Deek asked me to comment on his post "It ain't pretty" and I have been meaning to for awhile, but I wanted to make sure that my comments were careful not to distract from his fantastic post. The more I've thought about it, the more I realized I need to just write a whole post as a reply.
First: If you are a "first generation" white male American with a doctoral level education that you didn't pay a dime for and a secure tenured position at a university in a field known for it's discrimination against women- YOU ARE NOT OPPRESSED!YOU ARE THE OPPRESSOR. You are, in fact an asshole for thinking you are oppressed. There is nothing that has been denied to you because of who you are or where you were born and many things that have been given to you because of who you are. You are living the American dream that most people only dream about. Go fuck yourself.
Now that I've gotten that out of the way- a history lesson...
The nature of a complex society is one that requires stratification in order to grow. That means that since the first river city civilizations grew up in Mesopotamia or the Indus River Valley or wherever, someone had to be kept down in order for the society to advance. In ethnically homogeneous places the top and the bottom may be kept apart by birth right. In societies like ancient Greece the minority Spartans used the Laconians as slave labor to supply their food. The Athenians were less inclined to use fellow Greeks, but they had no problem using everybody else. Same is true for the Romans. The French had North Africa, the British had India and we had African Americans. But there was a major shift in thinking required for the African slave trade to occur.
For thousands of years slavery had been an accepted practice in most of the world. Prisoners of war became labor sources for empires. But for the most part, slaves were able to buy their freedom and their children were not automatically born into slavery. Slavery was not such a generational practice.
In Europe prior to the slave trade, there was a feudal system. Serfs were slaves of a type, bound to the land and the master by necessity but able to leave if they were willing to be without protection. Rise of a middle class mercantile system and expansion into new territories created a demand for cheap labor. But for all intents and purposes, Europeans had given up the idea of out and out slavery under the feudal system. They had to find a justification for trading in human flesh, and so you get the image of the ignorant savage needing to be rescued from sin by the white slave traders. Slavery was justified in this way because the Europeans could tell themselves they were pulling these people out of their sinful ignorance and making them Christians in the process of enslaving them. Halleluha! There's your shift in thinking, blacks are savages who benefit from enslavement and because black never goes away, enslavement becomes a permanent state for an entire race.
But the European continent itself didn't have a labor shortage, only the New World did. That's why countries like England were able to end legalized slavery much earlier than Americans, once they lost the colonies there was no need for slaves (besides, they had the Irish to do their agricultural work for them- if you get the chance you should read about the vast amount of food that was available in Ireland during the potato famine but was kept from the starving Irish while they ate grass and dirt to survive).
But the colonies still needed cheap labor. The reason it was called King Cotton is because cotton decimated the linen industry in Europe. Add to that other labor intensive raw goods like sugar and tobacco and rice and the market for agricultural laborers is huge, but unlike now there was no massive influx of migrant farm workers willing to accept low wages for shit jobs. So slaves were brought in.
You may have some romantic notion that the Civil War was fought for philosophical reasons over the enslavement of fellow humans. The truth is actually based in the functions of a capitalist society. As the north industrialized and started selling more finished goods that were more capital intensive than agricultural raw goods from the south, slavery became an impediment to the wage system.
Keeping a slave is a fixed cost. The only fluxuation is in the original buying price, after that there is no competition to keep costs down. You could keep your slaves near starvation but when they dropped dead you would have to buy another slave. Replacement was not cheap. So the price of raw goods stays relatively high because labor costs can't be dropped. Paid workers, on the other hand, had no initial cost and since you were not responsible for their well being you could pay starvation wages without a replacement cost. As long as there was a surplus of labor, you could keep dropping the wages lower and lower making the cost of producing your goods cheaper and cheaper. Capitalism at it's finest (oh sense the irony there or you people don't know me well).
Finally, the Civil War ends and the pool of paid laborers drastically increases with the admittance of blacks into the workforce. Wages for white labor can now drop drastically as whites are "afraid of those coloreds taking their jobs". And it continues today. The rate of unemployment in black men is 35% while the rate for everyone else is about 5%. There must be a pool of desperate unemployed people in order to keep wages low for the next class up. Skin color and the end of slavery provided useful tools for creating that pool of desperate people.
So when Deek says this country was built on the backs of African Americans and that they continue to create the possibility of the American dream for others while it is denied to them- this is the history lesson of how and why he is absolutely right.
But this started out with stratification as a necessary part of society. Sounds depressing, doesn't it? There is good news however. Societal systems are created by humans and anything created by humans can be changed by them. Think about how we change language everyday, or how we adapt our lives to new technologies. If we can accept that in less than one hundred years communication speed went from days by letter to instant by email then we can certainly figure out a more egalitarian way to create a society.
See what happens when I go away for awhile- I write an entire history book in one sitting.