The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2021

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SEPT 2021 Issue

Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us

Can we handle the truth?

Heather McGhee
The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together
(One World , 2021)

Unbeknownst to me, I have been teaching what passes for “critical race theory” (the real thing is a theory of legal scholarship developed by Derrick Bell, Randall Kennedy, and others in the 1980s) to my 11th grade American history students for the past 20 years. I’ve just been calling it history. After all, history is the discipline whereby we search for explanations or narratives that fit evidence of incidents in our past, in an effort to understand where we came from, why things are the way they are, and with any luck, what we would need to do to improve our future lot. Examination of documentary evidence from the American past provides a great deal of unsavory stuff—land appropriation, human bondage, riots, lynching, brutality, virulent racism and sexism, voter suppression, discrimination, needless material poverty and misery, and grotesque inequality—that requires revelation, explanation, and understanding. As John Adams said in defending the massacring British redcoats, “Facts are stubborn things.”

The other overriding narrative truth of American history is rooted in Enlightenment thought and inquiry, scientific, technological and material progress, and gradual, halting, and hard-fought social change. While Jefferson was a hypocritical creepy slave owner, he and other founders did place the concepts of equality and freedom at the core of the American project; fighters for greater justice and members of marginalized communities, from Frederick Douglass to the present, were able to mine these ideals in the never-ending quest for a more perfect union. America became the world’s most productive economy, supplied the industrial might to defeat mid-20th century fascism, revolutionized information and communication technology, and until recently seemed to be a vibrant, if flawed, functional democracy with robust civic institutions governed by an evidence-based rule of law.

How do we as a body politic reconcile “truths” towards a more just and equitable society? Given the ideological, political, intellectual, and cultural chasm between blue and red America, how can we hope to come together civically and deal with the problem of entrenched institutional and individual racism? Heather McGhee, in her book The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, nobly aspires to a brighter American future of a functioning multiracial democracy through the use of a shopworn Enlightenment trick—rational evidence-based appeals to material self-interest. According to McGhee, a narrow swath of elites who use racism as a cynical mechanism have duped the majority of white people into adopting a stance of racial hatred and resentment towards people of color to keep lower economic and social classes from supporting the kind of social policy and tolerant racial attitudes that would inure to their own benefit and undermine the wealth and power of the ruling elites. This is a racialized version of Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? problem as to why poor whites vote against their economic self-interest. McGhee maintains that racist whites act and vote on issues involving people of color in ways that ultimately shoot themselves in the foot by denying the creation and broad distribution of public benefits—a rising tide that would lift both Black and white ships.

McGhee’s thesis is that racism has denied Americans, all Americans, “nice things.” Contrary to the belief of racist whites, distribution of public goods and entitlements is not a zero-sum prospect. More government social programs for poor people of color do not take away the benefits given to white people. The truth, vividly and elegantly demonstrated by McGhee using historical, statistical, and narrative evidence, is that in sector after sector, discrimination against Black people undermines public policy that would benefit white people and society as a whole. Racism is driving inequality for everyone. When Southern whites, rather than integrate public swimming pools, closed or refused to maintain them, all recreational swimmers were denied a public facility. When integration efforts made public colleges more inclusive to Black students, funding spigots dried up, undermining the benefit of higher education for whites. When Medicaid was left to the whims of state funding and expansion in a racist compromise, it was poor whites, initially in Southern states and now in other like-minded red states, who suffered from inadequate health care. Pushing subprime mortgages in communities of color paved the way for the Great Recession of 2008; if regulators cracked down on lending chicanery when Black people were being swindled, white homeowners would have been saved. Racism in labor unions has undermined worker solidarity and the wages, conditions, and benefits of all working Americans. Suppressing the Black vote turns out to also negatively impact poor white voters. Residential and educational segregation isolates white people amid rising racial and ethnic diversity, costs the economy billions in GDP (per studies of Chicago), and breeds the racial resentment and resultant distrust in government that undercuts our ability to combat environmental degradation and corporate malfeasance. Policies that play to racial bias and fear cost all of us, not just the disparately treated or impacted minority.

It’s a powerful argument. What makes it stand out among the cottage industry of current identity-driven primers and their corporate trainer shills on race (yes you, Robin DiAngelo) is that rather than simply prey upon liberal white guilt (and unfortunately gin up racist white resentment), McGhee promotes a real world, evidenced-based, policy driven solution. Her exhortation relies on at least half of the American tradition—the one committed to Enlightenment, objectivity, and progress. There is a “solidarity dividend” to be gained if we abandon policies based on the notion of “zero sum gain” between races that will combat inequality and enable all of us to have nice things. McGhee’s work as president of the “think and do” tank Demos provides living proof of the possibilities. She points to such campaigns of racial solidarity as the 15 dollar minimum wage push for fast food workers as examples of the potential of the solidarity dividend. She ends with the compelling story of Lewiston, ME where opening up a heretofore lily-white town to an influx of African immigrants and establishing a multi-racial political coalition is saving it from economic demise. The “we” in “we the people” has to be all of us, and without requisite truth, racial healing, and transformation into a functioning multi-racial democracy, America as an aspirational project is doomed. If the goal is to convince racist whites to stop being racist, appeals to self-interest are probably going to have the best chance of success.

Were it only so simple. There are reasons why institutional and personal racism has persisted so tenaciously throughout American history and has survived repeated cogent appeals to greater racial solidarity. When discussing why white factory workers at a Nissan plant rejected unionization, McGhee herself observed that it may be that when it comes down to it, “the being matters more than the having.” Part of the staying power of American racism lies in the art of social control by the ruling power in the face of class cleavage. From the very beginning of English settlement, the Virginia planter class who created the institution of slavery were fearful of Black people joining forces with indentureds and lower-class whites (as happened in Bacon’s Rebellion) upending their newfound wealth and status. White supremacy, the idea that there was someone beneath you, the appeal to identity over material well-being, quiesced the poorer whites into being a part of the Southern plantation economic system, even if they would have had greater opportunity in a different nonracist economic reality. During the New York City Civil War draft riots, the largely working-class Irish perpetrators viciously attacked and killed Black New Yorkers while living with them in neighborhoods like Five Points, working with them on the docks, and fraternizing with them in all parts of life; all the while their genuine enemy were wealthy New Yorkers living in Gramercy Park who bought their way out of the draft. Subsequent pleas to white identity and racial hatred proved successful in the post-reconstruction Jim Crow South, the Nixon Southern strategy, the Reagan Revolution, and the neo-liberal consensus abetted by Bill Clinton’s Sister Souljah moment. The perception of lower-class whites was that racism was in their self-interest economically (Blacks were competition or freeloading off of my tax dollars better left in my own pocket) and psychologically (I can claim superiority over someone despite my objectively low social station). Racist upper-class whites peddled white supremacy because, to use McGhee’s language, it enabled them to keep their nice things.

McGhee is no doubt hoping that the past 40 years of defunding and crippling government, accompanying rampant wealth inequality, the entrenchment of an insular meritocracy, and the worsening economic struggle of the majority of Americans makes the country ripe for giving the racial solidarity dividend a shot. The American dream of rags-to-riches class mobility sustained (to a reasonable degree of plausibility) by plentiful land, industrial jobs, and small business entrepreneurship, has receded into mythology for working class white America. The Biden Administration is trying to increase public investment and address racial inequities in a politically fraught atmosphere. Unfortunately, the election of Trump and the persistence of his grievance politics among Republicans gives pause to the idea that we are actually turning the corner. The battle is joined.

The sad problem with McGhee’s act of persuasion is not her argument but her audience.

America may be so in the throes of hucksterism and anti-intellectualism that it may be immune to her claims based on actual evidence. If anyone needed convincing that a vast swath of America has an intense aversion to evidence, rationality, inquiry, and science, widespread COVID vaccination refusal certainly amply makes the case. This irrationality and resentment and distrust of anything that smacks of coming from the mind of the educated elite—even people of science like Dr. Fauci—is unfortunately firmly in the American tradition. This strain of American thought is well documented in works like Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason in A Culture of Lies, and Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland. Without the capacity or the willingness to process McGhee’s argument in the face of appeals to America’s reptilian brain, the challenge of making her plea come to fruition could very well be impossible. But it may be the only good option we have.

Despair clears the mind. Doctors in the current Delta wave of COVID report accounts of treating critical patients who regret never getting inoculated. Dr. Brytney Cobia posted the following: “One of the last things they do before they’re intubated is beg me for the vaccine. I hold their hand and tell them that I’m sorry, but it’s too late.” Let’s hope America isn’t about to be intubated and McGhee’s vaccine still has a chance. Her strategy for achieving greater equality represents our best shot.


Harry Feder

Harry Feder is a former attorney. He clerked for the Hon. Stewart G. Pollock of the Supreme Court of New Jersey.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2021

All Issues