Thursday, February 10, 2022

McGhee - The Sum of Us

Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together (2021) not only captures the collective cost of racism to everyone, black/white or privileged/middle income, but also sums up several other author’s contributions to understanding racism and what must be done to eradicate it from the U.S.A. Other books I’ve read that seem to have led me to McGhee’s book include: Coates’ We Were Eight Years in PowerKindi's How to Be an Anti-RacistJones’ White Too LongWear’s Reclaiming HopeWilkerson's Caste, and Kruglanski’s The Psychology of Closed-Mindedness.

Two things stand out as prominent in The Sum of Us that weren’t there, or I did not fully recognize, in other author’s books: 1) that the negative cost of racism is broadly shared and 2) by highlighting this summative impact, we might actually reap a solidarity dividend that will help us to make progress in challenging it.


A tension with which I struggle is the philosophical stance of abundance versus that of scarcity. On a very personal basis, I recognize that most of the things that keep me from living the life I want to live are rooted in a scarcity view – fear of missing out, jealousy, regret. McGhee calls it the “zero-sum” game, a worldview that assumes that beating losers is the only way to acquire what one wants. 


McGhee’s analysis delves into economics, and particularly governmental policy related to it, and its impact on who has been able to accumulate wealth in the U.S.A. America and the “American Dream” evolved from a starving and scrappy colony that took land away from indigenous people and enforced slave labor to achieve its objective of wealth creation among a few landholders. As early as 1857, a white southerner, Hinton Rowan Helper, wrote that a crisis was on the horizon, one based on southern oligarchs’ refusal to support education and enterprise, a refusal that would result in southern whites being poorer in the long run.


Helper’s prescient observation emerged more profoundly as post-Civil War “Jim Crow” unfolded with white supremacy used to unite whites across class and against people of color. After desegregation was mandated by federal law, the combination of “separate but equal” policy and the closing of shared community resources such as swimming pools and other recreation resources were denied to people of color, which in effect denied them to white people with lesser means as well. The creation of a racial hierarchy was conceived and activated as a way of sowing discontent among those without power, pitting less educated and lower class whites against people of color. In essence, the racial hierarchy created a last-place aversion of low-income whites that allowed them to feel superior to at least people of other color and culture.


Governmental spending in the middle of the 20th century grew the American middle class. However, blanket policy was enacted that perpetuated inequality. The U.S.A. “deliberately created a white middle class through racially restricted government investments in home ownership and infrastructure and retirement security” (p. 11). The investment was in; low interest loans to encourage home buying, infrastructure such as roads and public utilities, education, and more. And isn’t it odd that once people of color attempted to access governmental investment, politicians decided that the project was too expensive? The conservative tropes to justify this withdrawal of access included “makers versus takers,” “taxpayers versus welfare exploiters,” and the now familiar “they’re coming after your job, your safety, your way of life” (p. 14).


Both spending and public opinion saw a marked shift during the Reagan era, a period of rising antigovernment conservatism. Although the Reagan movement claimed to be about conservatism, McGhee asserted that the shift was more about blunting “the government’s ability to challenge concentrated wealth and corporate power” (p. 47).  In sum, “Racism then, works against non-wealthy white Americans in two ways… it lowers their support for government action that could help them” (p. 50)… and results in racialized political polarization that forces a choice between class and racial interests.


The Sum of Us describes how racism, discrimination, and segregation negatively impact youth during their educations as well as how it denies wealth and the opportunity to live in safe and diverse communities to adults and families. It also includes hopeful evidence of successful solidarity initiatives that challenged the hierarchy of race and class. For example, significant cross-racial coalition building was an important part of the rise of unions in mid-20th century, a movement that improved the lives of workers of all backgrounds and races. More recent grassroots organizations have tapped the solidarity dividend to make progress on other important shared concerns. These include “Greater than Fear” that confronted the emergence of the “Tea Party” in Minnesota in 2018, “Just Transition” that activated coalitions of concerned citizens to tackle environmental degradation, and the “Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation” model and its TRHT Implementation Guidebook used in fourteen communities in 2017 to document and address the impact of racism. McGhee closes with a futuristic proposal to address wealth inequality by providing a “race-conscious housing effort to close the Black-white gap in home ownership” (p. 259).


McGhee’s book is not long but it is deep, offering summation and real possibilities for action for those who are serious about confronting and reversing the negative impact of racism on everyone. Abandoning the “zero sum” mentality and seeking a solidarity dividend through multi-racial coalitions of every day citizens are two factors that could bring us all to a new and better place.

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