There seems to be a great debate going on in some circles as to whether President Barack Obama, in announcing tax increases for the rich and vowing to block any tampering with Social Security and Medicare, unless such taxes are implemented, has declared “class warfare.”

The debate is missing the point and the culprit. Class warfare has been going on in America for a very long time, probably since the early days of the founding of the republic. But it has never been seen as that, because the small number of Americans who have traditionally controlled the bulk of the nation’s wealth have also  defined “class warfare.”

So the hundreds of millions of Americans who have had to give their sweat, tears and, at times, blood to eke out a living were never regarded as a “class” because that term has been reserved for “communist” and “socialist” states. In America, those people were simply described as “poor,” “disadvantaged,” “low income” and other euphemisms that took the edge off grinding desperation they have had to live with while a very small number of their compatriots lived lives of varying degrees of luxury.

It has taken many long decades for the so-called poor to begin to assert themselves as partners in the process that has seen the American economy grow to the point where it has become the best on the planet, allowing America to begin to exert significant influence in world affairs. The mechanism was the labor movement, which has provided a united front by workers against crass exploitation by the wealthy few.

It is therefore not surprising that a frontal assault has been launched to crush the unions and destroy or discredit any institutions that provide cover for the working poor against the rapacity of the rich. That is the most significant act of class warfare in the country and it has accelerated to an overtly brazen level in an increasing number of states where Republicans have gained control of legislatures and governor’s mansions.

Even the “first responders,” whom all Americans put on pedestals for their bravery after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are becoming victims of this arrogant display of class power, with police officers and firefighters alike being fired, along with teachers and other sundry public sector workers.

The current dire economic straits of the nation serve to dramatize the extent to which the poor and the middle class – there is that word again – have become casualties to the relentless attacks on those who are simply seeking to benefit from America’s bounty that they have helped to create. It is also dramatically pointing up the outcome of the war so far: the rich are becoming richer and the poor poorer. And it is a “war” tinged with racial overtones.

African Americans, unable to accumulate collateral throughout the generations because of slavery and its legacy, have traditionally been among the poorest of the poor and, thus, the starkest examples of what happens when individual greed supplants the national good. The median net worth of white households in 2004 was $134,280; for blacks, it was $13,450, according to figures from the Economic Police Institute, as reported in this newspaper on July 14. In 2009, the net worth of white households was down 24 percent to $97,860; for blacks it was down 83 percent, to $2,170.

It is not that America cannot do better; it is that there are a few very rich people who use ideology to form a supposed impenetrable wall around their wealth and privilege and they use lackeys of one ilk or other to promote their agenda with terms such as “class warfare.”

These are all supposedly people of faith, good Christians all, but they conveniently forget that Jesus drove out the money-changers and that one cannot serve both God and Mammon. If it takes tough talk by President Obama to make them realize it, and they want to call it class warfare, so be it.