Review of The Sum of Us: What Racism Cost Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee (One World, 2021)
By now, every person not in thrall to some form of white-supremacist ideology is conscious of racism in society and its four-century toll on communities of color. The nonstop police or vigilante slayings of Black people reached a boiling point with the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected communities of color, not only in greater rates of infections and deaths but also economic hardship. Only people of deliberate bad will claim racism is not real.
So racism must be good for white people, right? If “others” suffer, shouldn’t those not treated as inferior reap the benefit?
Well, sometimes. White people tend not to be followed in stores by suspicious clerks; police generally don’t harass them for nitpicky infractions; they are much less likely to be shot during traffic stops or asphyxiated over trivial suspicions. They are not subjected to harmful discrimination on the basis of ancestry.
Nevertheless, one can make an argument that while racism is surely most detrimental to members of minority communities — including the Asian community, whose members were targeted in the recent mass shooting in the Atlanta area — there are voices who argue that the mass of white people don’t really benefit from it. One of them is Heather McGhee, who chairs the board of the racial-justice organization Color of Change and is the former president of the inequality-focused think tank Demos. McGhee, a Black woman, argues in her new book, The Sum of Us, that a “zero-sum” view of race relations is flawed and that people uniting across racial lines for common interests would produce a “Solidarity Dividend” that would benefit the great majority — pretty much everyone except the wealthy elites who profit by playing divide and conquer against everyday Americans.
Arguing to readers of the Washington Socialist that working people of all races should unite to confront corporate power would truly be preaching to the choir. That working Americans — who make up the majority of all Americans — have been kept divided against themselves by racial animosity has been argued time and again. Martin Luther King Jr., in his remarks following the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march, noted that the Southern elite reacted to the populist movement of the late 19th century by promoting a “doctrine of white supremacy” and “made it a crime for Negroes and whites to come together as equals.” In Roots, Alex Haley depicted the one-time plantation overseer “Ol’ George” expressing his desire to cast his lot with the former slaves he once lorded over, seeing his economic interest as coinciding with theirs and more meaningful than any perceived status or privilege he might assert. Alas, this was a most uncommon attitude among whites at that time.
Nevertheless, McGhee puts more meat on the bones of the argument that the scourge of racism has slowed much of the potential for progressive social change, hindered the growth of the public sphere and damaged the quality of the lives of most Americans.
McGhee employs the metaphor of the public swimming pool throughout the book. During the days of legal segregation, public pools were common in communities around the country and were open to whites only. When the law required the pools to welcome everyone, many communities simply shut them down rather than integrate. The wealthy retreated to their private swimming clubs, but those of modest means of all races had nowhere to swim. Racism had drained the pools for everyone.
The Sum of Us explores a wide range of issues in American life where conservative policies have been sold using racial dog whistles to benefit the privileged and make life harsher for most of us: education, health care, the environment, schools, housing, voting rights, union organizing. McGhee does a good job of explaining the racial implications of complex policy issues, such as the mortgage crisis that precipitated the recession of 2008. Black borrowers were the primary targets of the subprime loans pushed by lenders, but the mortgage companies didn’t hesitate to extend their web to lower-income whites as well, with thousands of mortgage holders of all races losing their homes.
McGhee, like other analysts of the history of American racism, points to Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia in the 1670s as a seminal moment, when the colony’s rulers reacted to a multiracial class-based uprising by instituting a hierarchy based on skin color — dividing the lower class against itself. Other long-past observers recognized the corrosive impact of race, such as antebellum author Hinton Rowan Helper, who pointed to the Southern slave economy’s impoverishment of the region even as it enriched the plantation owners. The closed economy of the slave plantation had little need for public services such as schools, roads and libraries — which were a priority for the free North. That legacy continues to plague the region, as nine of the 10 poorest states in the nation were former members of the Confederacy and racial animosity continues to drain the metaphorical pool to this day.
Unspoken racism still serves to undercut public welfare well into the 21st century, McGhee argues. In reaction to the election of Barack Obama, the country’s first Black president, “the Tea Party movement used the language of fiscal responsibility but the cultural organizing of White grievance to force a debt ceiling showdown, mandate cuts to public programs during a fragile recovery, and stall the legislative function of the federal government for the rest of the Obama presidency,” McGhee writes. Millions of race-obsessed whites were more than willing to deprive themselves of health care, better jobs and more satisfying lives to ensure that Blacks and immigrants didn’t get those things either.
McGhee’s account is bolstered by conversations with dozens of Americans of various races and backgrounds. One of the most illuminating is a series of interviews with workers at a Nissan factory in Canton, Mississippi, after a union organizing drive failed — a development echoed by the more recent defeat of the effort to organize Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. She found a clear racial divide among the workers, with Blacks overwhelmingly supporting the union and whites largely in opposition. At Canton, whites tended to be favored by an informal system in which they were more likely to be promoted and assigned easier tasks than Blacks; they were “more satisfied by a taste of status than they were hungry for a real pension, better healthcare, or better wages for everyone.” Many white workers told McGhee that Blacks wanted a union because they were “lazy.” But then “why were they doing all the hardest, most relentless and dangerous jobs, the ones that also happened to be the lowest-paying?” she asks rhetorically.
McGhee leavens such disheartening stories with near-miracles of triumphant cross-racial organizing. One of the most unlikely was the drive for a $15 hourly wage, a campaign that began among non-unionized fast-food workers in New York City and quickly became a nationwide movement. Against the odds, the “Fight for 15” achieved success in cities across the country and is still being waged in numerous others. The speeches and demands of the movement’s leaders showed that they recognized that “overcoming racism was crucial to their class-based goal.”
McGhee offers more stories of people reaching across the racial divide to improve public schools, protect their environments and defend the right to vote. With the United States facing a nationwide campaign by the Republican Party to suppress voting, white voters who think this won’t affect them would do well to heed the results of North Carolina’s voting restrictions, which, a voting activist tells McGhee, “didn’t only aim at African Americans. It also aimed in particular at young people” who were “raising questions about the inequities in the way that capitalism is operating.” The suppression measures in the Tar Heel State included eliminating automatic voter registration of high school students and moving polling sites away from college campuses.
Are white people being irrational by clinging to a hollow race status that robs their pocketbooks? McGhee is one of a number of authors — another is Isabel Wilkerson, author of the recent Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents — who argue that status is not an illusion but something of tangible value, especially to the economically and socially insecure. Since before the Civil War, “Anti-Blackness gave citizenship its weight and its worth,” McGhee writes. Policies that improved the standing of Blacks have threatened working-class whites’ rank on the social ladder, something they regarded as worth preserving even at the cost of financial pain. This makes it ever harder to convince more whites that skin privilege is largely an illusion.
While many of the effects of zero-sum thinking that McGhee highlights affect lives and communities in a tangible way, others are more abstract and psychological. One can argue, as does Rabbi Felicia Sol, that “racism actually has a dehumanizing aspect … for those who perpetuate it,” and most of us agree that students who attend all-white or nearly all-white private schools are less well-equipped to function in a diverse world. But is that a net disadvantage when most of those children graduate into a society that still rewards white-skin privilege?
McGhee argues that the road to a true Solidarity Dividend requires turning a spotlight on the deleterious effects of racism rather than pleading for a “color-blind society.” In Lyndon Johnson’s well-known formulation (not cited by McGhee) about a runner shackled at the beginning of a race, we can’t just declare Blacks “equal” and all problems resolved — we need to remedy past wrongs, to move the runners ahead to where they would have been without shackles. A nationwide Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation project of the type launched in a number of communities around the country could be a model for getting there, McGhee argues. There already is a proposal on the table: a bill in Congress, H.R. 40, to establish a commission to study the effects of racism in America and propose remedies. The bill, the brainchild of former Congressman John Conyers (D-Mich.), was first proposed in 1989 but never received a vote until the House Judiciary Committee moved it ahead this April.
There are three approaches to racism in America. The first is to pretend it doesn’t exist any longer. The second is to believe that the races will forever be in conflict with each other and that the tribes must stick with their own kind to fight for power and resources. The third is to work toward a cross-racial solidarity of the kind McGhee advocates. Is there really any choice?