Why Americans Can’t Have Nice Things

Issue 263

Teddy Ostrow Apr 26, 2021

In the summer of 2010, 15-year-old Dekendrix Warner slipped down a clay-surfaced bank in a shallow recreation area in the Red River in Shreveport, Louisiana, falling into 20-foot-deep waters. Spotting Warner in distress, five other teenagers came after him. Neither they nor the adults watching in horror from the river bank — all Black — could swim. The six teenagers drowned.

The incident was tragic but not new to Black America. In 1953, when Baltimore’s seven public pools were all segregated, a 13-year-old Black boy drowned in the Patapsco River while swimming with three friends, two of whom were white. The group couldn’t go to any of the city’s pools together, so they opted for the rougher open water.

The zero-sum racism that slavery bred have harmed all of us.

A NAACP lawsuit desegregated Baltimore’s pools just three years later, though what followed was far from friendly integration. Whites violently intimidated Black people who sought to use public pools in white neighborhoods, and many white people just stopped going to them. As other public pools across the country desegregated, instead of becoming hubs of interracial amusement, many of these gems of early 20th-century public infrastructure were drained, filled with cement, forgotten or replaced with (white) private pools. If whites couldn’t have the pools to themselves, then no one but the white elite could have them at all.

The result of segregation and the closing of public pools is that today white Americans are twice as likely to know how to swim as Black Americans, and Black children are three times as likely to drown.

But, as Heather McGhee argues in her new book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We can Prosper Together, draining pools in the name of white supremacy doesn’t just hurt Black people, whether they’re literal ones or other “pools” of public investment, like Medicaid or federal Pell grants for students. Rather, they hurt everyone, including white people. “Racism got in the way of all of us having nice things,” McGhee writes bluntly.

Indeed, whites lost those public pools too.

The Sum of Us is in many ways a personal tale. An economic policy wonk,
McGhee left her post as president of the liberal think tank Demos in 2018, frustrated with many progressives’ lack of engagement with race in their economic justice programs. She views the biggest obstacle to a more just America as the “zero-sum” ideology widespread among white Americans: that their own prosperity must come at the expense of people of other races, and that improving the status of racial minorities means worsening the status of white people.

For the book, McGhee journeyed across America to understand how this zero-sum paradigm emerged and how it functions. What she found was a white populace manipulated by elites who stoke racialized fears and tensions to fragment the working classes for their own gain. “The zero sum is a story sold by wealthy interests for their own profit, and its persistence requires people desperate enough to buy it,” she writes.

White slaveholders’ status in the pre-Civil War United States quite literally was zero-sum, as they benefited from the cruel system of African slave labor. She draws from W.E.B. Du Bois’s concept in Black Reconstruction of the “public and psychological wage of whiteness,” whites’ elevated social status over enslavable Blacks, which sabotaged the clear economic benefit both groups would reap from interracial solidarity against the exploitative, propertied class.

In the following chapters, McGhee illustrates how the afterlives of America’s original sin and the zero-sum racism that it bred have harmed all of us. She convincingly argues that racism foreclosed social democracy in the United States.

The neoliberal turn in the 1970s and ’80s that drained the pool of public investment was pushed through by politicians like Ronald Reagan, who used racist dog whistles to turn the white majority against “society’s two strongest vessels for collective action: the government and labor unions.” The result: millions of Americans, the majority of whom are white, suffer without basic social provisions such as universal healthcare, free college and the workplace advantages of union membership.

Another striking example of racism’s what-goes-around-comes-around nature is in the housing sector. McGhee traces banks’ predatory lending practices against African-Americans in the decades leading up to the subprime mortgage boom that precipitated the financial crisis of 2008. Those practices were the canary in the coal mine for a much broader crisis, which harmed Black people and other racial minorities disproportionately, but did not spare millions of white people.

“Such financial malfeasance was allowed to flourish because the people who were its first victims didn’t matter nearly as much as the profits their pain generated,” McGhee writes. “But the systems set up to exploit one part of society rarely stay contained.”

Central to McGhee’s proposed path forward is the “refilling of the public pool,” the formation of a social democracy, but with targeted programs and stopgaps to make

sure universalized policies are truly universal. McGhee spurns repeating the exclusion of predominantly African-American groups of workers from New Deal programs such as Social Security and the minimum wage. Further, she suggests a national, government-funded process of consciousness-raising to rewrite the ill-informed dominant narrative about race in the United States.

The Sum of Us is a readable work, packed with compelling history, personal narrative and heart-wrenching stories of both white and Black people whose lives were upturned by the discriminate and indiscriminate nature of structural racism. But McGhee also presents empowering tales of multiracial solidarity bringing significant victories, or “Solidarity Dividends” as she calls them — from the national Fight for $15 movement to organizing for a “just transition” in Richmond, California.

In the end, The Sum of Us is a call to organize cross-racially against white supremacy, bringing whites — and people of all races — into the fold not by ignoring the importance of racism, but by reframing it as an issue that holds us all back.

Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign was perhaps the closest the United States got in decades to refilling the pools. Sanders built a young, multiracial coalition on a platform of social-democratic reforms and a commitment to solidarity. But the movement failed to cajole enough working-class voters. Meanwhile, older Black and white voters alike stuck with their establishment gut, at least in part because they didn’t trust that zero-sum America would vote for the candidate of “nice things.”

In this way, among the American left’s many political obstacles is not only a white majority steeped in that self-sabotaging zero-sum ideology, but a substantial number of would-be allies unconvinced that that majority would ever take their hands in solidarity. The Sanders campaigns unveiled the dividends in waiting. Only organizing, together, will allow us to start cashing the checks.

The Sum Of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone And How We Can Prosper Together
By Heather McGhee
One World Books, 2021

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