An oft-heard response to calls for addressing the impacts of inequality is that slavery and racial segregation have ended, things have reverted to some benign mean, so “now we must all stop asking for special dispensation.”*
In her vital and hopeful book The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, Heather McGhee begins by addressing the argument that whites today have not benefited from historical inequalities. She shows how many programs meant to build a strong middle class were actually designed to build a strong white middle class.
- The Homestead Act of 1862 was a free grant of 160 acres of land, where some 1.6 million landowners gained deeds. Only six thousand Black families were able to participate. Today an estimated 46 million people — the overwhelming majority white — are propertied descendants of Homestead Act beneficiaries.
- During the Great Depression, the government insured mortgages on real estate and offered tax deductions on interest, creating a new class of homeowners. But the government drew red “do not lend” lines around virtually all Black neighborhoods, excluding them from this benefit.
- The New Deal brought minimum wage and overtime laws that transformed the lives of workers. Compromises with southern Democrats excluded the job categories held by most Blacks.
- The GI Bill paid the college tuition of hundreds of thousands of WWII veterans — including my father — “catapulting a generation of men into professional careers.” But local administrators funneled Black servicemen to segregated vocational schools, when they could get the benefits at all.
- From the creation of white suburbs through the use of highway construction dollars and subsidized housing to Social Security benefits that excluded job categories where most of the workers were Black, many government policies “worked to ensure a large, secure, and white middle class.”
“The advantages white people had accumulated were free and usually invisible and so conferred an elevated status that seemed natural and almost innate. White society had repeatedly denied people of color economic benefits on the premise that they were inferior; those unequal benefits then reified the hierarchy, making whites actually economically superior.”
This is where McGhee’s groundbreaking work makes its key point. These programs had worked. Spectacularly well in many cases. But when faced with sharing those benefits and the same treatment from the government with people of color, white Americans — to use an old adage — decided to cut off their nose to spite their face.
McGhee has a better metaphor: they drained the swimming pool.
As one telling example, white communities decided to drain their beautiful public swimming pools in the 1950s and 1960s rather than share them with Black people. More than a thousand public pools were closed due to racial hatred, and “millions of white Americans who once swam in public for free began to pay rather than swim for free with Black people.” In the 1990s, my children learned to swim in a private neighborhood pool. Now integrated for those who can afford the fee, it nonetheless was part of this historic shift.
By advancing a zero-sum economic model — where if you win, then I lose — those with power and wealth have hollowed out public goods and denigrated government programs that were once supported by wide majorities of Americans. McGhee explains how that campaign has hurt us all. Let’s be clear: people of color have suffered disproportionately from racism. But there is also a financial cost — as well as what writer Wendell Berry calls a deep, hidden moral cost — of racism to white Americans.
McGhee is hopeful as she suggests we have “reached the productive and moral limit of the zero-sum economic model.” She appeals to concrete self-interest in order to show how our fortunes are tied up with the fortunes of others. “We suffer because our society was raised deficient in social solidarity,” she writes. In example-after-example she points toward the benefits to whites and people of color from a Solidarity Dividend that helps us refill the pool of public goods for everyone.
“(W)e’ve got to get on the same page before we can turn it. We’ve tried a do-it-yourself approach to writing the racial narrative about America, but the forces selling denial, ignorance, and projection have succeeded in robbing us of our own shared history — both the pain and the resilience. It’s time to tell the truth, with a nationwide process that enrolls all of us in setting the facts straight so that we can move forward with a new story, together.”
This is a remarkable book written with striking clarity and deep kindness. It is worth your while as a key piece in understanding the puzzle of our current moment and our potential pathway forward.
More to come…
*From Nestine Malik’s book We Need New Stories.