“The Sum of Us”: Heather McGhee on How Racism Undercuts the American Dream for Everyone

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Amid a national reckoning with structural racism and the dangers of white supremacy, author Heather McGhee’s new book details how racism in the United States hurts not just people of color but also white people. In “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together,” McGhee details how zero-sum thinking has worsened inequality and robbed people of all stripes of the public goods and support they need to thrive. We speak with McGhee about the cost of racism, Republican voter suppression efforts and what people can accomplish when they come together in solidarity across racial lines. “Fundamentally, racism has been the most powerful tool wielded against the best of America — against American democracy, against cross-racial solidarity, against the American dream itself,” says McGhee.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris head to Atlanta today, where they plan to address Tuesday’s mass shootings at three spas that killed eight people, including seven women, six of whom were of Asian descent.

The trip to Atlanta was originally scheduled as part of Biden’s campaign promoting the nearly $2 trillion American Rescue Plan. Democrats hail the deal as the largest anti-poverty law in a generation. One study projects it will lift almost 14 million Americans out of poverty, including 5.7 million children. While the relief plan has broad public support, not a single Republican supported the legislation.

We spend the rest of the hour with Heather McGhee, author of the new book The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. Heather is the board chair of Color of Change and former president of the think tank Demos.

Thanks so much for joining us, Heather. Congratulations on your new book!

HEATHER McGHEE: Thank you. Congratulations on 25 years!

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you so much. The whole team at Democracy Now! is celebrating. Hopefully soon, we can celebrate together.

HEATHER McGHEE: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you just sat there and watched, once again, the Reverend Warnock. You tweeted while he was speaking, and said everyone should do themselves a favor and watch this speech. Can you talk about the significance of what happened in Georgia for this whole country, Reverend Warnock the first Black Democrat to be elected from the former Confederacy?

HEATHER McGHEE: Yeah, it was so moving. I mean, I really think of the crucible of the 24 hours between January 5th and January 6th as American promise and American peril in a nutshell. First we saw a multiracial coalition, a multiracial antiracist coalition, that was standing up to four years of division, pain and suffering, and putting the man who is the successor to Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, marching through the pews of that storied church, and putting him in office, along with Jon Ossoff. That was an historic moment.

So many of the political class had counted Georgia out. And yet, a coalition, that went from Black folks, who had been organizing for years with Stacey Abrams and LaTosha Brown, to white women in the suburbs, who turned away from the Republican Party for the first time in generations, young people, really overcoming a number of barriers to the ballot in the middle of a pandemic, did the impossible, with the promise of relief from this pandemic, itself a disease that has wreaked havoc disproportionately on people of color but that has shown that our fates are inextricably linked.

And then, not 24 hours later, the dark spirit of American white supremacy, fueled by a big lie, that has, as its core logic, racism, the idea, the common sense, that of course a man who was rejected by the majority of people of color could not possibly have lost the presidency, that, of course, when people of color vote, it is somehow suspect and criminal. This is the tension.

And I explore this tension in my book because, fundamentally, racism has been the most powerful tool wielded against the best of America — against American democracy, against cross-racial solidarity, against the American dream itself. I talk about how it’s brought us the Inequality Era. And figures like Reverend Warnock, who put into perspective, who in their own lives have so much of the course of American history on display, are whom we need to look to right now to remind us that that tool always robs this country of its best promise.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned Stacey Abrams. Georgia’s state Senate recently approved a bill that would end the right of voters to cast absentee ballots without excuse, while toughening voter ID requirements. Georgia voting rights activist, the former gubernatorial candidate, Stacey Abrams, blasted the legislation on CNN.

STACEY ABRAMS: I do absolutely agree that it’s racist. It is a redux of Jim Crow in a suit and tie. We know that the only thing that precipitated these changes, it’s not that there was a question of security. In fact, the secretary of state and the governor went to great pains to assure America that Georgia’s elections were secure. And so, the only connection that we can find is that more people of color voted, and it changed the outcome of elections in a direction that Republicans do not like.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Stacey Abrams. And, of course, it’s not just Georgia; it’s all over the country, over 250 bills now introduced in legislatures around the country, as you’ve said. I mean, the idea of the Republicans, what? If you can’t beat them, enjoin them? Like, just legally stop them from voting.

HEATHER McGHEE: Yeah. Well, I mean, let’s be very clear that this is the question that has bedeviled this nation since its founding: Are we going to be a democracy, or are we going to be a white supremacist state?

You know, our Founders had a revolutionary idea to break with the European tradition of monarchy and bet on the radical idea of self-governance. And yet they compromised their own ideals from the start, to compromise with slavery. They drilled holes into the bedrock of American democracy at the beginning, with compromises such as the Electoral College to ensure a voice for slave states, the three-fifths compromise, and then, of course, allowing the 1st Congress to delineate citizenship only to free white citizens, free white persons. And so, we’ve seen, time and time again, all of these tactics are from a very old playbook. They’re from a playbook that is deployed by a narrow white elite.

And the thing that I try to outline in my book — I have a whole chapter on the way that democracy has always been subverted by racism, deployed by a narrow white elite — is that the costs of these kinds of voter suppression tactics, both in the Jim Crow era and today, of course, hit their target, right? Of course they disproportionately and first and worst impact Black Americans and Brown and Indigenous Americans, whom they’re targeting. But they also impact young people, of all races. They make it harder for white people to vote, as well. This is why, you know, when Demos took a case to the Supreme Court against the purges of the voter rolls for people who had just not voted in two elections in a row, our lead witness was Larry Harmon, a white, middle-aged Ohioan Navy veteran. This is what happens. People get caught in a trap not set for them.

During the Jim Crow era, the Southern states suffered a slow death of civic life. It was because of things like the poll tax and the grandfather clause and the restrictions by force on the right to vote. It meant that working-class white people didn’t vote, either. And it meant that there was one-party rule by a white segregationist elite that didn’t even have to compete for votes, and so it didn’t invest in the South. It left the South lagging behind on core public investments, because when you don’t have a functioning democracy, you don’t have public goods. You don’t have a thriving economy. That’s the Republicans’ vision. They want a plantation democracy and a plantation economy. But we’re not going to let them have that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about the central image of your new book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. Let’s talk about that swimming pool, a drained swimming pool, Heather.

HEATHER McGHEE: So, my book is about the way that after 20 years of trying to do what I thought was very sensible, which was bring economic data to policymakers to get them to make better economic policy decisions, I left the think tank world and went on a journey across the country.

And one of the first trips that I made was to Montgomery, Alabama, where there is a central park called Oak Park. And it used to be, really, the beating heart of the city. And in the middle of Oak Park, there used to be one of what was, at one point, nearly 2,000 grand resort-style public swimming pools. And these weren’t just any kind of swimming pools. These were pools that held over a thousand swimmers at a time. And they were built in a building boom of public amenities in the 1930s and '40s in the New Deal era, Amy, where we saw a government ethos that said it is the government's job to lift the standard of living of our people, to provide protections for workers, to invest in a heretofore completely unthought-of idea, which is that working-class people would be able to own a home with no down payment and stretching it out over 30 years, through to the GI Bill, which was a massive investment in economic security and created a white middle class. And I say a white middle class, because virtually all of those public investments and protections that I just described were for whites only, either by design, such as with the mortgage market and the redlined housing maps, to the GI Bill, which was race-neutral on its face but excluded millions of Black GIs.

The swimming pools across the country, in so many places, not just in the South, were also segregated and for whites only. And when the civil rights movement empowered Black families to say, “Hey, those are our tax dollars. We want our kids to swim, too,” what did white-controlled towns do? Instead of integrating them, all across the country, but definitely in Oak Park in Montgomery, Alabama, where I visited, they drained the public pool rather than integrate them. They took out the water, poured in dirt, seeded it over with grass. In Montgomery, they kept the entire Parks and Recreation Department closed for a decade to avoid integration.

I went, as I said, to Oak Park, and I walked the grounds. Even after they reopened the park, they never rebuilt the pool. And for me, that was a perfect image of what’s happened to the American economy, as the majority of white voters turned their backs on the party of the New Deal, the party that had really guaranteed middle-class security for white America, when that promise was extended across the color line during the civil rights movement. And Lyndon Johnson then became the last Democrat to win the majority of white voters, even until today.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Bessemer, Alabama. And this is an issue that is very dear to your heart. You went there. Amazon workers continuing to vote on whether to become the first unionized Amazon warehouse in the country. They’re demanding stronger COVID safety measures and relief from impossibly high productivity standards that leave many unable to take even bathroom breaks. Upwards of 80% of the Bessemer workers are Black. The majority are women. Last month, we spoke to Jennifer Bates, a worker and organizer at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer. She just testified also before Congress. This was what she said on our show.

JENNIFER BATES: Well, the reason why we’re organizing is because we need an even playing field. Some of the conditions that are in there are: being ignored by human resources, long work hours with only two breaks. … So, we want to be heard. We want to be treated like people and not ignored when we have issues. People are getting fired without having their opportunity to speak their side.

AMY GOODMAN: That is Amazon organizer Jennifer Bates, speaking to us from Bessemer, from the union hall. Can you tell us, Heather McGhee, about the significance of this battle? If they win, they will be the first warehouse to be unionized. Amazon is pouring millions into fighting them, even trying to change the traffic light outside the warehouse, because when people stop, organizers would go over and talk to them in their cars. But can you talk about this and other places you visited, that didn’t win in their strike — in their unionizing attempts?

HEATHER McGHEE: In The Sum of Us, I basically ask the question at the outset: Why is it we can’t seem to have nice things in America? And by “nice things,” I don’t mean self-driving cars or laundry that does itself. I mean things like wages that keep workers out of poverty, universal healthcare, child care, reliable infrastructure. And for me, the right to bargain, which is a human right, is one of those nice things that we can’t seem to have in America anymore. And at its core, racism is the answer why. It’s been the tool that bosses have used throughout our history to drive a wedge between Black and white workers, to give white workers a sense that they are a little bit superior to the Black workers on the line, and therefore don’t need to link arms together and collectively bargain for better wages and benefits and power for everyone.

I went to Mississippi, to Canton, Mississippi, in the wake of the failed UAW union organizing drive at a Nissan plant in 2017. And there I talked to workers, Black, white, for and against the union, who told me, so clearly, that the reason why the union vote failed was that race had been the tool to drive workers apart, that white workers’ mentality was, “If the Blacks are for it, I am against it,” that in the South, in general, which is the region of the country with the lowest labor standards — and it’s no surprise. When you start a labor market in the South at exactly zero dollars in pay and a lash, then of course you are going to have just $7.25 an hour two centuries later. Of course you are going to have — or one century later, excuse me, after emancipation. Of course you are going to have this sort of plantation economy, this Jim Crow economy.

But what I’ve seen, when talking to workers in the South, is they know that as the South goes, so goes the rest of the economy. The drive to low-wage work, born really in the modern era in Arkansas with Walmart, is now why there are so many factories and warehouses in the South, where there’s right-to-work-for-less laws, where there’s this anti-union organizing and ethos by the political elite.

And yet, in Bessemer, this is the crucible moment. This is the moment when we’re going to see whether or not what is quickly becoming the dominant player in markets, in labor markets and in consumer retail markets, has to answer to the power of its workers, has to share power with its people — even, yes, when those people are the people of the absolute bottom of the social and economic hierarchy, low-paid Black women workers. I think the answer is going to be yes. And I think that it’s going to reverberate across the economy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Heather McGhee, this is a remarkable week, where you have the passage of the American Rescue Plan in the last week, that is the close to $2 trillion relief package, that no Republican voted for but already are touting it when they write fundraising letters and talk to their community about what they’re bringing their communities. But talk about both the issue of how many children will be brought out of poverty in this country, but also the stripping of an issue that you have spent years fighting for, and that’s the Fight for 15, the fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

HEATHER McGHEE: In The Sum of Us, I visit with workers who are fighting for $15, who are fast-food workers making a little over $7 an hour, Black and white, who were really at the vanguard of the movement in Kansas City, a Black worker named Terrence and a white worker named Bridget. And the vision that they spelled out to me, of Black, white and Brown coming together to defeat the racism inherent in poverty wages, the racism inherent in not having a strong union and collective bargaining that puts people on an even playing field and amplifies everybody’s voice, was what they needed to fight. Bridget told me, she said, “Listen, I used to believe the us versus them about the immigrants stealing jobs and Black people committing crimes, but,” she said, “now I know, as long as we’re divided, we’re conquered.” And I tell that story about Bridget and Terrence and the way that racism was used as a wedge to divide workers from their common problems to — common solutions, excuse me, to their common problems, because that is what is on display right now, that great tension.

We had the American Rescue Plan, which is the biggest refilling of the public pool, the pool of public goods, for the American people in my 40 years on this planet. It is a massive repudiation of the bipartisan austerity agenda that we have been left with in the wake of the civil rights movement, that has degraded and eroded public goods, mostly because of white opposition to public goods for a public they no longer see as good, a more diverse public. You saw that Republicans knew that they could cavalierly vote against something that would help millions of white Americans, as well as Black and Brown Americans, because their messaging, at the national level and in the right-wing media, is that this is about Black and Brown people. A Republican congresswoman said, “I’m voting against this bill because Joe Biden is opening the border instead of opening schools. How is that helping our children?” We saw immediately Fox News pivot towards the one provision that was for Black farmers, who were left out of the trillions of dollars in aid that has been given over the past number of generations exclusively to white farmers, including the billions of dollars, most recently, in the Trump administration, where Black farmers were discriminated out of their fair share. This is the divide and conquer. This is trying to activate the zero sum. And the fact that we were not able to get — 

AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds.

HEATHER McGHEE: — we were not able to get the minimum wage bill in there is really about the failure of a multiracial coalition to have the kind of enduring power that we need to lift the wages for all working people.

AMY GOODMAN: Heather McGhee, we want to thank you for being with us. We’re going to post Part 2 online at democracynow.org, author of the new book The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. Heather McGhee, the board chair of Color of Change, and former president of the think tank Demos.

Happy Birthday to Tami Woronoff! Remember, wearing a mask is an act of love. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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