A conversation with Heather McGhee about the costs of America’s racial bargain.
Black Americans are typically cast as the victims of racism. And indeed, they are victims of America’s long history of racial oppression.
But according to Heather McGhee, that fact can obscure an important truth: White Americans also pay a tremendous price for the country’s racial hierarchy — and many don’t even realize it. It’s a self-inflicted wound that will never heal unless Americans change the way they think about race and the national project.
McGhee is the former president of the think tank Demos and the author of a terrific new book called The Sum of Us. The story McGhee tells orbits around a depressing metaphor: the drained swimming pool. For a good chunk of the 20th century, American towns offered grand community swimming pools as symbols of leisure and civic pride. They were testaments to public investment.
But then desegregation happened and the pools had to be integrated. Rather than open them up to everyone, town after town simply shut them down. And not only did they close the pools, they nuked their parks departments and effectively abandoned public investment altogether. So in the end, Black Americans didn’t get to enjoy the pools, but neither did white people who were motivated by self-destructive racial ideologies.
This, McGhee argues, is the story of American politics in microcosm. The entire country is now one giant drained pool. Too many Americans have too easily accepted the lie animating so much of our history, namely that politics is a zero-sum contest in which one group’s gain must be another group’s loss.
I wanted to talk through the consequences of all this with McGhee. If she’s right that “We can’t have nice things” because of this lie at the center of our shared story, then how do we transcend that lie? What story must replace it? And how can the left do a better job at persuading the white victims of this lie to let it go?
You can hear our entire conversation in the week’s episode of Vox Conversations. A transcript, edited for length and clarity, follows.
How did you come to write this book?
One of the first stops on my book journey to write The Sum of Us was Montgomery, Alabama, which is one of many places where there is a beautiful central park in the city. I walked the grounds, this big, wide flat expanse that used to have one of the nearly 2,000 publicly funded grand-resort-style swimming pools in America. And this was something that was a big feature of American life under the New Deal in the 1930s and ’40s and ’50s. It was just one of the many examples of a commitment to the public good by our government that was really supported by white public opinion at the time.
But like so much of the New Deal, so much of that public commitment to public goods, there was an asterisk. Public pools in many parts of the country were segregated or for whites only. Certainly this one in Montgomery, Alabama, was. And so in the 1950s and ’60s, when Black families began to win court cases saying, “Hey, those are our tax dollars too. Our families should be able to swim too,” instead of integrating the pools, many cities across the country drained their public pools rather than integrate them.
That’s what happened in Montgomery, Alabama. In fact, they drained the pool, filled it with dirt, and closed Oak Park. They sold off the animals in the zoo, shut down the entire parks and recreation department of the city, and kept it closed for a decade. They were almost to 1970 before the good people of Montgomery even got to enjoy a public park again, all because of racism.
And to me, that’s such an example of the zero-sum thinking creating costs for everyone, turning what was a public good into a private luxury, expressing the limits of white support for public goods once those public goods were extended and available to people that they did not perceive to be good, that they had been taught for generations to disdain and distrust.
In many ways, that’s what’s happened to our entire economy, as the majority of white voters went from supporting a job guarantee and a minimum income in the country in the late ’50s and early ’60s, to that support cratering once the civil rights movement made clear that those kinds of economic guarantees would go to Black people as well.
That’s got to be one of the greatest and most consequential political tantrums in history.
It is. But throughout the book, I really try to put myself in the shoes of people who might, because of the stories they’d been told, because of what they believe, fit that into their moral understanding. And the more you do that, the more you recognize that in many ways, we’re still there.
Those beliefs about the inherent goodness or deservingness of people at the bottom of the economic ladder are still pretty stubborn. And they’re reflected in the majority of white people’s opinions about what a minimum-wage worker should be paid, for example. Or who should pay taxes. Or what kinds of floors we should have under the human misery of our fellow American.
Your book opens with a familiar question: Why can’t we have nice things? What nice things can’t we have?
I don’t mean self-driving cars or laundry that does itself. I mean things like truly universal affordable health care, or world-class, or even just reliable, modern infrastructure. I mean a public health system to tackle pandemics with efficiency and scale. I mean a well-funded school in every neighborhood. I mean a representative functioning democracy that allows majoritarian views on big public questions to prevail and not get stymied in arcane Senate rules.
These are the kinds of things that a wealthy, modern government should be able to provide for its people. And they are the types of things that this country has really failed to deliver on for all of my lifetime, and certainly for the past few generations.
A big reason — maybe the biggest reason — for this is that Americans have internalized a story about how politics works and who deserves the privileges of citizenship. You call it a “zero-sum” story. What does that mean?
The zero-sum story is the idea that there’s this massive dividing line between Black people and white people, that they’re on opposite teams, and that progress for people of color has to come at white people’s expense. It’s a story that’s still with us because it’s very profitable. Because the upshot of selling this story is that white voters cheer the destruction of supports that could benefit them if it will keep the people on the opposite team from having something that they don’t think they deserve.
So what that has meant in practical politics has been the kind of zero-sum rhetoric that we hear from the right wing: the makers and takers, the taxpayers and freeloaders, the free stuff, the handouts, us versus them.
We’re all products of deep cultural forces that shape us in ways we don’t understand and our identities are getting pushed and activated in ways we don’t recognize. How do you make someone aware of the illusoriness of their own identity, of their own story, without also offending who they think they are?
I think politics has a role. It’s really important that we do political messaging like the Race Class Narrative project that I co-developed and we housed at Demos, which was aimed at better messages for organizers and activists and candidates to beat the zero-sum scapegoating story. That’s really important.
But I met lots of white people over the course of working on this book who had actually rejected the zero-sum after growing up being steeped in it. It wasn’t because they heard the magic words in a campaign ad. It was because they had rolled up their sleeves in organizing. They had actually experienced what it’s like to trust someone who also needed the same change in their own lives.
If I was among the richest and most powerful people in this country and I wanted to construct a pair of competing ideologies that would ensure my interests are never threatened, what we have now is what it would be: conventional white racism on the one side and what you see in some corners of the left now, which is a blanket condemnation of white privilege, or an obsession with various symbolic battles.
As you know better than anyone, if these are the terms, solidarity is unachievable and the whole plutocratic system keeps spinning.
I definitely think there’s a disconnect here between the way progressive actors with microphones elevate issues on Twitter and in news coverage, and the real concerns of, say, a Black family in St. Louis. So there’s a distortion of the causes of racial justice because of the white predominance in the chattering class on the left. It’s almost like white supremacy within the activist movement is hurting the activist movement’s cause.
My eyes were really opened to this when it comes to the role of race and racism in the environmental movement. If you’re just a casual observer, you might think that your typical environmentalist is a white guy with a fleece and a backpack, right? That’s Sierra Club, that’s the REI version of the environmentalist. It’s the upper-class family that recycles a lot and composts. That’s who’s most active on environmental issues — or at least that’s the stereotype. And it’s also because those groups are the best funded and also influential in policymaking.
But when I dug into it, it turns out that white people are much less worried about climate change and supportive of taking action than Black and brown people are. So your average environmentalist, as in someone who really cares about the environment and is really supportive of taking pretty aggressive action to address this existential threat, is a Black or brown person, not an upper-class white person. So that kind of white privileging within the ranks of the movement is actually cutting off the leadership’s connection to the people who are the natural base.
Your book makes the incredibly important argument that racism hurts everyone, and yet what I hear over and over again from white people I engage with where I live (in the Deep South) is resentment over the notion that they’re “privileged” or tools of white supremacy. Just setting aside the merits of any of those arguments and why they’re elevated (which you just explained), the practical issue here is that these narratives function like conversation-stoppers and it’s the kind of thing I know you bump up against all the time.
You know, it’s funny because the white share of the vote to the right wing has been pretty consistent ever since Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act. So this new tendency to blame white allegiance to the GOP on the recent resurgence of racial justice in the national conversation feels a little hollow to me. Because it’s not like there were all these white people who were Democrats until the protests in Ferguson happened in 2014. It’s definitely made the dog whistles into bull horns, and it’s given a lot of fodder to Fox News and right-wing radio to harp on racial grievances.
But the long-term data is pretty consistent on this stuff. The majority of white moderates and conservatives say that Black people take more from society than we give. That’s not necessarily about Dr. Seuss books. This is a deeper and older projection that feels very necessary to justify the racial hierarchy.
The kinder, gentler version of this is the old “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” line that says poverty is about culture and effort and not about wages and benefits. So this spectrum has existed for a long time now in our politics. I think it’s easier in some ways for progressives to think about what we have the power to change, which again is the discourse that’s coming from the elite, very online, mostly white progressives.
But I don’t think this is the real issue.
Yeah, I don’t think it is either, it’s just particularly salient right now for lots of reasons. But it’s important to say that there’s a flip side to some of these arguments about how the left frames these issues. As you point out in the book, Obama went out of his way to deemphasize race and appeal to the best of us — and what did he get? He got a Tea Party that used the language of fiscal responsibility to organize white resentment and undermine his presidency, so there’s that.
I’m curious if you think Obama’s story speaks to the limits of progressive nationalism?
I think it speaks to the limits of colorblind triumphalism and to our ability to have a conversation about this country within this ecosystem. I think Barack Obama understands race and always has. But I think that the Democratic Party leadership, and the mostly white people around Obama’s campaign, were so close to somebody who gave the lie to all of it. In my experience from having conversations with people who were in Obama’s circle, they really didn’t realize the extent of racism in our politics and our policymaking. They just didn’t get it.
And they hadn’t done the work to understand just how central race and racism was, and what the tools looked like, and how they’re deployed. But they were also white and they actually had a gut-level caution around talking about race explicitly. I think there was the assumption that by not talking about it explicitly, they could avoid the mines. And that was wrong.
That I think was the big insight that we gleaned from the Race Class Narrative project. We realized that there’s a way, and really an imperative, to engage on racism that isn’t feeding into the reactionary right-wing message but, in fact, gives white people and people of color a way to see that we’re all in this country together.
That feels like a good place to pivot toward the solution, or the story you think we need to tell moving forward. What does that look like?
I think we have to tell a certain story and that story has to be heard through action. This is a point I feel I need to keep making. Because of the economics of democratic activism, there’s a lot of emphasis on getting the right message. It’s important, but it’s necessary, not sufficient.
We need to include in our worldview the story of the drained public pool. A way of understanding that this country had hit on the formula for creating middle-class security for working-class people — and walked away from it because of racism. And that the nostalgia of the Trump message to “Make America Great Again” contains some truth that the economic data really does bear out. Economic life really was better and easier in the past. But the people who destroyed that weren’t Black or brown people or women who wanted a seat at the table. It was the white elites who used racial and gender fears and distrust to convince the majority of white voters to turn their back on that formula. So I think that is really important.
We’re also in this resurgence of organizing and we have to double down. Ordinary people have experienced a rebirth of civic life. Whether they’re doing it for their own survival, or because they’re making minimum wage, or because their moral sense of self has been violated by America’s inequalities, people have decided that a part of being an American and a human being right now is to organize. And that is the space that has always changed lives and changed history. And we are in that space right now. And that’s what’s exciting and hopeful to me. It’s why I say in the book that there are solidarity dividends to be had, but only through cross-racial organizing.
Author: Sean Illing