Once upon a time, American labor sold its soul for a bag of shiny baubles. The bag was gone in the blink of an eye: only one generation was actually born into that promise, which has not endured for even that single generation’s lifespan
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Yet, this historic anomaly is not remembered as a short, remarkable exception to several centuries of bitter and often violent class conflict. Instead, it has become the norm, elevated to a generalized and revered shared American past.
This is what is known to historians as a big fat lie.
While the unprecedented prosperity of the 1950s did propel thousands into the middle class, those thousands certainly didn’t include the majority of Americans. Huge numbers of people remained in poverty regardless of how big the billboards got, as the African-Americans photographed above almost certainly considered too obvious to remark upon. For millions of America’s poor, including its white poor, opportunity began and ended when the war industries did.
Why are we talking about this now? Because conservative interest groups with chilling agendas are talking about it. This is the past they evoke when they mourn the loss of a national way of life. This is the American heritage we must defend from hordes of immigrants, as well as others who “play the race card” in an attempt to prevent us from preserving our values.
This is the big fat lie they are telling.
The American past they claim for all white Americans is not a past most white Americans share. The elite doesn’t share with anyone. That’s how it remains elite. Look at the wealth it has accumulated over the past several years while the majority of the nation struggles and the poor have sunk so far out of sight that they are no longer in the American vocabulary. As we head closer and closer to the cliff, the true elite are bolder than ever before about showing their cards Take a good look. You may not be as highly regarded by the powerful as you think you are, although you live in a big house and earn a good salary.
If you look hard at the big picture, as those who steer the global economy have always done, you may see yourself within a broader context, one that reveals how expendable you are, and how temporary your socioeconomic position. The fact is, most upper- middle class American professionals are just a few generations from the working class – that’s not far enough to protect them. You may discover that in the long run, you probably have far more in common with the nation’s millions of poor African-Americans than you do with the elite. Most Americans do.
You may decide that 900,000 Black men in prison, most on drug charges, sounds a lot like slavery – and that the person responsible for tearing down those prison walls is … you.
That realization and that decision are the only things about you that the powerful truly fear.