How systemic racism makes EVERYBODY poorer
The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together
Heather McGhee 2021
How is a drained swimming pool a metaphor for an entire nation? Rather than allow interracial swimming in the 1960's as ordered by courts, cities chose to close and drain public swimming pools, and white people retreated to private country clubs and built small pools in their backyards. Rather than face the facts of integration and expose the dominant white class to new people and ideas, they decided that public parks, pools, schools, government programs and any other shared resource had to be privatized rather than "polluted". This retreat from the New Deal ethos of shared sacrifice and reward has left us all the poorer as our infrastructure crumbles and little gets done by our feeble governments anymore.
Heather McGhee is a writer, speaker, and senior fellow at a progressive think tank, Demos, and she has written one of the best books I've ever read on racism and how it hurts all involved, including white people. (Jonathan Metzl's great Dying of Whiteness is another great one.) McGhee, who is black, uses her drained pool metaphor repeatedly in this book, which comes along at a time when racism is very much in question, and Black Lives Matter is becoming more than just an empty slogan. The Sum of Us is her first book and has helped stimulate the dialogue between the races in 2021.
McGhee says quite plainly that the way that the economy is running today is not working for most people, except for a small, lucky minority. A huge underclass of white and black Americans are unable to save money, get stable jobs with benefits, or help their children to do better than they did. This sad situation is made worse by an evil game called the zero sum game- if someone else wins, then I lose, and vice versa. When poor white people see people of color getting promotions, gaining wealth, or getting elected to political office, they feel threatened. They see the success of others as coming at their own expense. The truth, as portrayed in this book is that if the poor whites and poor of other colors would just band together to work for a fairer system, they would all prosper better than before. Instead of zero-sum, America could become a win-win country, where the success of one person or group lifts up many interconnected others.
The author goes into some of the depressing history of racism in America to give a much needed background to the pullback that America saw as soon as the Civil Rights bills of the 1960's were passed. The stories of the drained pools are documented here, and were just a precursor to the dog-whistle politics of the 70's and 80's when conservative white politicians felt free to blame people of color for many of America's problems. This led to a retrenchment in White America that hurt everybody involved. Here is a sad list of other promising programs that were dragged down by racism:
1- Government healthcare was first proposed by Harry Truman, but a racist campaign in Alabama ejected one of its most fervent supporters and scared off the rest. The Affordable Care Act of 2008 is forever tied to a black president, Barack Obama, and that was all racists needed to scare many people from supporting it. People of all races have died because of lack of healthcare, making the US one of the most expensive and least effective healthcare systems in the world.
2- Housing in America was beset by redlining and discrimination for most of the 20th century. While white people benefitted from the best neighborhoods and loan rates, everybody suffered in 2008 from the mortgage crisis brought about by unscrupulous lenders and subprime mortgages that took advantage of poorer Americans, especially people of color. The worst practices of the mortgage loan industry abused the poor and vulnerable and almost took down the entire American economy.
3- Unions, which are responsible for the 40-hour workweek and decent working conditions everywhere, were allowed to fail because predominantly white owners and managers were able to divide workers and union members with racial appeals. Unions became seen as black institutions, and white workers were moved by appeals to fear and modest favors granted to senior white employees. The failure of unions has drained the pool in workplaces where now employers have the upper hand to do whatever makes them the most profits.
4- Voting and democracy have become a battleground. Conservative white politicians have figured out what kinds of restrictions will shut out people of color, and are passing more and more laws to restrict voting to assure themselves the best outcomes. Polling places and drop boxes in urban areas are eliminated while voting in rural areas is made easier. Gun permits are okay as picture ID, but college ID's are not. Voters are purged from databases in big cities, and a whole host of rigged systems like gerrymandering, dark money in politics, and the electoral college disenfranchise voters. The ruling party has become so entrenched, especially in the South, that they don't have to worry about debates, policies, or actually passing laws that help their constituents beyond their wealthy donors.
5- Schools suffer because of exclusionary zoning laws and carefully drawn school district boundaries. After schools were made to integrate in the 70's, many wealthy white families fled further from the cities or put their kids in private schools, draining the public education pool even more. McGhee points to many studies that show people perform better in diverse environments where they feel challenged, proving that segregated schools in some ways perform worse than integrated ones.
6- Climate change and other environmental issues are politicized and racialized to the point where nothing can get done anymore. White Americans see themselves as sheltered and safe to the point where even climate change can't get to them, which is both short-sighted and dead wrong. We all breath the same air and feel the same temperatures, and global warming, if scientists are remotely correct, will drastically hurt all of us- black, white, brown and every shade in between. Natural disasters, increasing temperatures, and dying crops and animals will eventually effect the entire planet, not just the "Sacrifice Zones," that McGee describes where poorer people live.
For much of the 20th century, government was seen as a force for good. It won a war, beat back a depression, helped GI's get an education, built a world-class highway system, and got us to the moon. But somehow in the 1960's when it became clear that the old ways of not sharing with people of color wouldn't do, America decided to turn against government and retreat into safe, private spaces where they wouldn't have to confront inconvenient people or facts. That's where we are today.
McGhee talks about the hidden wound that white people bear, and how they do everything in their power to ignore it. Whites today want to deny that there's any problem and pretend to be color-blind. The past was bad, but now things are good so shut up and buy more stuff.
If you say that you don't see race, you can't be a racist- except that it's impossible not to see race every day when police shootings, protests, and potential threats seem to be everywhere.
The best part of the book is saved for the end, where McGhee talks about the solidarity dividend. The best part of this dividend is that if somehow white and black people can get past their differences and unite against a common enemy- climate change, bad schools, rising inequality and economic uncertainty- amazing positive things could happen. Those who are currently benefitting from the system today are threatened by that possibility, and they do all in their power to divide and conquer using race as a blunt weapon. She talks about how the city of Lewiston, Maine has invited immigrants from Africa, becoming one of the few vibrant, growing towns in the entire state. There is a new group, Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation, (website https://healourcommunities.org/), that is bringing people of all races together to talk about this entire topic and how coming together will refill the pools.
McGhee concludes with five discoveries to move things forward.
1- Zero sum thinking doesn't work. We need the solidarity dividend
2- We need to refill the pool of public goods, which means more government and more shared sacrifice.
3- There is no one solution. A variety of strategies will need to take place to bring people back together.
4- We need each other - all through history humans have needed each other and now is no different, especially as we face new and daunting challenges.
5- To get to the same place, we all need to be on the same page, and inconvenient truths will have to be acknowledged and dealt with.
Clearly, we have a long way to go, but this book is a great introduction to the topic of racism and how it blinds us and impoverishes us. It reminds me of the Oscar nominated movie, Judas and the Black Messiah, that came out in 2020. Fred Hampton, a Chicago organizer and focus of the movie, was one of the first people who was good at uniting and inspiring people of different races and nationalities. So of course J. Edgar Hoover had him killed, using a spy on the inside. Uniting diverse groups of people for common goals will be hard in this age of polarization, but it's not impossible, and books like this point the way.