When I was in what was then called junior high school, I was told that my racially integrated school had once had a swimming pool. Why was it cemented over? Because the powers that be had decided that white kids shouldn’t have to swim with their fellow students who happened to be Black.
That information shocked me then, but I’ve learned from Heather McGhee, author of a new book called The Sum of Us, that filling in perfectly good swimming pools was common practice throughout the United States as integration efforts progressed.
McGhee sees that strange trend as a metaphor: decision-making based on racist ideology continues to drain our nation’s resources, harming not only Black people, but the white people whom it’s supposedly protecting as well.
And she makes an extremely compelling case filled with human stories and statistical evidence to prove “what racism costs everyone and how we can prosper together.” Her message feels at once pragmatic and hopeful—especially in our polarized times.
The full title of McGhee’s book is The Sum of Us: What Racism [in the United States] Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together.
I haven’t read it yet, but I have listened to and watched her on the TedTalk that appears above, a lengthy but fascinating Zoom session with union leaders nationwide, and a recent podcast with Al Franken.
McGhee is a lawyer who specializes in American economic policy and its implications, and she heads an online racial justice organization called The Color of Change.
I hope you’ll watch her on the TedTalk, where she explains the genesis of the book from a conversation with a white man name Gary who called in when she was on a talk show and asked for help with his racism. Her description of this encounter alone is riveting, but I found the entire video similarly affecting.
She provides her own sad pool story on the video, based on what she learned when her research for the book took her to Montgomery, Alabama.
She describes the roots and results of the devastating subprime mortgage crisis that nearly destroyed our economy. (As an economics policy wonk, she saw trouble ahead.)
And she details a happy story about the revitalization of Lewiston, Maine, through an unlikely alliance of Congolese refugees and aging white Mainers.
The word “SUM” in her book’s title refers to the mistaken notion among white people that resources among the races are a zero sum game: Whatever Black people receive—from government, unions, or business—the thinking goes, means white people get less. and that belief is compounded by the endurance of what she calls the winning Southern narrative: that Black people are lazy, shifty, and dangerous.
I’ve already heard this zero sum game sentiment from white farmers criticizing the funding for Black farmers in the new American Rescue Plan. Our nation’s record is, in fact, quite the opposite. White farmers have been subsidized for years, but Black farmers never got much of those benefits.
The Washington Post reports:
“Black farmers in America have lost more than 12 million acres of farmland over the past century, mostly since the 1950s, a result of what agricultural experts and advocates for Black farmers say is a combination of systemic racism, biased government policy and social and business practices that have denied African Americans equitable access to markets.”
The American Rescue Plan benefits people across the board (except the wealthiest), but these white farmers chose to focus on that particular clause. I’m very glad Biden, Harris, and others are traveling around the country explaining the benefits of the new legislation to Americans because education is sorely needed to combat misinformation.
McGhee leads us through the changes in public sentiment among white people—from the 1950s and 60s, when nearly 70% of white Americans wanted job guarantees and a guaranteed minimum income. Lyndon Johnson, she notes, was the last President to receive a majority of the white vote.
But from 1960 to 1964, support for such government policies fell to 35% among white people. Such support has stayed low ever since, and she points to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom as a significant factor.
White Americans felt there was less discrimination against Black Americans and more against them. And politicians have been playing the zero sum game, encouraging such sentiment while passing anti-government legislation that has prevented the formation of a true American safety net in terms of economic progress, stable health care, a cleaner environment, and decent education—for the benefit of all.
All these changes, which have led to the vast income disparity between poor and middle class people versus the very wealthy, have hurt people of color the most. But they’ve taken their toll on the angry white people who bought into trump’s populism as well. That’s how we got to the present situation that the Biden administration is striving to redress.
The toll of racism on this country has been enormous, and recently a Citigroup report quantified it. If we’d closed the racial gaps in the US over the past two decades. we would have added $16 trillion to our gross domestic product.
Nevertheless, McGhee says that every chapter of her book ends on a positive note. McGhee calls results “solidarity benefits—to push for what we all need—to refill the pools of resources for everyone.”
She is filled with optimism, and when I heard that 1100 union leaders from across the country had joined her in the Zoom session, I felt encouraged too.
As she had described in the TedTalk, workers at a Nissan plant failed to unionize because, as one worker said: “I ain’t voting yes if the Blacks are voting yes.” So their ability to join and raise their wages and improve their working conditions was lost. (Nissan had hired 40% of workers as temps so that they would have no vote, thereby reducing the odds even further.)
President Biden likes to repeat the truism that unions built the middle class, and the middle class built America. I share McGhee’s hope that those union leaders can be persuasive with their members, helping them recognize how much cooperation can improve their lives.
As she makes clear in the TedTalk, she is much more concerned “about holding accountable the people selling racism for profit, than those desperate enough to buy it.”
At the end of her podcast with Franken, she said:
“Zero sum is such an old fallacious idea. We need each other, and the sky’s the limit to what we can do. There’s power from letting go of the divide and linking arms. Your fight might be slightly different from mine, but we all do better together.”