“Progress for People of Color Doesn’t Come at White Folks’ Expense”
A conversation with Heather C. McGhee about the zero-sum thinking that has long dominated American attitudes to race and wealth—and how to organize to secure public goods for everyone.
April 28, 2021
Apr 28, 2021
39 Min read time
A conversation with Heather C. McGhee about the zero-sum thinking that has long dominated American attitudes to race and wealth—and how to organize to secure public goods for everyone.
In this interview, political scientist Archon Fung speaks with Heather C. McGhee about her new book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. The former president of Demos, McGhee is a public intellectual, policy analyst, and political advocate who works on solutions to inequality. She currently chairs the board of Color of Change, a nonprofit civil rights advocacy organization.
Archon Fung: Heather, your new book has been getting a huge amount of well-deserved attention. Out of its many contributions, two struck me as especially important. First, I think you really effectively talked about racial injustice and inequality at the same time. I know a lot of people have been trying to do that, including myself, but it’s so hard for us to avoid this mental habit of either saying, “It’s race that’s doing the work,” or “No, it’s class that’s really doing the work.” Many people I talk to think that the fundamental social problem in the United States is racial injustice. Others think that the fundamental problem is class and that if we could just tackle economic inequality, racial justice would take care of itself. That you speak to both is huge. Second, I think that a lot of us have a very negative and critical perspective these days, but when I read your book, I feel very hopeful. You offer a really compelling vision of the great good that would come if we could only get, as you call it, the solidarity dividend. We’d get the solidarity dividend if we could overcome our zero-sum thinking about race and economy. Am I reading your book correctly? Are these two of your big ideas that you want to get across to folks?
So many of the issues that bedevil this country and lead to its dysfunction come down to race—the idea that progress for people of color has to come at white folks’ expense.
Heather McGhee: That’s exactly right, Archon. It came from nearly twenty years of being in the scrum of trying to build coalitions and convince policymakers to make better economic policy decisions. Race was always this sort of submerged iceberg blocking our progress, but we were often unaware of exactly its depth and the extent to which it was really blocking us. We were discouraged from talking about it explicitly. It ended up being divisive instead of unifying, seeing that so many of the issues that bedevil this country and lead to its dysfunction—so many of the head scratchers about why the greatest country on Earth is unable to do basic things for its people—come down to this one block.
When I set out on the journey to write this book, I took numerous trips around the country over the course of three years. During these trips I talked to hundreds of people, both everyday Americans and experts in fields that I had not previously studied, such as sociology, public opinion, psychology, and social psychology. This made clear that this zero-sum thinking—the idea that we’re on different teams, that there’s an “us” and a “them,” and that progress for people of color has to come at white folks’ expense—is really the big block. I couldn’t help but notice this everywhere. However, I saw places in the country where people had overcome that divisive thinking and had rejected the zero-sum thinking that keeps us divided, where people have been able to accomplish great things.
AF: Toward the second part of our conversation I want to focus on those positive examples and discuss how they can grow. But before we get there, I want to just begin with the cover of your book. The cover provides a powerful metaphor that organizes a lot of your analysis. As I look at it, I see a drawing of two children playing in a swimming pool. One, who looks like a white boy to me, is jumping off of a diving board. The other, who looks like a Black girl to me, is climbing out of the pool on a ladder. Why did you pick this image for the cover of your book?
HM: I’m so glad you asked, because I have many opinions about the cover. First of all, I didn’t want it to be a typical cover for a non-fiction book about race, economics, and politics. These typically use primary colors, often a lot of black and red, and big block letters that signify masculinity in terms of the branding and marketing. This often signifies that a book is about your mind—that a book is going to be cut and dry and present facts that will stop you in your tracks. Of course, I tried to cram as many of those facts as possible in my book, but the notes are 102 pages long. It was important to me to reach a broad audience with this book, people who had never read a Demos white paper, and I wanted that to start with the cover.
I wanted the cover to be an image of what should have happened—this is the world where little white kids and little Black kids are swimming together.
The cover art is an original painting done by this wonderful British artist, David McConachie. I wanted it to be around the pool because the pool is the central metaphor of the book, specifically it’s about the drained pool, the negative story of what happened. I wanted the cover to be an image of what should have happened—the world we didn’t create and the world we could still create. This is the world where little white kids and little Black kids are swimming together, a world where we never drained the pool and it was a place for our people to come together and learn how to trust one another, how to play with one another, how to feel akin to one another. And actually there is an image of the drained pool as well. I commissioned a friend of mine, Frances Tulk-Hart, to do chapter illustrations—there’s more art inside the book. In the chapter “Racism Drained the Pool,” there is an image of a drained pool with sort of overgrown weeds. So you do see both. But I wanted the cover to be hopeful, inviting, emotional, and to suggest a future that we did not create when we had the chance, but we could still create now.
AF: This implies that we could have better pools and everyone could have the experience of swimming. So why did we drain the pool? It just seems so unbelievably mean.
HM: In the 1930s and ’40s we had this huge nationwide building of public amenities. Some of these were New Deal pools, right? WPA pools. There was also a lot of local and county construction. It was part of this government ethos that said, “the government has a role in ensuring a higher standard of living for our people.” That was just the world view coming out of the crucible of the Gilded Age and the Great Depression. It was, of course, evidenced in public goods such as Social Security, high labor standards, and a massive investment in housing across the country. This was the case through to 1944, when the GI Bill put a generation into college for free. It was the idea that we would create a broad middle class and government would have a role in offering these public goods and business standards.
And, yet, virtually all of these public goods were either explicitly or through disparate impact only for whites. For example, the GI Bill should have served lots of Black veterans, but didn’t because of segregation in the housing market and in higher education. This is what created a broad, secure white middle class.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Black families began to advocate and litigate saying, “Those are our tax dollars funding those pools. Our children should be able to swim, too.” I traveled in the book to Montgomery, Alabama, which was one of many places across the country, not just in the Jim Crow South, where the city decided to drain its public pool rather than integrate it. They literally drained the water, backed in truckloads of dirt, and seeded it over with grass. Oak Park is this beautiful park in the middle of the city. It also had a zoo. They closed down the zoo. They sold off the animals. They closed down the entire parks and recreation department for a decade. It was almost 1970 before the people of Montgomery had a parks and recreation department, all because of resistance to integration. This is obviously an insane story, yet it was replicated in Washington, Ohio, West Virginia, Missouri, and all over the country. It’s almost like a Black thing, right, knowing that white people, once they had to share the pool, or the water fountain, or the schools with us, didn’t want to have it at all.
AF: They’d just rather not have it at all.
White people, once they had to share resources with Black people, didn't want to have it at all. They’d just rather not have it at all.
HM: Exactly. Before I began writing the book, when I was in the field working at Demos, I was trying to convince white progressives that race had something to do with their central concern, which is what happened to the economy. What happened to the formula for shared prosperity, high wages, high taxes, high regulation, high public investment? It was kind of obvious. We, Black people, wanted in, too. That’s what happened to it.
In 1956 and 1960, over two-thirds of white Americans believed that the federal government ought to guarantee a job for anyone who wanted one and a minimum income. These are radical, left-wing ideas in today’s politics, but they had nearly 70 percent white support in 1956 and 1960. By 1964, according to the NAES, that share of white Americans had dropped in half to just 35 percent. It has stayed low ever since. Black Americans thought it was a great idea and still think it’s a great idea. You still see that racial gap in the public opinion and support for these economic guarantees. So, what could have happened between 1960 and ’64 to have the majority of white Americans turn on a dime from two out of three supporting to two out of three opposing?
I realized, of course, that in 1963 there was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which demanded those two guarantees, high minimum wage and a job guarantee for everyone. Of course, it was Black activists filling the mall and demanding that. Then, of course, you had Kennedy going on his big media campaign around civil rights, firmly associating the mostly white New Deal party with civil rights. We know that his successor, Lyndon Johnson, after signing the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, would be the last Democrat to ever win the majority of the white vote.
It really was a draining of the pool. The majority of white Americans turned away from the formula that had created the great middle class and, in particular, turned away from the vehicles of collective action, principally government, that had insured countervailing power to big business. As progressives we often tell the story of what happened only by talking about the how, the changes in tax policy, labor policy, and public spending. But progressives don’t really talk about the why—why the majority of white Americans would have gone along with something that now, fifty years later, we know did not work. We know, from public opinion research, that discourse around government aid, social policy, and welfare is deeply racialized. So many times when people talk about government assistance, they’re thinking about unjust redistribution to people of color.
AF: Your account turns that on its head and says, look, you drained the pool—the pool not just being “the pool,” but universal healthcare, accessible higher education, affordable housing. It’s not that all of that aid was shifted to people of color, it’s not like the whole pool was going to people of color. That was never in the cards. That was never going to be the social policy. But white people bought into a narrative that said that was happening, and chose to drain resources entirely—these resources being affordable housing, affordable higher ed, and more generous healthcare for many people. That is such a powerful message. I hope it gets out to many Americans of all races and beliefs.
The majority of white Americans turned away from the formula that had created the great middle class when it began to include Black people.
I want to focus now, though, on people in our circle, on the progressive policy analysts. I was really taken by an early part of your book that occurs when you’re at Demos as a junior staffer. You’re probably working for Miles Rapoport at the time. You describe a strategy call with some progressive economists, who happen to be white and male, to marshal some evidence about cuts to Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare that conservative legislators were proposing at the time. You’re trying to make an argument that these cuts would be really harmful to middle class Americans. Then you report saying that all of these programs were created without concern for their cost when the goal was to build a white middle class, and now these guys are trying to fundamentally renege on the deal for a future middle class that’s going to be majority people of color? Then you report that there was an awkward silence on the call. Then, finally, someone says, “Well, sure, Heather. We know that, and you know that. But let’s not lead with our chin here. We’re trying to be persuasive.” This was really striking. I’ve been in those conversations, too.
Why do you think it has been so hard for progressive, liberal policy analysts to talk about race? Is it just politics? Are they afraid of the backlash? Or do they think that if we take care of class, then race is going to work itself out?
HM: I think it’s a little bit of both. I think that it’s mostly the first one—mostly fear of the white moderate and of the white backlash. It’s fear of the zero-sum mentality among white Americans, the idea that progress for people of color comes at white folks’ expense. It’s the fear of further draining the pool. It’s the fear of the fact that white people were willing to drain the pool. There’s a lot of reasons to be afraid, right?
AF: The backlash is real.
HM: The backlash is real. That conversation was happening at a time when we had the first Black president and, still, over 90 percent of the elected officials in the country were white. Two-thirds were white men.
At Demos we were trying to counter what ended up happening—a retrenchment, a cutting off of government spending right at the peak of the jobless recovery in the wake of the Great Recession—with this multiorganizational, progressive economic effort. The forces that were trying to stop this were able to stave off the grand bargain, which was permanently cutting Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits to fiscally constrain the future. What we got instead was the sequester, which was a blunt instrument across the board. In fact, I was looking at some data this morning from McKinsey that showed a massive drop of public investment in 2010. This occurred because of this very racialized, Tea Party, right-wing, anti-government spending crusade that made no economic sense in the short-term or the long-term. It really missed the long-term risk posed to families.
We are in the middle of an era of inequality and corporations are cutting back on retirement security. We have state governments cutting back on public funding for higher education. People are walking away from all of these investments that are necessary for a middle-class life left and right; institutions are walking away left and right. Under a Black president, and looking out to 2040 and 2050 when it should be a majority of people of color in the middle class, these white leaders today, most of them septuagenarians themselves, were saying, “No. We don’t need that anymore. We don’t need this high road, high growth, high public investment formula that built the white middle class for me. And, in fact, it’s unwise to have it.” This was very dispiriting.
We should always remember the basic question about public goods—“Who is worthy of investment?” is always a question right there under the surface.
The reason I spend so much time reminding us of that conversation is because I think it’s going to be newly relevant again. We’re already starting to see moderate Democrats bring it up, and this was a bipartisan conversation that was happening. It was kind of like the responsible, elder statesmen were going to restrain government from its worst excesses in helping people. We’re starting to see moderate Democrats say that we can’t afford what is happening right now or that it is not a wise investment, fearmongering about long-term debt. What is happening right now is a very welcome refilling of the public pool, both in the American Rescue Plan and the American Jobs Plan that’s proposed to massively take care of our infrastructure, both hard and soft, both capital and human. In those conversations we should always remember the basic question about public goods—“Who is worthy of investment?” is always a question right there under the surface.
The fear of racial resentment is always there. Among white moderates and conservatives, which is the majority of white people, it is a majority opinion that Black people get too much from the government and don’t work hard enough for themselves. That is ever present. I think that progressives need to understand that, not run away from it, and conduct deep research about how to deal with it.
We, at Demos, housed and launched this project called the “Race-class Narrative,” which was exactly that. We tried to figure out how to deal with the competing frameworks that Americans of all races, though primarily white Americans, have in their minds: a fair, egalitarian, just framework and then the racial competition framework. In the research and competing messages that we tested, we used one message that we called a multiracial economic populism. It was a message that talked about corporate power, the 1 percent, the rigged economy, and all of that, but also talked explicitly about race. Moreover, it said that the people who are trying to rig the economy are using racism and scapegoating and pointing the finger at brown people, Black people, immigrants, and poor families, to weaken and distract us from what we need to do, which is come together and make a better life for everyone. That story was the most resonant. So, we can’t ignore race as an obstacle. But we also have to be smarter and more sophisticated about how we communicate with people about the dynamics. What is happening? Who is selling them these racist ideas? How can we make people less open to buying them?
AF: That’s really important. I wanted to ask whether you thought that that mentality of submerging race in economic and social policy discussions is a thing of the past. Are we moving beyond that? Because in the American Rescue Plan and the American Jobs Plan, and other Biden Administration initiatives, there is quite a bit of attention to racial justice, which there wasn’t in prior administrations. So, have we won? Can you declare victory now that people have to talk about race and economy in the same breath?
HM: I never want to claim victory because the struggle is long, but absolutely. When President Biden gave his first speech on race, in the first week he was in office and signed a series of executive orders around racial equity, he said:
For too long we’ve allowed a narrow-cramped view of the promise of this nation to fester. You know, we’ve—we’ve bought the view that America is a zero-sum game in many cases: ‘If you succeed, I fail.’ ‘If you get ahead, I fall behind.’ ‘If you get the job, I lose mine.’ Maybe worst of all, ‘If I hold you down, I lift myself up.’ We’ve lost sight of what President Kennedy told us when he said, ‘A rising tide lifts all boats.’
And the corollary is true as well. When any one of us is held down, we’re all held back. Then he goes on to paint this picture, saying, just imagine if all the people who were excluded from the American Dream because of structural racism were able to contribute to their fullest potential, imagine how great that would be for everyone. He really is making a positive-sum, solidarity dividend case around race and the economy.
I got into the weeds with the rescue plan and the jobs plan proposal, and it includes so much about structural racism. It includes so many fixes for the issues that we as advocates have identified as the vestiges of structural racism. The transportation plan includes redress for the structural racism created when the highway system razed Black neighborhoods and divided families from jobs. It includes tearing up 100 percent of the lead pipes in this country, which disproportionately impact Black and brown children in an insidious way. The housing plans address former redlining.
Until we design economic policy solutions with the understanding that racism was explicit in their original design, then we won’t have the country that we all seem to think we deserve.
There’s really this sense—and I have to give a lot of credit to the folks at the National Economic Council, the Domestic Policy Council, the White House, and so many leaders on the Hill who were brave enough to include these things in these bills—that these bills basically have something in them for every single American, while also realizing that we are not all standing at the same depth in the bottom of the drained pool. They realize that racism has a cost for everyone, but the cost is always disproportionately borne by people of color. Until we recognize that and design economic policy solutions with the understanding that racism was explicit in their original design, then we won’t have the country that we all seem to think we deserve. There is a sense that we will all prosper if we undo the harms of structural economic racism. I will say that the administration and the new Democratic consensus is there, and it’s really heartening to see.
AF: It does seem promising at this point. Although, as you say, the future is uncertain and these struggles are long ones.
HM: Of course. And it’s not just because President Biden, bless him, has not always been the most awake to structural racism. This is not just the individual edification of leaders. This has also been about the politics shifting. In the Obama era, you began to see this massive racial polarization so that the Democratic Party majority is now an anti-racist white, plus the majorities of various groups of people of color, and progressive on racial issues. What unites the Democratic coalition and animates them to the polls—at least in current politics in the wake of Obama, Trump, George Floyd’s murder, all of this—is this sense of wanting to do better. So the Democratic Party leadership is being very responsive to the base and to the new base, the people who have joined the party in recent years, often because of racial justice. The number one issue that brought people to the polls, coming out of the Edison exit polls for the 2020 election, was racial justice. That was the number one vote getter in the exit polls.
AF: And that’s obviously the result of a lot of hard work, organizing in very different ways—from the electoral organizing of Stacey Abrams and LaTosha Brown, to the Black Lives Matter folks who have really pushed in different directions toward this outcome that we’re seeing now.
Is zero-sum thinking ever accurate? A key example that a lot of people focus on is affirmative action policies in higher ed or business.
I want to ask you now a little bit of a pushback question: Do you think zero-sum thinking is ever accurate? Your metaphor, the swimming pool, is super powerful. I think part of why it works is that we don’t tend to associate scarcity with swimming. So, when they integrated the pools, the problem wasn’t really that less white kids would get to swim because some of the swimming time would then go to Black kids—usually as many people as want to can get into the pool. But in other policy areas, it doesn’t quite feel like that. A key example that a lot of people focus on and fight about is affirmative action policies in higher ed or business, because that does kind of have a zero-sum feel to it. There might be fewer slots going to this group, because we’re making more room for that group.
Would you say that there are policies like affirmative action for which zero-sum thinking is appropriate, but we need to implement anyway for racial justice? Would you say that even in areas like affirmative action, zero-sum racial thinking is incorrect or misguided? Or you might say, well, it’s right, and we shouldn’t focus on areas like affirmative action, we should focus on these positive-sum areas as a political project instead.
HM: I do try to address this question in the book, because I want to know where this zero-sum kind of paranoia comes from. Are there instances where it really is zero-sum? Is it all just an illusion and a lie? We know, economically speaking, that’s not the way it works. But we know that the racial economic divides are costing us trillions of dollars every year. But when you think about selective institutions, you assume that there can only be so many seats, right? For example, what’s the Harvard endowment now?
AF: A lot.
HM: And still there are only so many seats at Harvard, which is a choice that the institution makes. If you assume a fixed pie, I think this is a problem more at selective college than in business, because business wants to grow every year. I’ll come back to the sort of positive-sum diaspora diversity in that.
I don’t think we should be overly concerned, even though we in the elite are overly concerned with selective college admissions. However, they play a very small role in the great warp and woof of activity in the world. The latest numbers that were available to me at the time of writing showed that, in fact, the most likely competition of any white male applying to a selective college is another white male. If you eliminated any kind of affirmative action, it would increase the likelihood of admission for white college applicants from 25 percent to only 26.5 percent. So this is a bit of a myth of over competition.
The assumption is that it is fitting that these be white institutions and that an average white guy is more deserving of this slot than an above average Black, or brown, or Asian woman or man.
We know that at selective colleges, the share of Black and brown students have actually declined over thirty-five years of affirmative action. At Harvard, for example, from 2010 to 2015, the children of alumni, faculty, donors, and athletes made up nearly half of the white students admitted. There is a lot of inflation of the threat of minority encroachment on these white institutions. I think we have to be very clear, the assumption here is that it is fitting and proper that these be white institutions and that an average white guy is more deserving of this slot than even an above average Black, or brown, or Asian woman or man. There’s a sense of the idea that “this is ours.” So any encroaching on it is going to be taking away something that is rightfully ours.
But we’re talking about school. There’s been this shift to thinking about college and law school not as places where people learn and where high quality instruction awakens the potential of any student, but rather as a merit badge that is awarded after a lifetime of good work. These are sixteen-year-olds and seventeen-year-olds. In some ways it feels like, if the school is so great, shouldn’t it be able to educate anybody, including people who have been underserved by less quality instruction in their high school years?
There is an overrepresentation among the wealthy and elite of people who graduate from these schools, so I understand why parents feel that it is extremely important to ensure their child a slot among the winners in life. But it is somewhat wrongheaded.
I have been talking a lot, particularly in the past year, to people in corporations about these issues. In the corporate sector, I think the zero-sum mindset is even less defensible than it is in the elite college sector. For one, there is such a strong case that diversity makes for better group decision-making and leads to higher scores on innovation. It is in the business’s self-interest to not have a monolithic workforce. They’re going to perform worse, according to the cognitive science and the business science, than if they have more diversity in their ranks. It is actually good for the growth of the business to have more diversity. Of course, when the business grows, there are more seats at the table. I spent a long time in policy advocacy trying to convince policy makers and go toe-to-toe with rightwing and centrist advocates who were saying that what we wanted to do—whether it was regulating polluters, standing up for workers’ rights, raising wages, investing in public goods, raising taxes—was going to harm the economy. So we spent all this time jumping through hoops and saying, “No, here is how it will increase GDP. Here’s how the cost is not so high. The benefits are underappreciated and undercalculated, and here they are in numerical fashion.” At some point I realized we weren’t talking about the same thing. We’re not talking about the economy as defined by the sum total of the goods, products, and services of our collective. We’re talking about the economic hierarchy as it currently exists. We’re talking about power. We’re talking about what whiteness has stood for in our society, which is power. So the threats to whiteness and the threats to the economy are not threats to an economy, they’re threats to their economy. That’s why, if we aren’t dealing with these subterranean issues of race and belonging and status, we’re not actually even having the same conversation.
AF: So it presents as an argument about something like GDP, but it’s really about positions within the GDP economy.
AF: One of the puzzles that your book raises for me is that at this moment in history, in 2021, the bottom two-thirds of the economy of white Americans should be extremely receptive to your message. For them, the pool has been drained for a long time. The water level has been decreasing since roughly 1976 or 1980, and now there’s barely any water left. You’re pointing that out and they should be really receptive to this message.
The threats to whiteness and the threats to the economy are not threats to an economy, they’re threats to their economy.
But, at the same time, we know that the majority of white voters, and the large majority of white voters without a college degree, are voting for presidential candidates that do not support this set of policies. If your book came out in 1964, the white American at 50 percent of the income distribution is doing okay relatively speaking, so they could say, “well, there’s still enough pool for me.” But now it’s pretty hard to say that. Why is it that there’s this puzzle at just the moment in which so many white Americans should be saying, “Yeah, this is the right thinking. This is the politics that we ought to have.” Why are they cleaving toward a very different politics?
HM: It is true that this book is trying to explain what happened during the Trump election. That was certainly one of the things that pushed me out of the think tank world and compelled me to hit the road. The Sum of Us tries to explain the core narrative that the right has sold to the majority of white voters about the economy and race. Trump obviously was the master carnival barker of that story. He was the one who said the quiet part out loud. He was the one who was most explicit, most on message, most compelling. That a self-styled, super rich guy was on the side of the average white guy, and was defending that average white guy from threats by brown people, Black people, and immigrants—that was the story. I remember I was driving somewhere on I-10 in the South, and I saw a billboard with a picture of Donald Trump, and it said something like, “They’re coming for you. He’s the only one standing in the way.”
There’s this very strong “us” and “them” mentality, and the positioning of a white, born-into-wealth plutocrat being the one on the side of the working class fits into the current memos floating around in the Republican Party saying, now we’re going to be the party of the working class. That is the zero-sum racial story. It is as old as can be.
I begin the book by talking about where the zero-sum racial hierarchy came from. It was a story developed by wealthy slave owners and settler colonialists who used the narrative that there’s a racial cohesion among white people, despite their different nationalities, class stations, and lived experiences. So there’s a racial cohesion that puts the white elite on the same side as the white masses; on the other side are Black and brown people, even though the white masses and the Black and brown masses are in the same economic position.
This zero-sum idea was minted as a weapon to break class solidarity and forge racial solidarity.
In the face of the cross racial servant uprisings that occurred at the end of the seventeenth century, for example, in colonial Virginia (the most famous of which was Bacon’s Rebellion), you really had this zero-sum idea. This zero-sum idea was minted as a weapon to break class solidarity and forge racial solidarity. That’s what the current politics is. That’s what Trump is doing. It is absurd to say that someone like him, who’s never done a manual day of labor in his life, who was born with a gold spoon in his mouth, is somehow more protective of the working class than is a pro-labor candidate like Joe Biden. But that was his argument, and it was about race. It was about, “I am going to defend your status as a white man from the threats that the Democrats present, because they want equality.” It doesn’t have to do with, “I’m going to raise your wages. I’m going to make sure your kid can go to college debt free. I’m going to extend universal healthcare.” All these things that we are saying are the great things in life. Shouldn’t we all want them? It’s fundamentally a material interest pitch coming up against a sort of status interest pitch. For too many white Americans, the status interest pitch is more compelling.
AF: Even as the material circumstances become more pressing.
HM: Right, even as the economic benefits of that racial bargain get smaller and smaller. It’s been interesting. I’m on social media, and I have my public email address on my website. So it’s pretty easy for people to get to me to share their feelings about my book.
I’ve been so grateful, as it’s been really positive and wonderful. The first readers were definitely kind of the true believers, liberals, progressives, and the antiracist readers. And now that it’s been out for six weeks, I’m starting to get more conservatives. It’s like people have been giving it to their racist uncle. I’d say a third of them are what you’d expect, and think the book’s trash. But about two-thirds of them are really encouraging, talking about how it’s been eye opening and how, like this one guy said, it was so good. Let’s see if I can find it.
More people need to see the truth and humanity of people who are dealing with the same economic issues they are dealing with, but also dealing with structural racism.
He says, “Hello, Ms. McGhee. I’m a ‘conservative,’” he puts that in quotes, “white male that has to complement you on your book. It was hard to start. But I’m glad I did, as you’ve turned many of my truths upside down.” For me, what stood out was, “it was hard to start.” It reminds me of a white woman I talked to from Kansas City named Bridget. She’s of Irish descent and is a lifelong fast food, minimum wage worker. When the fight for fifteen started organizing in Kansas City, her first reaction was, “No way. There’s no way they’re ever going to pay $15 to someone like me.”
It’s that original door closing that I think is our biggest hurdle. But she went, nonetheless, just like this reader. It’s hard to start, but he read it. She went to the first organizing meeting, and a Latina woman stood up and talked about her own life, having three kids in a two-bedroom apartment with bad plumbing and feeling trapped. Bridget told me that she saw herself in that woman. This is a woman, Bridget, who said she believed the anti-immigrant stuff, the racist ideas that her family had been feeding her. It wasn’t until she began to organize alongside brown and Black fast food workers from across Kansas City that she was able to make something, have an experience that was more durable and impactful than the white noise. That was the real experience of organizing, of seeing the truth and humanity of people who were dealing with the economic issues she was dealing with, but also dealing with the structural racism. More of that experience is what our country needs.
AF: One of the great parts of your book is that you have so many stories. You went to so many places and talked with people who are finding their own ways to shift from the zero-sum to the positive-sum mentality.
The most striking story of that part of your book for me was Angela King, the white supremacist, the skinhead. Her transformation was remarkable. After reading a bunch of those stories I think what you’re saying is, you’ve got to change people’s hearts and minds away from this deeply embedded zero-sum mentality to a positive-sum mentality—and people do that by meeting people and working with people on these projects, like the fight for fifteen, or re-enfranchisement, or Angela King’s multiracial organizing and education. Then you have a shot at getting to the solidarity dividend.
The stories are so inspiring, and they’re local, which raises a kind of policy analyst question for me: Can we get to scale on this kind of thing? Or does it happen living room by living room, workplace by workplace? If it’s only living room by living room, workplace by workplace, aren’t we going to be doing that for a long time before we get to the solidarity dividend?
HM: I tell stories—Richmond, California, Lewiston, Maine—very hyperlocal stories of people actually meeting people and joining across racial lines to do something that they simply can’t accomplish on their own. That’s the solidarity dividend, and it leads to higher wages, or cleaner air, or better funded schools, or whatever it is. I would say two things about scale. One, and this is probably the most important, collective bargaining and high levels of union density at the job gives you scale. It is the fact that white people in unions, particularly white men in unions, are much more progressive than white men at Senate meetings. You receive political education from the union that is about values of solidarity (that word solidarity is a kind of labor word). And you also experience how the collective improves your way of life and improves your standard of living—things like the PRO Act, which would be the biggest shot in the arm for collective bargaining that we’ve seen in generations and would counter some of the ways that big businesses resist labor organizing. We’re at a high-water point in recent years for support for labor unions. 77 percent of Americans support the current Amazon unionizing drive.
Labor unions are the biggest silver bullet for bringing cross racial organizing to a national scale.
Because people are getting it. Something has to give. These corporations are massive, hyper profitable, and often shirking their tax obligations. There’s about 7 percent of federal net revenues that are coming from corporations, down from one-third in the ’50s. There’s got to be some pushback to this concentrated wealth. I would say that labor unions are the biggest silver bullet for bringing that kind of cross racial organizing to scale.
Then the other thing is integration. There’s a chapter in my book called “Living Apart,” where I talk about the cost of segregation and the fact that white people are the most segregated in America. There are all of these depressing studies about how white the social networks are, how white the neighborhoods are, and it’s like, “well, of course you believe these lies about the inherent worth and deservingness of Black and brown people. You don’t know any Black or brown people. And if you do, you employ them.” It’s not exactly America, where white Americans are living and choosing to live. Though there’s an interesting study that I include in the book about how white Americans say they want to live in diverse neighborhoods. They want to live in sort of like one-third white, one-third Black, one-third brown. But then they end up living in majority white neighborhoods anyway. Because once they go into the housing market, and they see real Black and brown people, they say, “Oh, well, this neighborhood must be bad.”
We have an incredible opportunity to integrate, because there’s such a need for new housing, to break the grip of the single family exclusionary zoning policies across the country that are so widespread and such a vestige of systemic racism. We need more density, we need more housing, and we need more collective bargaining. All of these are ways to bring people into the collective of who we are as a nation. And then we also have some generational turnover in the leadership of our institutions, because young people today are already living in our multiracial future. There are definitely tons of white racial conservatives among young people, and the right wing has really been organizing young people, particularly young white men, with deadly consequences in many cases—from Kyle Rittenhouse to Dylann Roof. But it’s also true that, in general, the youngest adults and the youngest students are already in a generation with no real racial majority (52 percent of Gen Z is white), and their views on collective solutions are more robust and enthusiastic.
AF: Yeah, I think that the diversity feels like a huge generational shift, although I’m sure that varies with geography for the segregation reasons that you talked about.
Young peoples’ views on collective solutions are more robust and enthusiastic.
I wanted to ask one last question, which is about you: For you, Heather McGhee, right now in 2021, where is it most important to try to push forward on getting the solidarity dividend? Your book is so rich in showing different areas in which we would benefit from the solidarity dividend, from higher ed to housing, from healthcare to climate change. For you, what’s the most important area for us to get the solidarity dividend right now? What should we be working on?
HM: I think the most important solidarity dividend we should be working on is achieving a true multiracial democracy. More good things will flow from that. My book is about the economy, truly, but I do include a chapter on democracy, because the promise of self-governance has always had an asterisk, and that has been this continued historical force through to today in our politics that has wanted to narrow the franchise in order to maintain white supremacy. That’s the cost. Those are the stakes. You see it in what has happened to make our Senate so sclerotic with the Senate rules and hyper filibuster, through to the waves of voter suppression across the country. That’s the solidarity dividend of people coming together to resist those racist structures.
AF: I completely agree. I think right now, and for the next several years, we will be in the most intense struggle over who’s in the democracy and who’s not since the Voting Rights struggles of the 1960s. We see that playing out in states all across the country. It’s very scary, because those questions, which we should take for granted about inclusion, are really very much on the table and subject to fights. But maybe it’s an opportunity to really leapfrog forward in the democracy space in a way that we haven’t been able to.
You can either have white supremacy or you can have democracy, but you can’t have both.
HM: I hope so. We’ve seen that in recent years we’ve had more automatic voter registration, more blue states and cities moving forward with democracy reforms to make the electorate more representative and inclusive. Yet it’s become hyper partisan. I talk in the book about how it’s one of those issues that is targeted at Black voters explicitly, but it also sweeps many other people onto the democratic margins as well. You can either have white supremacy or you can have democracy, but you can’t have both.
AF: Absolutely true. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk today, but all the more for writing such a fantastic and important book that lands at just the right moment. Lots of people should read it and benefit from it, and, most important of all, act on it—either give it to your relatives or see what you can do in your life to change to the positive-sum mindset and reap that solidarity dividend.
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April 28, 2021
39 Min read time