Why can’t we have nice things?
In her book The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, Heather McGee writes that the fight against racism will benefit all groups in society. Banner image: Shutterstock/Edward R
This excerpt from The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, by Heather McGhee (published by Penguin Random House, 2021) is part of a series in which experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address for the OECD the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
Perhaps there’s been a time when you’ve pondered exactly this question. And by nice things, you weren’t thinking about hovercraft or laundry that does itself. You were thinking about more basic aspects of a high-functioning society, like adequately funded schools or reliable infrastructure, wages that keep workers out of poverty or a public health system to handle pandemics. The “we” who can’t seem to have nice things is Americans, all Americans. This includes the white Americans who are the largest group of the uninsured and the impoverished as well as the Americans of color who are disproportionately so. “We” is all of us who have watched generations of American leadership struggle to solve big problems and reliably improve the quality of life for most people. We know what we need—why can’t we have it?
“Why can’t we have nice things?” was a question that struck me pretty early on in life—growing up as I did in an era of rising inequality, seeing the wealthy neighborhoods boom while the schools and parks where most of us lived fell into disrepair. […] [My] book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, recounts my journey to tally the hidden costs of racism to us all.
In my gut, I’ve always known that laws are merely expressions of a society’s dominant beliefs. It’s the beliefs that must shift in order for outcomes to change. When policies change in advance of the underlying beliefs, we are often surprised to find the problem still with us. America ended the policy of enforced school segregation a generation ago, but with new justifications, the esteem in which white parents hold Black and brown children hasn’t changed much, and today our schools are as segregated as they were before Brown v. Board of Education. Beliefs matter.
So, what is the stubborn belief that needs to shift now for us to make progress against inequality? I found my first clues in a series of psychology studies. In one of these, white Americans read about people of color becoming the majority of the population by 2042. The study authors, Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson, then asked the subjects to “indicate their agreement with the idea that increases in racial minorities’ status will reduce white Americans’ status.” The people who agreed most strongly that demographic change threatened whites’ status were most susceptible to shifting their policy views because of it, even on “race-neutral policies” like cutting defense spending and expanding healthcare—even drilling in the Arctic. The authors concluded that “making the changing national racial demographics salient led white Americans (regardless of political affiliation) to endorse conservative policy positions more strongly.” […] [T]hinking about a more diverse future changed white Americans’ policy preferences about government.
It was a stunning finding, but it still wasn’t clear to me why white people would view the presence of more people of color as a threat to their status, as if racial groups were in a direct competition, where progress for one group was an automatic threat to another. And it was even more baffling to me how that threat could feel so menacing that these white people would resist policies that could benefit them, just because they might also benefit people of color. Why would they allow a false sense of group competition to become a self-defeating trap?
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Black writers before me, from James Baldwin to Toni Morrison, have beautifully made the point that racism is a poison first consumed by its concoctors. What’s clearer now in our time of widening inequality is that the economic benefit of the racial bargain is shrinking for all but the richest. The logic that launched the zero-sum paradigm—I will profit at your expense—is no longer sparing millions of white Americans from the degradations of American economic life as people of color have always known it. As racist structures force people of color into the mines as the canary, racist indifference makes the warnings we give go unheeded—from the war on drugs to the financial crisis to climate disasters. The coronavirus pandemic is a tragic example of governments and corporations failing to protect Black, brown, and Indigenous lives—though, if they had, everyone would have been safer.
The logical extension of the zero-sum story is that a future without racism is something white people should fear, because there will be nothing good for them in it. The same research I found showing that white people increasingly see the world through a zero-sum prism showed that Black people do not. African Americans just don’t buy that our gain has to come at the expense of white people. And time and time again, history has shown that we’re right. The civil rights victories that were so bitterly opposed in the South ended up being a boon for the region, resulting in stronger local economies and more investments in infrastructure and education.
The old zero-sum paradigm is not just counterproductive; it’s a lie. Everywhere I went, I found that the people who had replaced the zero sum with a new formula of cross-racial solidarity had found the key to unlocking what I began to call a “Solidarity Dividend,” from higher wages to cleaner air, made possible through collective action. And the benefits weren’t only external. I didn’t set out to write about the moral costs of racism, but they kept showing themselves. There is a psychic and emotional cost to the tightrope white people walk, clutching their identity as good people when all around them is suffering they don’t know how to stop, but that is done, it seems, in their name and for their benefit. The forces of division seek to harden this guilt into racial resentment, but I met people who had been liberated by facing the truth and working toward racial healing in their communities.
I’m fundamentally a hopeful person, because I know that decisions made the world as it is and that better decisions can change it. Nothing about our situation is inevitable or immutable, but you can’t solve a problem with the consciousness that created it. The antiquated belief that some groups of people are better than others distorts our politics, drains our economy, and erodes everything Americans have in common, from our schools to our air to our infrastructure. I set out on this journey to piece together a new story of who we could be to one another and to glimpse the new America we must create for the sum of us.
This is an excerpt from the book The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together (Penguin Random House, 2021) by Heather McGee
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