.
Southern slavery existed in the South (and Brazil and in the Caribbean earlier) so that the large plantation owners had sufficient cheap labor to maintain their life style. In the American South, poor White Southerners were enlisted in the militia to prevent slave revolts, and were thus offered status over the African slaves by controlling them. The poor Whites didn't have wealth, but this segregation did give them superior status from the system. That also kept the poor Whites from allying with the Negro slaves, another threat the plantation owners faced along with the constant threat of slave revolts.
The plantation owners similarly used the distinction between house slaves and field slaves to separate the black slaves among themselves. house slaves were used to snitch on meetings by the field slaves and were highly rewarded for such snitching, sometimes even with manumission.
All of this "divide and conquer" was perpetuated by the segregation that was established after slavery was outlawed, and has been used by the plantation owners and later the Southern factory owners to prevent effective unions from existing in the South. It also explains the resistance to any form of welfare that is also characteristic of the South. Welfare based on lack of wealth erases the status distinction between poor Whites and poor Blacks. The Southern elites in particular have used "divide and conquer" to control the lower classes for centuries.
It is amazing and delightful to me to see Obama address this directly. It may be one of the healthiest things America has seen regarding discussion of race and class status since the Civil Rights Movement. The corporatists and Republicans are going to hate it.
American slavery grew from the need of Caribbean, Southern American and Northern Brazilian planters to obtain free and disposable labor to operate their factory sugar, indigo, and later cotton plantations to meet the never-before seen international demand for those products, slavery was also a predecessor to much of American anti union industrial strife. In order to use human labor without paying those workers for it, they had to be seen as less than human. This reached its extremes in the Caribbean plantations where slave owners found it least costly to purchase slaves, use them until the died of the labor, and buy cheap replacements. The negative attitudes towards labor that grew out of slavery live on in the mentalities of those who today are union-breakers.
Slavery itself in North and South America was a unique labor solution to a never before set of mass markets. The mass demand in Europe for sugar, indigo, tobacco and later cotton was opened by the brand new style of high seas shipping (along with never-before-seen cannonery) that first permitted discovery of the America and then very rapidly developed even further to exploit it. The new technologies of sailing, navigation and iron-working opened the markets, and slavery was established to solve the problems of cheap labor that the new markets required if people were to become wealthy from the new opportunities. The fact that slavery demanded the dehumanization of individuals whose dark skin labeled them as slaves was not originally seen as a problem by the slavers. It was when that dehumanization of Black Africans created a total slave-holding society that is became obvious (mostly to outsiders) how very destructive the institution of slavery really was.
Slavery in fact helped the development of the Industrial age by permitting plantation owners to meet the demands of the unique mass markets for sugar, indigo, tobacco, and later cotton that were created by international shipping after Columbus opened the routes to the American continents. But to exist, slavery required that society exist in a class ridden society in which "divide and exploit the lower working classes" was the strategy required if slavery itself were to last. Segregation perpetuated the divide and exploit attitudes after slavery was ended by the Civil War, but that was because those attitudes had become seen as the bedrock of society itself by those who held them. Segregation was instituted in the American South to maintain those attitudes that had grown to be seen as central to what Southern society was. They were, and today remain, below the conscious radar of most Southerners even as they are more and more seen as pernicious rather than good.
The racial and class distinctions even today run below the conscious radar as simply part of the socially accepted worldview of what is "Right" and what is "Wrong" and they will last until they are surfaced, spoken of honestly and dealt with properly. America's children and young people are ready, and that's what is attracting them to Obama.
It's going to be hard for Republicans to counter Obama as he speaks calmly of those attitudes that have grown out of the history of slavery. Obama is a racially Black, non-Southern, Harvard-trained lawyer without slave ancestors who is running for President. He is clearly aware of the mutual racial resentments, but he does not himself have a history that has made him a participant in them. That makes it very difficult to attack Obama when he speaks of those attitudes and their very negative effects on our society. He is outside the culture of resentment, yet he is also not a White do-gooder trying to tell others how to live their lives and exist in their society. The traditional attacks against reformers simply don't stick to him.
That's what the complaints about Preacher Wright as an "angry radical Black" are all about. It's also behind the attacks on Barack's wife. Coming out of the tradition of American slavery, they are vulnerable in ways Barack is not.
So his speech is going to get heard and read by a lot of people who would not listen to Martin Luthur King or Jessie Jackson or some northern White do-gooder from the abolitionist tradition. Obama has created an opening that America can exploit to move away from the remaining negative attitudes created to maintain the horror, degradation and exploitation that was slavery.
We need to move through that opening as rapidly as we can. The other side is much closer to the ideal society that America strives to achieve.