When Heather McGhee was a 25-year-old staffer at Demos, the progressive think tank she would eventually lead, she went to Congress to present findings on shocking increases in individual and family debt.
“Few politicians in Washington knew what it was like to have bill collectors incessantly ringing their phones about balances that kept growing every month,” McGhee writes in her new book, “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together.”
Demos’ explanatory attempts failed. When Congress finally took action in 2005, it made the problem worse, passing a bankruptcy bill that made escaping unsustainable debt harder than ever. For McGhee, the disaster was an education in the limits of research, which is often no match for the brute power of big money. But as she was walking down the hallway of the Russell Senate Office Building, she learned something else.
Stopping to adjust her new shoes near the door of a Senate office, she wrote, she heard “the bombastic voice of a man going on about the deadbeats who had babies with multiple women and then declared bankruptcy to dodge the child support.” She doesn’t know whether the man was a Democrat or a Republican, but when she heard him she realized she and her allies might have missed something. They’d thought of debt and bankruptcy primarily as a class issue. Suddenly she understood that for some of her opponents, it was more about race.
She wondered how, as a Black woman, she’d been caught off guard. “I hadn’t even thought to ask the question about this seemingly nonracial financial issue, but had racism helped defeat us?” she wrote.
McGhee’s book is about the many ways racism has defeated efforts to create a more economically just America. Once the civil rights movement expanded America’s conception of “the public,” white America’s support for public goods collapsed. People of color have suffered the most from the resulting austerity, but it’s made life a lot worse for most white people, too. McGhee’s central metaphor is that of towns and cities that closed their public pools rather than share them with Black people, leaving everyone who couldn’t afford a private pool materially worse off.
One of the most fascinating things about “The Sum of Us” is how it challenges the assumptions of both white anti-racism activists and progressives who just want to talk about class. McGhee argues that it’s futile to try to address decades of disinvestment in schools, infrastructure, health care and more without talking about racial resentment.
She describes research done by the Race-Class Narrative Project, a Demos initiative that grew out of her work for the book. McGhee and her colleagues, she writes, discovered that if you “try to convince anyone but the most committed progressives (disproportionately people of color) about big public solutions without addressing race, most will agree … right up until they hear the countermessage that does talk, even implicitly, about race.”
But McGhee, who leads the board of the racial justice organization Color of Change, also implicitly critiques the way parts of the left talk about white privilege. “Without the hostile intent, of course, aren’t we all talking about race relations through a prism of competition, every advantage for one group mirrored by a disadvantage for another?” she asks.
McGhee is far from an opponent of the sort of social justice culture sometimes derided as “wokeness.” But her work illuminates what’s always seemed to me to be a central contradiction in certain kinds of anti-racist consciousness-raising, which is that many people want more privilege rather than less. You have to have an oddly high opinion of white people to assume that most will react to learning about the advantages of whiteness by wanting to give it up.
“Communicators have to be aware of the mental frameworks of their audience,” McGhee told me. “And for white Americans, the zero-sum is a profound, both deeply embedded and constantly reinforced one.”
This doesn’t mean that the concept of white privilege isn’t useful; obviously it describes something real. “What privilege awareness does, at its best, is reveal the systematic unfairness, and lift the blame from the victims of a corrupt system,” McGhee said. “However, I think at this point in our discourse — also when so many white people feel deeply unprivileged — it’s more important to talk about the world we want for everyone.”
So McGhee is trying to shift the focus from how racism benefits white people to how it costs them. Why is student debt so crushing in a country that once had excellent universities that were cheap or even free? Why is American health care such a disaster? Why is our democracy being strangled by minority rule? As the first line of McGhee’s book asks, “Why can’t we have nice things?” Racism is a huge part of the answer.
McGhee describes a “solidarity dividend” gained when people are able to transcend racism. Look at what just happened in Georgia, where billionaire Kelly Loeffler, in an attempt to keep her Senate seat, waged a nakedly racist campaign against Raphael Warnock, who ran on sending voters $2,000 stimulus checks. He still lost most white people, but won enough to prevail. He did it by appealing to idealism, but also to self-interest. In the fight for true multiracial democracy, counting on altruism will only get you so far.
Michelle Goldberg is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.