A Surprising Solution to a Deeply Disturbing Problem of Our Own Making

Let’s begin with Heather McGhee. She’s the right kind of troublemaker. I heard her interviewed on NPR, got her book, read it carefully, and determined, as she did, that we’ve been wrong-headed about a whole lot of important stuff. She’s the former president of a think tank that focuses on inequality called Demos, and now, she’s both an important spokesperson for clear thinking, and the chair of the world’s largest online racial justice organization, Color of Change.

She’s making trouble because she requires readers to see everyday life from a radically different perspective. Not radical in the political sense, though she does that, too, but radical in the sense of eradication of old perspectives.

On the cover of her new book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Proper Together, there is an abstract paining of a white boy jumping off a diving board into a swimming pool. Ah, but the swimming pool is a mirage. It was there, at one time, but it’s been filled with cement. Why was it filled with cement? Because, in 1971, Jackson, Mississippi’s city council decided to fill swimming pools with cement so they could not be used by both Black and White swimmers. It was a way to avoid integration. The decision deprived the Black kids from swimming during the ridiculously hot Mississippi summer, but it also deprived the White kids from the doing the same thing. Better that nobody benefit!

If this thinking–roughly, the opposite of public good, so perhaps it’s public bad–was unusual, there would be no book and no reason for Heather McGhee to focus here. Instead, public bad (my term) is the basis for a great deal of public policy in the United States–and not only on hot summer days, not only in Mississippi, and not only in swimming pools. We use this theory of good decision making to work through where people live, how much money they earn, how their kids are educated, how we tax, where we place our roads and highways, and how we make a surprising number of important decisions. Roughly, the theory plays out as follows:

If a policy is a good idea, we should go ahead, but if it benefits Black folks, or equalizes the situation, then we should not go ahead. (Same, roughly, for other minorities.) And if not going ahead harms White folks along the way, that’s just too bad because that’s the decision we’re going to make.

Sounds like something from the 1950s in the American South, or maybe the 1910s. Then, McGhee explains how much of this thinking provides a framework for everyday life for everyone–especially people in lower income areas. The term “shooting yourself in the foot” comes to mind quite often. This is a completely crazy way to govern, to set policy, to run a county or a country. And yet, that’s what we do everyday. And it doesn’t seem to change. That is: the news coverage on George Floyd is extensive, and Black Lives Matter, but the hardcore reality of daily life in the U.S. receives very little coverage. Hence, this book.

She sets the stage with considerable skill. Then, she surprises by telling one story after another, each illustrating the impact of racism in ways that aren’t often considered. For example, “Many of the nation’s biggest and most respected public colleges were tuition free, from the City University of New York to the University of California system. The massive public investment wasn’t considered charity; an individual state saw a return of three to four dollars back for every dollar it invested in public colleges. When the public means ‘white,’ public colleges thrived.”

And then… “That’s no longer the case. Students of color comprised just one in six college students in 1980, but now they make up over four in ten. Over this period of growth among students of color, ensuring college affordability fell out of favor with lawmakers. State legislatures began to dramatically cut what they spent per student on their public colleges, even as the taxable income base in the state grew….By 2017, the majority of state colleges were relying upon student tuition dollars for the majority of their expenses…”

Or, to put this another way, the reason why so many public college students now carry so much college debt is connected to racism. Yes, it’s a bit of a leap, but more examples from other sectors add credibility to this line of thinking. The ripple effect is powerful, and not just on minority populations:” In 2018, the Federal Reserve reported on what most of my generation knows: student debt payments are stopping us from buying our first home, the irreplaceable wealth-building asset.” A rather complicating story of sub-prime mortgages, mostly rooted in racist practices, is the next story she tells, and certainly that has affected, and continues to affect, much of the U.S. population. Weakening of labor unions? Another example of similar practices, similar thinking, similar destruction of the American dream for the majority, not the minorities.

The mythology of democracy is an easy target: from the Founding Fathers through the present, unequal representation, loopholes, workarounds, and other means have been used to elevate a relatively small upscale male white population and to keep everyone else in their place. We’re breaking through, but only a bit, because the status quo is immovable. It’s woven throughout our laws, our political boundaries, our voting districts, our school districts, our tax system, and so much more.

No surprise to find a chapter about redlining–the practice of geographic segregation. No surprise to find the ugly practices of destroying neighborhoods by making decisions about the location of public roads, either. “The economic imperative (of the first half of the 1800s)…set the terms of racial understanding: in the South, Blacks were seen as inferior and servile but needed to be close. In the North, Black people were job competition, therefore seen as dangerous, stricken with a poverty that could be infectious.” Beginning in the later 1880s, and “for the next eight years, segregation dispossessed Native Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and Black Americans of land and often, life. No governments in modern history, save Apartheid South Africa and Nazi Germany, have segregated as well as the United States, with precision and under the color of law. These truths are self-evident, but easily overlooked when viewed through the nonsense of “justice for all” and “the land of the free.” Time after time, McGhee hits hard, almost always with evidence and legal history that is difficult to dispute. She is a very convincing advocate of the big picture.

Is K-12 school inequitable. You bet. Here’s a theory on why that’s true, and what might be done about it. “Today, the majority of public school students in the United States are children of color. Why? Because of disproportionate number of white students are enrolled in private schools, comprising 69 percent of K-12 private school enrollment…The pricing up and privatization of public goods has a cost for us all–white families included. A house in a neighborhood unencumbered by systemic racism found in public schools will cost significantly more.” Summarizing a complicated idea, white households pay a 77 percent premium on housing in areas where public schools are “excellent.” (This was written before the housing boom of 2020-2021, so we’re probably looking at 110% today.) On the plus side, when the home is sold, there’s a premium, but there’s also an issue in choosing a home in one of these places. “In order to chase these so-called good schools, white families must be able and willing to stretch their budgets to live in increasingly expensive, and segregated, communities… To be clear, “These white parents are paying for their fear because they’re assuming that white-dominant schools are worth the cost to their white children.” And (yikes!) they are essentially reinforcing the worst possible decisions: that segregated schools are best.

It’s now 2021, so it’s nearly impossible to write a book about any subject without at least one chapter about climate change. And so, we learn about the impact of poor pollution management, how the minority neighborhoods suffer most, and how the pollution spreads to other neighborhoods, too. As with, “The United States is…the biggest carbon polluter in history, but we have one of the strongest and most politically powerful factions opposed to taking action to prevent catastrophic climate change…the key players waging war against environmental protection were reliable white men, from industry executives to the politicians to the media commentators.” She theorizes that our society has taught a lesson: there are winners and losers, and the losers will be the ones who most suffer from climate change. The winners believe they will be fine. Of course, this is faulty thinking, wholly unreasonable and illogical, as evidenced by the frequent droughts that threaten our agribusiness, or the floods that disabled New York City’s subways, or the scary rise on the coastlines that will somebody make beachfront property worthless (regardless of how much wealth is poured into temporary solutions). Basically, the climate change opposition works this way: “we won’t risk the economy for this dubious idea.” And so, we believe, or lead ourselves to believe, that climate change is somebody else’s problem, and that it can be managed in the same ways that we manage school or neighborhood segregation.

Then, McGhee tells the story of Lewiston, Maine. The whole story begins to change. There is hope, and it’s real. Lewiston lots its manufacturing jobs, then its economy, then spiraled into almost no economy at all. There were few jobs, little opportunity, and on Lisbon Street, once Maine’s second largest commercial district, half the stores were vacant. So what happened? Refugees from the Somali Civil War led immigrants first to Atlanta, then to the less expensive Portland, Maine, then to Lewiston where “quiet streets offered more peace and the low rents offered more security. Other African refugees followed”–from the Congo, Chad, Djibouti, and Sudan. They rented the vacant storefronts, and started new businesses. They built a new economy. In the whitest state in the country. They paid nearly $200 million in local state and local taxes in 2018–and I’m guessing the number continues to grow. This story is found in other places–Kennett Square, Pennsylvania (outside Philadelphia) “is now 50% Latinx, mostly from Mexico and it’s a community given new life by the families of migrant workers at the mushroom farms.” McGhee tells similar stories about Storm Lake, Iowa, and towns in the Texas Panhandle once considered hopeless, now beginning to thrive.

“Even in the face of anti-immigrant policies and the absence of vehicles for mobility such as unions and housing subsidies, today’s immigrants of color are revitalizing rural America.” In the first decade of the 21st century, nearly 83% of the growth of rural America is people of color. America is changing, but many us are missing the big story.

I’m grateful to Heather McGhee for opening my eyes. So far, The Sum of Us is the book I have most recommended to friends and colleagues in 2021. I’m feeling as though this might be essential reading for the early 21st century.

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