"The Sum of Us" author on what racism costs white people and the lie of a zero-sum racial hierarchy

Salon talks to Heather McGhee about what the GOP has to fear from multiracial coalitions organizing to benefit all

Published April 8, 2021 7:00AM (EDT)

Detroit activists from 12 local organizations marched through the city on November 7th, 2020 to call for the protection of Detroits votes over concerns of Donald Trumps baseless claims that Democrats stole the election as an effort to steal a fair election for himself. The march also served as a celebration of Trumps loss in the 2020 presidential election, seeing participants and onlookers chanting and singing with a joyous fervor. (Adam J. Dewey/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Detroit activists from 12 local organizations marched through the city on November 7th, 2020 to call for the protection of Detroits votes over concerns of Donald Trumps baseless claims that Democrats stole the election as an effort to steal a fair election for himself. The march also served as a celebration of Trumps loss in the 2020 presidential election, seeing participants and onlookers chanting and singing with a joyous fervor. (Adam J. Dewey/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Activist and author Heather McGee has a sincere plea for white Americans: Stop seeing race in America as a zero-sum game. As McGhee explains in her New York Times bestseller, "The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together," rejecting that outdated approach will actually offer a range of benefits for all Americans.

I spoke to McGhee on "Salon Talks" and I can assure you that her appeal to white America is not some feel-good bromide. Rather, as McGhee documents, when white people join in multiracial coalitions on issues from raising the minimum wage to addressing environmental justice, it greatly benefits white people — along with all other communities.

However, the zero-sum approach has been the norm for many in white America for decades. An example of that mentality is grabbing headlines today: the GOP's voter suppression efforts in various states. As McGhee notes, the zero-sum mentality is most acute in politics, where only one candidate can win an election, and the right keeps returning to the same tired playbook predicated on preserving white power. 

McGhee's focus, though, is not on the racial divide in our nation, but on appealing to people's better angels by showing them how multiracial coalitions can yield a "solidarity dividend" for all involved. McGhee traveled the nation to write her book and saw firsthand how communities that have rejected the zero-sum game are uniting to achieve for common goals.

Watch my "Salon Talks" with McGhee here or read our conversation below for more inspiring and concrete examples of solidarity yielding dividends.

Heather, so much of your book is an effort to bring us together, but also dealing with the hard truths of our history, which some people don't want to talk about. What is the origin of the sense that if other races, primarily Black or brown, get ahead, that a white person is somehow losing out?

Yeah, that is the lie. This lie of the zero-sum racial hierarchy I identified in the course of my journey to write "The Sum of Us," is our biggest impediment to progress in America today. I wanted to go back to the beginning to figure out where this lie came from. It's something that's not believed by the majority of people of color. We don't think our progress needs to come at white folks' expense. We don't think we're on an opposing team and that there are only so many points you can score on the board, that a dollar more in our pocket means a dollar less in theirs. That's not the way we see the world, and yet that is a dominant white worldview.

I had to really go back to the very beginning, and one of the original stories that was sold by elites at the beginning of our society, to justify our original economic policies in this country, which were stolen people, stolen land, and stolen labor. At the very beginning, white profit came directly at the loss and expense of indigenous people, and Black people, and that was very much the economic model. 

You have a chapter, "Never a Real Democracy," and what we're seeing in Georgia is the continuation of that idea. Is the concern of GOP voters, who are primarily white in Georgia, come from that zero-sum game idea where if more Black people vote, that they're going to lose out? 

What are Black people going to do with their vote, right? I mean, this has been the kind of fear-mongering, and sort of visceral-level irrational fear that has so often guided white reaction to the possibility of equality in this country. When Black people vote, we vote for stimulus checks for everyone, unemployment insurance, health care for all, right? We vote for more funding for education, and you even saw that. It's not some racial retribution that Black folks want, right? It's a shot at the American dream that was promised to everyone, but that was only ever delivered for white Americans for the majority of our history.

In the book, I talk about the central metaphor being the drained public pool, and that's what happened to public goods in this country, including these grand resort style pools that we used to have, that were government-funded. And there were nearly 2,000 of them across the country, holding thousands of swimmers at a time. And in the United States, across the country, not just in the Jim Crow segregated South, towns that faced integration of their public pools in the 1950s and '60s, decided to drain them instead. And that, for me, is a telling metaphor for what happened to the New Deal era social contract that created the white middle class, and largely on a whites-only basis — from the subsidies of home ownership through the GI bill, which should have helped hundreds of thousands of Black GIs, but did not because of segregation in the housing and the mortgage markets, and the education sector.

It was this whites-only pool of public goods and public benefits that created the white middle class. And when Black folks got to the edge and said, "You know what? This is our country. These are our tax dollars. We want to swim, too," they drained the pool. And that's what happened to create the inequality era that we've had since the 1970s, where now we have one percent of the population owning as much wealth as the entire middle class. Forty percent of adult workers aren't paid enough to make ends meet. That's really the story of this racial resentment ending up having a cost for everyone.

I know you asked me about democracy. But what is voting for, right? It's not just for raw political power. I don't care if Democrats have power just because I want Democrats to have power. I want them to have power so that our people can eat, and so that our community is well-funded, so that we have investments in public goods again, so that we have a fair economy, so that we address issues like climate change. And it's those things that, frankly, are benefits for all people.

Obviously Jim Crow — and their laws, such as poll tax, literacy tax, grandfather clauses — was about preserving white power. Is it too simplistic to say the laws in Georgia now and other states is, again, about preserving white power?

Because our partisan politics have become so racially polarized. And that's a nice way of saying, because the GOP has become, as a GOP strategist said it would be, in all but name a "white man's party." Then it is true that these Republican-led — and it's all Republicans, these 250 bills across the country, including in Georgia — efforts to make it harder for eligible citizens to vote, and to put partisans in charge of counting the ballots and administering elections, is racialized. It is about the suppression of first, the Black vote, but it's also, as it has been, always, when you institute these blunt instruments to make it harder for eligible citizens to vote, you are also sweeping in many, many white people as well. You know, 20 percent of white Americans who earn less than $25,000, or who are under 21 years old but older than 18, don't have a photo ID, for example, according to the latest data. You're also making it harder for everyone to vote.

They don't care because they want an electorate that's small. Because whenever, throughout our history, the electorate has been small, the decisions have been made in back rooms by the power elite. And ultimately, that's the goal: to keep the decision-making and the power in the hands of an elite few. That's what happens when you have all of these hurdles to the ballot. And yet it is true that the response of a multiracial coalition that says that this is not what we want—and remember, these voter suppression bills are not popular, for the most part. The idea of the For the People Act, in restoring the Voting Rights Act with the John Lewis Voting Rights Restoration Act, those are popular. People want democracy. And yet so often, white Americans are voting for a party that is willing to risk their vote, just to keep the Black vote out of the ballot box.

In your book, you document political violence, such as in Louisiana and in Wilmington, North Carolina. Jim Crow wasn't just Jim Crow laws like voting rights as oppression. It was also violence. It's not as simple as the 1950s and '60s, but we're still dealing right now as we speak, with a trial of a white officer who killed a Black man who may or may not be convicted. At least he's on trial. In the past, it would have just been killed, been no trial. And we're dealing with massive voter suppression akin to what was going on in Jim Crow. So, how much have we changed? And if you look at that paradigm, then why is violence not one of the weapons in the arsenal of white supremacy? It has been used in the past. 

And it was used three months ago on January 6th. I finished writing "The Sum of Us" before January 6th, and yet, I tell the story in the book, as you mentioned of Colfax, Louisiana, which was eerily similar, right? This was a white mob that went to a courthouse where election results were being certified, that they did not want, election results that put up pro-reconstruction. A multiracial majority voted for this governor of Louisiana and they attacked the courthouse, burned it to the ground, slaughtered a hundred of their white neighbors, refusing to submit to a multiracial democracy. And so, instead they burned the edifice of their government to the ground. I mean, that really is something that happened 150 years ago, and is something that was echoed on January 6th.

If there's a study that came out in September that showed the plurality of Republicans believe these kinds of anti-democratic ideas that good patriots might need to take up arms to defend our way of life, right? And it's this kind of rhetoric, when you have this extremist rhetoric from the right wing — and I don't just mean the Trump rhetoric that's always over the top, I mean anytime the majority of your elected officials, after tsk tsking and putting out statements and running for their own lives on January 6th, then come back and vote to do what the mob wanted, which was to de-certify the election, and use this racist lie of election fraud, which only makes sense with racist stereotypes, right? It only makes sense that Detroit, and Atlanta, and all these cities would be committing some sort of massive fraud in order to steal what is rightfully . . . whose, right? The majority of white people who voted for Trump, right? It only makes sense with a racist logic.

They never have to show any evidence, right? We have evidence about pollution causing cancer and asthma. We have evidence about gun safety regulations saving lives, and yet, that can all be ignored, and yet, the evidence about voter fraud is clear and infinitesimal, and yet, there is the desire to totally change our election laws based on what is a very, very small issue. A much bigger issue is the 10, 20, 30% of eligible voters, who can't vote based on these various restrictions and hurdles that are put up.

Explain what you meant by the wages of whiteness.

The wages of whiteness is a term that was used by the great black historian, W. E. B. Du Bois, in a book called "Black Reconstruction in America," and he talked about how in the South, laborers, the working class, Black and white, had so much in common in their material circumstances, and yet they hated and feared one another. And that was because, other than their material circumstances — the material wages — the elites in the South gave white-skinned workers the psychological wages of whiteness. Their schools were better funded. They could serve on juries. They were given social respect in the street, whereas all the opposite, obviously, to Black people. And so, those kinds of non-material, social esteem, status benefits, were the wages paid by whiteness, instead of actual dollars.

And so that was the idea: White workers were willing to settle for a psychological wage instead of coming together with their Black brothers and sisters to fight for a real material wage. And that has really been the story of the divide-and-conquer of labor throughout American history.

In the book I go to Mississippi and talk to workers who had just voted against an organizing drive at a car factory. And they were very clear. They said, "The mentality among the white workers is if Blacks are for it, I'm against it." There was this sense that "union" was a dog whistle for lazy Black people, and it meant that they went without the union that could have given them, and would have given them, better wages and benefits and more voice on the job. They were kept divided. And that tension in a society as hierarchical as ours, where it is so clear that there is a racial hierarchy, there's a status hierarchy. And we are taught to turn away from collective action. We are taught that it's not possible to lift the floor for everyone, and we wouldn't even want to lift the floor for everyone, because we want that status. We want that taste of status more than we want true security.

That is the tension, and that's what has been offered in our history, to generation after generation of ethnic immigrants, from non-Northern European countries who, when they first came, were seen by native white people as being less than. Not quite Black, let's be very clear, right. They still have the right to vote, like Irish immigrants into many parts of the country could vote even before they became citizens, before citizenship was even possible to Black people who've been here for generations. And yet it's those kinds of little privileges that allowed them to assimilate into whiteness.

Now, something I didn't even talk about in the book, that I had thought about doing when I first set out was, what's lost, right? What's lost when the Polish community, the Swedish community, the German community, the Irish community, the Italian community, just become white, right? What is lost to whiteness in the trade-off, the bargain? And in general, I believe that the economic benefit of the racial bargain is getting lower and lower. When you see the kinds of job losses, the kind of poverty rates, and un-insurance rates, the devastation to communities that is happening in this era of inequality. I think that the economic benefits of the racial bargain are getting smaller and smaller. And that's why, frankly, we begin to see these signs of cross-racial solidarity across the country on issues like the Fight for 15, the union movement today in Alabama and with Amazon.

You lay out at the end the solidarity dividend, and you have certain advice you give us, suggestions, how to achieve this. So, as we wrap up here, how do we achieve the solidarity dividend in a phase of what seems like more divided times? How do we make the case to our fellow Americans of different races and ethnicities that there is a benefit to solidarity?

Definitely, that's what I'm trying to do with the book. And it's also true that it happens in the most enduring way through organizing, right? The Fight for 15 across the country, the multiracial movement of people who are paid less than they're worth: white, Black, and brown, coming together. And the conversations I had with people in the Fight for 15 were transformational. A white worker told me, "Racism has a cost for us too, because it keeps us divided from our Black and brown sisters. It's not an us versus them. As long as we're divided, we're conquered," right? This is a white, fast food worker telling me.

That's where you begin to see more of a sense [that] there are things that I want and need in society that I can only get by fighting for them, with people who are also struggling. And that's really important. I think we also need to start to see this case being made, that actually inverts the zero-sum that says, "You know what?" Like the small left-wing group put out last summer saying that the racial economic divide is costing our economy in the trillions of dollars, right?

We need to have both the ground-up and the top-down understanding that we are actually all on the same team here, that if we keep so many of our players hamstrung and on the sidelines because they're burdened with debt and locked out of opportunity, we're simply not going to achieve what we need to achieve as a country, that we have shortchanged and under-invested in ourselves because of our rising diversity, because of a fear of sharing the pool of public goods across lines of race. And that is foolish.

When it comes down to it, we all want the same things in life. We all want to have meaningful work, to take care of our families, to feel safe and secure, to breathe clean air, turn on the tap and not be poisoned, right? These are the basic things that we should be able to provide across lines of race and in every neighborhood in this great nation. And yet, so often we don't. And the thing that is blocking us, so much of the progress that we need, is a majority of white people who continue to vote for a party that sells them white cultural politics and yet delivers none of the economic benefits that our entire country so desperately needs. They felt like they could vote against the American Rescue Plan. You know why? Because they were going to take a trip down to the border and talk about that instead. But the American Rescue Plan is a solidarity dividend, right? It was brought to us, it was made possible, by multiracial organizing on November 5th, and on January 5th. It was brought to us by a multiracial anti-racist coalition that came together, walked through Martin Luther King's pews in Georgia, to say that we can and should do better as a country.

If the right wing wants to continue to [be] anti-Black farmer, and [push] the immigrant theater in order to try to convince their white base that things like cutting child poverty in half is bad for them somehow because it would also help Black and brown families, that's just showing the bankruptness of what they have to offer this country. And that's why their last-ditch effort is to rig the rules to make it harder for everyone to vote — white, Black, and brown — but they're not going to succeed. In this country, as much as we have this long tradition of excluding and oppressing, we also have a tradition of overcoming and resilience and fighting together. And it's that tradition that is on the march today.

By Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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