The high cost of racism
Heather McGhee's 'The Sum of Us' strikes the economics of bias
BOOK REVIEW: “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together” | By Heather McGhee | 2021 | One World | Hardcover | 415 pages | $28
Illustration by Derek Gundy
Review by Mike Wold
What drives racism in the United States? Why is it so persistent? It seems obvious that racism continues because of the benefit white people get from it, as embodied in the term “white privilege” — white people are less likely to be harassed by police, more likely to be hired for jobs, and more favored as customers in stores.
But does racism really benefit most white people? The thesis of “The Sum of Us” is that racism ultimately only benefits the small group of rich people at the top; for the rest, racism causes white people (and some people of color) to deny themselves public services and benefits because of the long-held belief that if Black people (and other people of color) get something, it will take away from what white people have.
Author Heather McGhee, who is African-American, makes no bones about the damage that Black people have suffered, from slavery onward. Even after the end of slavery, Black people were denied the right to vote, by legal restrictions or by harassment; were imprisoned in large numbers; were denied decent housing provided to white people by government programs; were placed in schools that had fewer resources and were given fewer opportunities for college.
But, she says, in restricting opportunities for Black people, many white people also suffered. The division between Black and white limited the effectiveness of struggles for higher wages, social programs, and common goods, to the benefit of the rich; taxes fell on the middle class rather than the wealthy; punitive policing and prisons jailed large numbers of poor whites as well as Blacks; and the reluctance to fund decent education for Blacks inevitably meant substandard schools for poor neighborhoods of whatever race.
McGhee’s uses municipal swimming pools as an example of how racism reduced the common good for everyone in society. In the 1920s, when segregated municipal pools were legal, across the country there were enormous, wonderful swimming pools built, that were like resorts for the white families that could enjoy them. Then the Supreme Court ruled that Black residents could not be denied the right to swim in them. Because of racism, all across the country, these pools were closed, filled in and forgotten — and if you wanted to swim in a place like that, you had to join a private club, which even most white people could not afford.
This may seem trivial compared to all the ways that Black people have been oppressed, but it becomes a metaphor illustrating McGhee’s point — that by creating a society that tries to deny one racial group aid and privileges, housing and education, good jobs and government help, white Americans live in a society that doesn’t provide much for most of them either, as compared even to equally capitalist societies in Europe.
In another example, McGhee traces how the shady practices of banks and realtors prior to the housing crash of 2008 were first tried out on Black people a few years earlier. Inner-city properties were routinely awarded oversized mortgages larger than the value of the house. Almost all of these “underwater” mortgages were refinances, and structured so that within a few years the payments increased and the houses were repossessed by the banks. These practices were tolerated — and made legal — because they were being perpetrated on Black people. But then similar practices were extended to white people buying or refinancing homes, with disastrous results.
From limitations on welfare, to militarizing the police, to cuts to education, to the war on drugs, policies pushed with a covert agenda of keeping Black people from getting more than they deserve end up hurting a lot of white people as well, both poor and middle class. McGhee even traces climate change denial to whites’ unconscious (and incorrect) belief that “if there are problems, you and yours [as opposed to Black people] are likely to be spared the costs.”
But why do white people support these policies? McGhee suggests that the political discourse that subtly references racism to justify cutting government programs is based in a faulty belief that goes all the way back to the 13 colonies, when the ruling elite realized that the only way to keep poorer white people from uniting with Black people and taking power away from the rich was to convince whites that any benefits Black people got would be taken away from them. That belief, she says, has been a driver of racism in the United States ever since.
What’s the alternative? McGhee says that racial divisions in our country ultimately benefit no one but the rich elite — and that if the rest of us can unite to end racism, poverty and all our other hierarchies of oppression and exploitation, we will reap what she calls a “solidarity dividend” — a society in which we can create public goods like universal health care, decent wages, decent housing, and quality education that everybody can benefit from. Instead of seeing the economy as a zero-sum game, addressing inequality and social problems will create a society that benefits almost everyone.