In this new book, The Sum of Us, Heather McGhee. an economics expert and former head of the think tank Demos, argues that racism is bad not just for its targets but for the entire society. When white people seek to prevent Black people from benefitting from societal goods, they also end up taking those benefits away from other white people, too (and sometimes, in fact, from themselves).
One of the clearest examples she uses to illustrate this is that of public swimming pools. When cities and town that once had large, free, and popular swimming pools were told they had to desegregate them, they ended up draining and closing them and filling the land so they were gone without a trace. Now, no one could swim. While this is far from the most serious example of how racism is bad for everyone, it’s startling in its sheer pettiness. With acts like these, white leaders turned the distribution of public goods into a zero-sum game, convincing other white people that the Black people in their communities were a threat, rather than people they could work with for the good of everyone.
McGhee traces the roots of this thinking to the earliest days of this country, when white landowners realized that the poor white workers and Black enslaved people recognized how much they had in common, they’d take down the system that subjugated them both. So the wealthy whites made sure that white servants had an elevated status, including the opportunity to own land. Poor whites would never be at the top, but they were protected from being at the bottom. And that pattern has persisted in union busting efforts, campaigns against expanding government assistance and health care benefits, and so on. And so the white poor choose to protest programs that could actually help them because they fear what it will mean if those benefits reach the Black community. Similarly, poor white people end up getting swept up in practices that often begin by targeting Black communities, such as predatory lending.
This book dovetailed nicely with The Ministry for the Future, in which the world ends up better off when people work toward something more like equality. In Robinson’s novel, the motivation and benefits are focused on the environment, but fixing the economy is part of fixing the environment. The idea that “enough is as good as a feast” applies in both books.
McGhee suggests that the way out of this morass is a truth and reconciliation movement that brings together people from different walks of life to look at how racism has created hierarchies in law, separation, and the economy. The goal is not just to talk about these things but to identify persistent problems and find workable solutions. This may involve some story-telling, as communities come to terms with how their past affects the present, but the process is intended to tear down barriers and create room for action. It’s a hopeful vision, one that shows how important it is to understand our history so we can move forward together.
In the closing pages of the book, McGhee writes:
Dr. King said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. But we know that progress is not guaranteed. When the arc in American bends from slavery in the 1860s and return to convict leasing in the 1880s; when it bends from Jim Crow in the 1960s and returns to mass incarceration in the 1970s; when it bends from Indigenous genocide to an epidemic of Indigenous suicides; when it bends, but as a tree does in the wind, only to sway back, we have to admit that we have not touched the root.
We have not touched the root because the laws we make are expressions of a root belief, and it is time to face our most deep-seated one: the great lie at the root of our nation’s founding was a belief in the hierarchy of human value. And we are still there.
The news has been filled with stories of conflict over how we teach our history. A school board meeting in my area ended in violence this week over this very question. What McGhee says here gets at why the stories we tell about ourselves are so important and why there are always people trying to keep us from digging up those roots that have kept them at the top of the hierarchy people like them put in place.