How American Racism Has a Cost for Everyone

Heather McGhee is an expert in economic and social policy. The former president of the inequality-focused think tank Demos, McGhee has drafted legislation, testified before Congress and contributed regularly to news shows including NBC's Meet the Press. She now chairs the board of Color of Change, the nation's largest online racial justice organization.

How American Racism Has a Cost for Everyone

An interview with author, policy expert, and progressive leader Heather McGhee.

Welcome to Moyers on Democracy.

Heather McGhee is descended from slaves in the American South. Her great- grandparents and grandparents came north to work in the steel mills. She grew up on the south side of Chicago, taught in Spain and studied writing in Hollywood, then decided to change the world, or at least try. At 22, working for the non-profit organization Demos in New York, she plunged into the fight for debt reform, then tackled Wall Street corruption and consumer protection, and wound up president of Demos, leading its campaign against political and economic inequality. Her forthcoming book - THE SUM OF US - dedicated to her mother, Dr. Gail Christopher -- couldn't be more timely. Hopefully it will wind up on Joe Biden's bedside reading table as he prepares to cope with a raging pandemic, an economic crisis, our overwhelmed health system, and an imperiled work force. There's plenty of food for thought - and quite a heap of hope - in Heather McGhee's informed account of how we can prosper together if only we cross the racial divide. Here at Moyers on Democracy we hope THE SUM OF US winds up on your reading table, too. Here to talk with Heather McGhee is Bill Moyers.

BILL MOYERS: Welcome, Heather. Very good to see you again. If President-elect Joe Biden asked me for one book to read between now and the inauguration, I would recommend your book THE SUM OF US. And I would urge him to require every new member of the White House staff, member of the Cabinet, and incoming director of an agency or department to read it as well.


BILL MOYERS: You set out to actually do an accounting of the hidden cost of racism.

What's the core message you would hope they would take from it as they put together an administration trying to do what Biden keeps saying is his aspiration, to unify the country?

HEATHER MCGHEE: The message of the book THE SUM OF US is quite simple. It's that racism has a cost for everyone. And its primary function in our society has been to grease the wheels for a machine of greed that has impoverished almost everyone. Now more than ever today, racial division as a tool wielded by those who are the most wealthy, the most powerful, and the most self-interested, is something that breaks down potential coalitions between people who have common struggle. It makes us demonize one another when, in fact, we should be linking arms to improve all of our lives. And it impoverishes everything that we share in common, from our air, to our infrastructure, to our systems of education and our democracy itself. Racism has a cost for everyone and ultimately, when we can create cross-racial solidarity, we can all benefit.

Listen to the interview:

BILL MOYERS: Did you really learn anything new that intuitively you didn't bring to this task with you?

HEATHER MCGHEE: Yes, I was born on the South Side of Chicago and I grew up in the beginning of the Inequality Era, when the good manufacturing jobs were going away, when, you know, the divide between the wealthy and everybody else was widening. And I also grew up in a political era when there was so much scapegoating of Black and brown people, particularly Black people, single mothers, like my own single mother. And I knew that that dominant political narrative was wrong and that it was sort of being used to distract and divide us. That said, I also came of age in my career in the progressive economic orthodoxy that was, at the time, pretty colorblind. It was mostly focused on the rules of taxation, labor policy, spending and investment. All of these issues that have, of course, racially disparate impacts and racial disparities to them. But they weren't seen as racial issues. They were seen as economic issues. And so, the thing I learned as a young policy wonk was there's economic inequality and racism makes that inequality worse for people of color. And I had a few experiences as I was sort of growing up in my career that sort of tried to turn the light on for me. And point me in this direction of what I would eventually do, which is flip that formulation. Not that there's inequality, and racism makes it worse for people of color, but rather racism, structural racism, political and strategic racism makes inequality happen for everyone. It is the driver of inequality.

BILL MOYERS: You had the sense, that many white Americans believe there's an "us" and a "them." And what's good for them is bad for us. They want our jobs. They want our schools. They want our neighborhoods. There became something fearful in the response that reflected an unwillingness to see beyond the gap to what you were talking about. The white working class. And the Black working class, they were all in the same boat. They just didn't row together.

HEATHER MCGHEE: That's exactly right. It is that zero-sum paradigm that I think is at the heart of our dysfunction as a society. The idea that, although we are, of course, one people and in many ways, our fortunes rise and fall together, and it's particularly predominant among white Americans, this view that there's a zero-sum racial competition.

BILL MOYERS: Zero-sum, meaning?

HEATHER MCGHEE: Meaning what I have comes at your expense. Meaning if you add up what I have and you've taken away, it's just a zero. There is no mutual benefit or interest. It is one for one, eye for eye. That paradigm, particularly at a time of rapid demographic change, when there is a narrative that white America is losing out, will not be the majority, and if they're not the numerical majority, they will not be the power majority. And they will be treated, potentially, as minorities have been treated under a white dominant society. It's very deep. So, I went to discover where it came from. And I had to sort of unlearn a lot of bad history that I had learned growing up as an American child. And really identify how that zero-sum racial paradigm was sort of the lie at the root of our founding. And it was used by the plantation class and the colonial class in order to justify chattel slavery and near genocide of Indigenous peoples and sell that brutal economy to the majority of white people who were landless white people. And it's become a sort of core weapon for people who want to concentrate wealth, who want to aggregate power. I mean, obviously, in the Trump era, it's more naked and vivid than it's ever been. The constant scapegoating and the punching down, while, of course, the only thing that the regime delivers is tax cuts for itself and unemployment for millions more.

BILL MOYERS: Give me a thumbnail sketch of what was in your mind as you saw the opposite of what our society could be.

HEATHER MCGHEE: I ended up including, in the end, a chapter about the moral costs of racism, the personal costs. I came at it from an economic policy standpoint. I do this work, this policy work, out of a faith in the unseen. Because it is unseen. A multiracial democracy with a robust safety net and social contract that doesn't have an asterisk by it. That doesn't limit it to the people of the ruling class and to whites only. You know, it's really important to rewrite what I understood as the core economic narrative on the left, which was that there was a New Deal era- started in the '30s and in the '40s and '50s. This era of shared prosperity where we built the great American middle class. It's very clear that each and every one of those investments, each and every one of those contracts for high union density, high wages, subsidization of education and housing, all of that had an asterisk and was done in a racially restrictive way by our government. And it was when in the 1960s we fought and struggled to remove that asterisk that that social contract frayed and we began to move into the Inequality Era. The central story at the heart of my book, Bill, is the story that was replicated in countless towns across the country, where public swimming pools that had been financed by tax dollars- we used to have over 2,000 in this country, these sort of grand resort pools that were the heart of communities. They were ways in which the government was sort of committing to a high, almost bourgeois quality of life for working and middle class people. It was bringing together, you know, white folks of different European ancestry and immigrants and having them sort of all meet in this social commons of recreation. They were often segregated and whites only. And when in the 1950s the country began to require, often through the courts, that these pools were integrated, so many towns across the country, and not just in the South, decided to drain their public swimming pools rather than integrate them.

BILL MOYERS: That happened, I regret to tell you, in my hometown. Why didn't the Civil Rights Act of '64, the Voting Rights Act of '65 and other changes in that early half of the '60s, bring about this more equal society with adequately funded schools and reliable infrastructure, with wages that keep families out of poverty and a public health system that can handle all comers, including pandemics?

HEATHER MCGHEE: I open the book by positing it in the form of, "Why can't we just have nice things," right?


HEATHER MCGHEE: You know, the answer is racism. And not just sort of individual, ugly, violent racism. Not biological racism. The belief system that every Black is sort of inherently inferior to white people. After the Civil Rights Movement, a few phenomena happened to drain the pool of our society altogether. One, the will among white Americans to have basically a robust commons, to have a public pool at all, began to just plummet. I looked back at some public opinion polling about the idea that we should have high wages that keep people out of poverty, a guaranteed income, and a job for anyone in America who wants one. Up until the mid-1960s, the majority of white people agreed with that idea. They wanted a robust, active government that guaranteed a high quality of life. And it was in the middle of the 1960s, in fact, when that demand began to be echoed prominently by the Black civil rights movement who marched on Washington for jobs and freedom, had a list of demands that included a jobs guarantee and a high minimum wage, that that support by white people almost vanished. And you began to see the white majority move towards a conservative economic vision that basically, you know, picked up their toys and went home. In the pool metaphor, communities ended up having private swimming clubs that you had to pay $50 for. They ended up having backyard pools. You had to be rich enough to have that. We lost out on the idea of a guarantee of a decent quality of life for everyone. And it really was about the shift among white Americans from the New Deal consensus because the people that they had been taught for generations were inferior and dangerous, were suddenly allowed to swim in the same pool. And that seemed like a betrayal. It made all things public seem dirty and a place they didn't want to be. Including the major vehicles of collective action in this country: labor unions and the government. And you began to see white people turn away from those institutions once they were more integrated. And what we had in response was the Inequality Era where there was no counter-veiling power to corporate power and the concentration of wealth. And the bottom 90% of the country's income distribution has sputtered and stalled because of it.

BILL MOYERS: Martin Luther King used to say that the most segregated hour in America is Sunday morning at 11:00. That, of course, stood out in 1954 when the Supreme Court decided in Brown versus Board of Education that schools had to be integrated. Jerry Falwell, who was a prominent pastor of a large church in Virginia and ultimately the founder of the Moral Majority immediately declared that he was going to start a private religious school. And it turned out that only whites showed up there. That was replicated across the country.

HEATHER MCGHEE: That's right. Can't imagine why. To be honest, Bill, I think that the period of time when I grew up in the 1980s and '90s, we had a different dominant racial story. And that racial story was colorblindness, right? It was this idea that, to be a good person, you were supposed to not see color. You were supposed to not treat anyone differently because of their color. That sounds great. True aspiration of the civil rights movement. But what ended up happening is it meant not that you didn't see race, but that you didn't see racism. People weren't educated with the language to talk about the still manifest differences that were actually getting worse and worse. Black and brown Americans were finally given a glimpse of the American dream in the mid-1960s, where the formal barriers began to come down. The racial covenants, the redlining, the job discrimination, the barriers on joining labor unions. All of that began to finally come down. The education desegregation- just when that American dream became harder to reach for everyone because we began to have a totally different ethos in Washington, changing the rules to make it harder for labor unions to win contract. Stop increasing the minimum wage. Deregulating the financial industry to make housing less affordable and more predatory. All of these moves that we know as the things that brought about inequality, that's the economy in which Black and brown people were finally able to enter. And so, you began to see all of these disparities that actually got worse after the civil rights movement in the 1970s. The racial wealth gap, the income gap began to accelerate. And, because there was no language around racism's enduring impact, the dominant white narrative was just, "There's something wrong with their culture. They're not trying hard enough." You know, "My ancestors came here from Italy and Poland and they were able to go from being penniless to owning a house in one generation. Why can't Black people too?" All of those things we now know as "racial resentment." Basically, blaming people of color for racial disparities. That is really the fuel to the fire of the right wing's political dominance. Social scientists see it as a predictor for more conservative attitudes around the economy, the desire not to regulate greenhouse gases on climate change- all of these issues that are so vital to the question of whether our society can survive and thrive, racial resentment is holding the white majority back from joining in common cause with people of color.

BILL MOYERS: Is that when you began hearing, "Why can't we have nice things?"

HEATHER MCGHEE: That's right.

BILL MOYERS: And the "we" was?

I think we really do have a secular religion in America, this idea that the powerful have to ask us for their permission to rule, right? The founders left holes in the bedrock of that revolutionary idea in order to make room for slavery and racial subjugation.

HEATHER MCGHEE: The "we" is all Americans. It's people of color, right, who sort of disproportionately don't have nice things. But it's also everybody who struggles as we watch our government fail to reliably improve the quality of life for most Americans. To rebuild our bridges and dams. To fund our public schools. To provide college on a free and affordable basis, the way public college was for much of the 20th century. To respond to this existential threat of climate change and to handle these pandemics. I was able to devote one chapter to sort of each of those big problems and find the ways in which racism is sort of the uncredited actor in the tragedy. But what's great, Bill, is that because this was a real journey across the country -- I went from Maine, to Mississippi, to California and back again -- I also got to know people who had overcome those racial divides. Who had rejected the story, whether it's through Fox News or the Republican party message machine or the conservative takeover of social media. I met dozens of white people who looked across at their Black and brown neighbors and said, "You have the same struggle that I have. And in fact, it's only by linking arms that we can actually overcome these barriers." And I began to call it the solidarity dividend. This idea that there's something that we can unlock to the benefit of us all that we cannot get to if we remain divided. I talked to workers who were organizing. I talked to neighbors who were organizing to take on the big polluters in their neighborhoods. I talked to parents who were fighting for integrated schools, people who were fighting to change the rules of our democracy so that everyone can vote. And I kept seeing these real quantifiable solidarity dividends that this country's hurtling towards a future in which we have no racial majority. And we have two paths. We can decide that means that we are going to be in a dog eat dog competition for dominance. Or we can decide that the proximity of so much difference will reveal our common humanity. And when I saw people who had lived their lives and experienced real cross-racial solidarity and won because of it- they were transformed. They were true Americans. They were the kind of people that I think our country could be full of if we can finally reject this old and false idea that it's a zero-sum competition. That there isn't enough for all of us. That progress for one racial group has to come at the expense of the other.

BILL MOYERS: We've invested the word "democracy," with so much sacred aura. But we never really have had a real democracy.

HEATHER MCGHEE: No, that's right. I started my career really trying to answer these big economic questions. But I ended up really discovering that the rules of our democracy are as unequal as our economic rules. There's a chapter in the middle of the book called "Never a Real Democracy." If you go back to the beginning, this sacred democracy- I think we really do have a secular religion in America, this idea that the powerful have to ask us for their permission to rule, right? The founders left holes in the bedrock of that revolutionary idea in order to make room for slavery and racial subjugation. And time and time again, with every generation, there has been a concerted effort to keep chipping away, to keep democracy, which in this country, would be a multiracial democracy, from taking root.

BILL MOYERS: At age 22, you went to work for a research and advocacy group, a nonprofit outfit that produces statistical research, white papers, Congressional testimony, legislative drafts, public campaigns, media outreach. And your specialty was economic policy. What made you think that you could help the people and issues you're talking about with a spreadsheet?

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