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Why The American Dream Never Was

Updated on October 15, 2017
shangoking59 profile image

Brooklyn-based veteran Small Business & Political Campaign Strategist. Former Editor and practicing Journalist for over 30 years.

The first great period of American development (and progress) came during chattel slavery.

From the time children are born in America there is this narrative about the “American Dream” and “American Exceptionalism.” Drilled into the minds of impressionable youths in classroom civics courses, this drumbeat of how the system of capitalism is a socio-economic phenomenon and miracle that “lifts all boats,” - if you work hard, play by the rules, and apply yourself. But I contend that this is a hollow myth, a created social hologram fix that is tinkered, embellished, and re-crafted over time to hoodwink and bamboozle (I’m borrowing from Malcolm X here) people into thinking that somehow Americans are born better, blessed by God, and are unique among mortal homo sapiens.

In these series of articles, I want to submit a different viewpoint. I want set the premise by saying that there was no “American Dream” and the facts that I’ll present here point to a system that is predicated on exploitation, never adapted to changes in the society, that has left the American economy, and thus the society and nation, lurching from crisis to crisis. The system is also characterized by economic boom and bust, an endless cycle that now entrenches unparalleled inequalities, national disenfranchisement, and endemic and systemic poverty, across all classes and groups in America today.

For the purposes of this series of articles, I’ll divide America’s progress and development over 200 years into three distinct periods. These periods were highlighted by economic institutions and systems that drove social and political developments and cultural norms and behavior. The first great period of American development (and progress) came during chattel slavery [See definition below] that was characterized by the forced and compelled appropriation of the labor of enslaved Black African slaves – the legal property of white Americans. Slavery was an economic system that helped drive ALL aspects of American life. But the most enduring fact of American chattel slavery was that the economic, social, political and cultural gains of the society were realized at the expense of sustained, ruthless, and unrelenting exploitation of a helpless group of humans at the hands of white Americans. This system was legendary for its record of immoral and unjust human suffering that it encouraged, sustained, legalized and spawned.

And when slavery became economically untenable, the underlying reason for its abandonment as the driver of the American economy, American politicians and staunch advocates that supported owning “human property,” developed a new system of slavery called segregation. This is the second system of American socio-economic historical development. I will deal with that in another article in the series. Suffice to say here that segregation was little different from chattel slavery in that it was quite literally “segregation with slavery benefits.” This period was characterized by state-sponsored terrorism and brutality meted out to these “former slaves” by “white is might and right” organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. The result was that segregation created a large army of unskilled, unemployed (and in some cased unemployable) labor that was easily exploited, while at the same time dealing out unbelievable repression as a by-product.

It was these two previous systems, driven by and built on the exploitation of unpaid slave labor and brutality that set the stage for the third period of American progress that we’re in right now. The problem is that an economy that was built on racism, repression, discrimination, and brutality found it very difficult to adjust once slave labor was not a factor. In fact, the American economy jumped from slavery to segregation and finally to STAGNATION. Officially, American segregation ended in 1964. Between 1964 and 1971, when wages for workers tanked, the social and economic upheavals were undergirded by a political leadership unable to stem the drastic rise in unemployment, social friction, discontent, and an economy going from one crisis to another.

So if you can point to the so-called “Golden Era” of American life and when, pray, did this thing called the American Dream ever was a reality, I sell you the Brooklyn Bridge. But Americans are told about this in civic classes, history books, and just about every politician wrapped in the flag and reeking pseudo-patriotism. America skipped feudalism; the country went from slavery to segregation to stagnation. There was nothing in between. This exposes and highlights the fact American progress, ALL of its progress, depended (and still depends) on the total exploitation of entire groups, discriminated and oppressed, to produce goods and services for the benefits of “the others” – whites in the society.

But that’s ultimately unsustainable. What a prudent, forward thinking leadership should have done was to move expeditiously to reform and revolutionize the economy and society in a more humane, just and fair manner. What did the American political class do? Unable to appropriate the labor of white people for free and not tap into the large army of former slave labor by coercion (as in Jim Crow days), also given that the level of skills in this labor force was at low levels, (it was a crime to educates slaves), America first wooed immigrants from Europe (the Irish, Polish etc.) to fill out its growing labor force. But even though they were also exploited, there were opportunities available to these immigrant laborers that were not there for Blacks. And they too soon faced the kinds of discrimination and racism that Blacks endured during segregation.

Old habits die hard. These social, economic, cultural and production relations have changed very little since the first African slave was brought to America in chains. Today, America has a broken economy that is controlled by the uber-rich and not working for the average Joe. Wealth disparity and the yawning income gap is the greatest in a generation. College tuition is beyond the reach of millions of families and over 47 million Americans live in poverty. Thousands will die for want of proper healthcare as medicines and life-saving drugs are way, way beyond the reach of most Americans.

No, there was no “Golden Age” or American Dream. Its a myth perpetuated by the ruling class to keep “we the people” in check.

[Chattel slavery is what most people have in mind when they think of the kind of slavery that existed in the United States before the Civil War, and that existed legally throughout many parts of the world as far back as recorded history. Slaves were actual property who could be bought, sold, traded or inherited.]

In fact, the American economy jumped from slavery to segregation and finally to STAGNATION.


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    • Ken Burgess profile image

      Ken Burgess 

      12 months ago from Florida

      And while knowing something of history, you really know nothing. And while you think somehow the riches of those corporations and international conglomerations are going to be handed back to... whoever... its never going to happen.

      There are only two things that will occur in our lifetimes and our children's lifetimes. Civilization will continue on more or less as it has... or some type of epic global calamity will cause its collapse, in which case all will suffer, especially those without the resources or know-how to survive.

      But until that 'end time' of civilization what was true a hundred years ago will be true a hundred years from now. The same complaints you make now someone made 100 years ago, the internet allows it to be seen by more people, but the end result will be the same.

      Real change, comes only from confronting the institutions of government control and power... that's how this country was made, confrontation, rebellion, war, genocide, war, war, war.

      But its different now, central banks and international corporations have more power than nation states, so even a revolution in America would not tear down their power and control... they would simply move their resources and wealth to another, more stable nation.

      So I don't see where you think this change will occur, or how, its simply not possible without collapsing the entire global system and sending humanity into a spiral that would cause billions to die horribly, while the majority of those who survive would suffer as people suffer in places like Somalia today.

      On a side note in regards to history - Slavery didn't make this country, there was hardly any slavery at all in the Northern States where all the real power and economic and industrial strength was... that was built almost entirely by indentured servants, white folks that came here by the hundreds of thousands, stuffed on to boats under conditions just as sickening and deadly as any slaves from Africa had to suffer.

      Some didn't survive the trip, and even more of them never survived to see the end of their servitude, they had no more rights than slaves did until they 'earned' their freedom.

      Man's inhumanity against man... Robert Burns 1784.

    • wrenchBiscuit profile image

      Ronnie wrenchBiscuit 

      12 months ago

      I say you were born late because 75 years ago a majority of Americans looked at the world the way you do. But you will soon be a minority. There was a time not long ago when people like Mr. Roberts or myself could not so freely express the truth. But no government has "given" us this right of expression. It is only the blood of martyrs that has allowed us to get this far.

      You feel the way you do because you are considering the issue from your limited perspective. You are not taking into account the big picture. And that picture includes far more than I am willing to labor with here. But I will focus on one aspect that people with your mindset commonly find offensive, and that is the issue of reparations. You see, in this universe the past appears to move forward into the future. There are many national and multi-national corporations, and many institutions that exist today that also existed, or at least got their start, during the antebellum. Here are just a few :

      Wells Fargo, Aetna, Bank of America, Brown Brothers Harriman, JP Morgan Chase , New York Life, Princeton University, Yale University, USA Today, and many, many more!

      The great fortunes that these entities have today are a direct result of the capital they were able to generate through the institution of chattel slavery. These companies and institutions did not leave their fortunes in the past. Instead, they used the riches of the past as a means of multiplying their riches into the future. Now, since these companies continue to profit as a result of the slave trade, it is only morally correct that the descendants of those slaves who helped to amass these great fortunes should also benefit.

      Every good father wants to leave his sons and daughters an inheritance that can be passed on from one generation to the next. And I am not talking about a "free ride", because those slaves earned that money for their descendants. They earned every single dime the hard way. Overall, they are owed nearly 400 years of back-pay, since Euro-Americans also benefited from the slave trade prior to 1776. This money has already been earned, and it is duly owed! But along with reparations, the practice of red lining must be abolished, and restrictions on the ability of people of color, especially Black and Indigenous, to own and operate businesses must be removed.

      Equal opportunity for all still only exists on paper. A handful of Black athletes and entertainers who have enjoyed great success can hardly be a measure of racial equality. And the fact that a man with a white mother and a black father has been recognized as the first "Black" president only indicates that the racist "one drop rule" is still in full effect!

    • Ken Burgess profile image

      Ken Burgess 

      12 months ago from Florida

      What was I born too late for?

      Being able to live better than a king a could have dreamed of a couple hundred years back?

      Having a fridge stocked with food and not having to hunt for my supper?

      Sleeping in a clean bed without lice or bugs?

      Exactly what am I too late for Biscuit?

      Only fools don't realize how good we have it these days compared to ALL days of the past... be it 100 years ago or 1,000. What you choose to make of the bounty of what civilization offers, what you choose to do with the opportunities in front of you, is on you.

    • wrenchBiscuit profile image

      Ronnie wrenchBiscuit 

      12 months ago

      Ken, Instead of answering my question you deliver a strawman. The good news is that you were born to late! The glory days of Bull Connor are over, and it appears the only ones whining are you and Archie Bunker. You'll just have to suck it up, get over it, and take your seat at the back of the bus.

    • Ken Burgess profile image

      Ken Burgess 

      12 months ago from Florida

      Very simple Wrenchbiscuit,

      People can do what they want to do, regardless of race, religion, or sex.

      That is called opportunity, that is called freedom.

      All the whining about people who got killed in the past, or enslaved in the past, is for the fools, none of that affects what a person can do today.

      Today's 'Native American' tribes have built places like Mohican Sun, in addition to having every other American's rights some have unique opportunities not afforded others.

      Not all of us start at the same level... some people had good parents, some people had idiots for parents, some people had no parents... some people are born with brilliant minds, and some people are born with autistic minds and have to struggle through every day... that's life.

      All the whining about what happened to ancestors four generations ago... well, no one really cares, and its no fault of anyone alive today.

      If you want to sit around stewing all day about ancient history, go for it, you only have one life, waste it how you want to.

    • wrenchBiscuit profile image

      Ronnie wrenchBiscuit 

      12 months ago

      Ken, Don't put it off on Morgan Freeman or Sam Jackson. You are the one making the bold statement. Please tell us when the American Dream "was" for the Indigenous, the African, or even the poor white man. Please give us a specific date or time period.

    • Ken Burgess profile image

      Ken Burgess 

      12 months ago from Florida

      I would love to counter this, and will say that the American Dream certainly was (and currently IS) during my lifetime.

      But I will let someone who I would consider a prime example of just how much it is, speak a bit about opportunity (and other things)... Samuel Jackson:

      How about Morgan Freemen?:

      People who want to point to past wrongs (that ALL races and religions suffered through, life was no cake walk hundreds of years ago, one only has to do some real research to learn that) and ignore today's reality will get their wish, they will tear down this country, and its society, and live with the hell that is created in the aftermath that is far worse.

    • Angel Guzman profile image

      Angel Guzman 

      12 months ago from Joliet, Illinois

      It's really messed up the origins and structure of this country. Good thought provoking read.

    • wrenchBiscuit profile image

      Ronnie wrenchBiscuit 

      12 months ago

      Great article! There are many apologists on this site who will argue that the sky isn't blue. I am a student of history, and I have heard every lame excuse in the book. But the truth is that there have been three wars simultaneous on this continent for over 500 years: A class war, a race war, and a war on women. It has been more of a nightmare than a dream.


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