By Karyn Pomerantz, 3-4-2021
In The Sum of Us (2021), Heather McGhee refutes the pervasive idea that racism, specifically white supremacy, benefits white workers. She contradicts the paradigm of a “zero-sum game” in which gains for black workers diminish the economic and social status of white workers. Instead, she advocates for “social solidarity” that would create a “solidarity dividend” that enriches the lives of all workers.
McGhee is another liberal capitalist author who has stong antiracist arguments but a weak analysis of the role of capitalism that requires racism to create profit and enforce divisions among workers. Liberal reformers, such as Sanders, the Ford Foundation, and unions, try to preserve capitalism by making it more equitable. McGhee was president of Demos, a liberal think tank for economic reforms. Her book reflects the insights she gained there.
McGhee opens the book with an excellent analysis of the early colonial days when the rich landowners decided to enslave African people and divide black, indigenous, and white residents. Before this, there were marriages and friendships among these groups. Fearing that unity could decrease the huge profits made from cotton and tobacco, the planters outlawed socializing and marrying, brutalizing whites who resisted, killing native people, and forcing black workers into enslaved, free labor.
Beyond this violence, the early ruling class members used ideology to reinforce segregation and justify slavery. They classified Africans as subhuman, intellectually inferior people who could withstand hard physical labor while extolling whites as superior. Northern and southern “founding fathers” who wrote the Constitution and Bill of Rights classified their property as 3/5ths of a person in order to give southern states more representation, indicating that they didn’t consider African-descended people fully human, an attitude that persists today .
They sealed this pact by paying whites a meager wage and allowed them to farm small plots of land with the assurances that they would not be treated as harshly as black workers. Planters hired them as overseers and the first police forces to control enslaved workers. Yet slaveowners did not invest in the well-being of poor white southerners. While northern states provided hundreds of public schools and libraries, southern states lagged far behind. There were 782 public schools in Mississippi compared to 2,381 in New Hampshire. White workers eventually accepted the bribe of superiority that still haunts the world. As the poet Melvin Tolson wrote centuries later, “throw scraps of hate to the white folks…”
In 1860, enslaved people were together worth $3 billion. While southern elites earned large profits, northern businesses enthusiastically benefited from the slave trade. Slavery was a huge industry. It required ships to transport people, ports to receive them and ship cotton across the Atlantic, insurance companies, such as Aetna and NY Life, to protect their investments, textile mills to process southern cotton, and banks that accepted enslaved people as collateral for loans. This review describes how equality benefits the entire working class and critiques some of the book’s premises and solutions. Overall, it is recommended for its clarity, originality, and insightfulness about the racist ideology in the past and today, and criticized for its support of capitalist reforms.
Each chapter describes a sector of life, such as education, housing, health care, and climate, that could benefit from antiracist ideas and practices. Using the clever metaphor of a swimming pool, McGhee documents how free public pools became segregated when local governments prohibited black swimmers from using them. When forced to provide equal accommodations, they closed all public facilities and created membership driven pools, thereby excluding lower income white residents along with black residents. As applied to schools, transportation, medicine, and other social goods, “public” became synonymous with black spaces, making privatization easier. By supporting segregation, whites operated against their own self-interests again.
“When the people with power in a society see a portion of the populace as inferior and undeserving, their definition of “the public” becomes conditional. … their perception of the Other as undeserving is so important to their perception of themselves as deserving that they’ll tear apart the web that supports everyone, including them. Public goods, in other words, are only for the public we perceive to be good” (Kindle edition, p. 30).
The GI Bill of 1944 provided free college education for veterans yet white GIs earned academic degrees while black GIs were pushed into vocational training. NYC (CUNY) and California (UC system) also offered free college tuition. However, as more black students enrolled in universities after 1980, states cut back on their funding, and federal programs shifted from providing grants to charging high interest loans. Tuition prices rose for everyone. In 2020, student debt was $1.5 trillion. However, on average, black families had less wealth, and black students went into deeper debt as did many poor white working class students.
Because the tax base of neighborhoods pay the costs of public education, poorer neighborhoods spend less on education. For example, overwhelmingly white public school districts have $23 billion more to spend, resulting in an average of $2,226 more funding per student.
Free universal health care became identified with communism and socialism. The American Medical Association (AMA) vigorously campaigned against it during the 1930s labeling it a communist idea, a designation many still accept. Conservative, anti-government forces transformed “Obamacare” (let alone Medicare for All) into a socialist program despite its high costs to recipients and large profits for the insurance companies. Eligible white workers identified it as a benefit for blacks (“freeloaders”) and rejected it for themselves. Most southern states also refused expanded Medicaid coverage that would extend health benefits to millions more, thereby harming white individuals who desperately needed care. Even with Medicaid, people in Alabama and Texas could not earn more than approximately $4,000 a year to qualify! The loss of these funds to the states precipitated the closure of 120 rural hospitals, which decimated health care for those white, Latin, and black people affected by Covid 19.
Housing stability contributes to people’s overall health and well-being. Beyond that, home ownership determines a person’s financial wealth (assets minus debt) as the investments get passed down to children and help pay for their education and future homes. Because of severe housing discrimination through redlining and subprime loans, white households have 13 times the wealth of black households. Yet, even with such differences in wealth, higher income white families still carry huge loans for education, including the author’s. Housing reforms under the GI bill discriminated also. Only 2% of the cheap mortgages offered to WWII vets went to black veterans. The housing meltdown of 2008 resulted in 5.6 million foreclosures with disproportionate numbers of black homeowners represented. It reduced the tax base used to finance schools, public services, and jobs for everyone. Instead of holding public policies responsible for these differences, the media and politicians portray black people as especially fiscally irresponsible in need of training in financial literacy (a solution often proposed for people with no money).
Voter suppression of black adults also limits voting rights of others, particularly rural, older, disabled, immigrant, and poor people. Poll taxes, limited polling sites, ID cards, and the exclusion of people with criminal records, reduce the number of voters, especially those more likely to vote for progressive candidates. McGhee reminds readers that the US never had a popular democracy from the beginning:
“… rule by only the wealthiest of white men, in fact—was the original design of American government, despite any stated “self-evident truths” about equality to suggest the contrary (Kindle p. 141).”
However, when the voting rights bill passed in 1965, more black residents voted and supported public services that also benefitted non-black people.
McGhee also cites situations where workers united, such as the Fight for 15 and immigrant rights. Immigration also benefits US citizens of all racial classifications by populating cities with workers who pay taxes and provide critical services. Cities, such as Lewiston, Maine, that welcomed immigrants had increased community solidarity and more thriving economies.
These examples of racism harming white people extend beyond the more commonly cited differences in earnings and the emphasis on white privilege, how white people benefit from racism. McGhee shows in quantitative data and stories how racism damages all workers although in different intensities. It is a potent viewpoint that threatens the justifications for capitalism. However, McGhee supports antiracist reforms to prevent revolutionary attempts to overthrow it.
While McGhee successfully argues that multiracial solidarity benefits the entire working class, her analysis of the root causes of racism and solutions is limited and often wrong. First, she places too much emphasis on the role of white perspectives determining racist policies after slavery. As Ibram X. Kendi writes in Stamped at the Beginning, policies and practices determine ideas and justifications. The practice of slavery and super exploitation of the labor of black people require the myth of white superiority to rationalize the differences in oppression. McGhee adopts this view to explain the origins of white supremacy during slavery. However, in other situations, she reverses this. She calls on white people to change their attitudes and beliefs so policies will change. While this is necessary, it is not enough. Workers need to unite AND organize to fight racism.
The absence of any analysis (or even mention) of capitalism also leaves readers unarmed to eradicate the roots of racism. She does not emphasize how racism creates super profits by paying black and brown workers even less than whites and depresses white wages. For example, slavery repressed wages of whites and caused high unemployment (why pay when you can get it for free). She does show the cost-savings by denying black and Latin poor people access to public goods, such as good schools. However, despite the harmful effects of racism on white workers, they often responded by blaming black people for their own oppression rather than attacking the rich. There were exceptions; The State of Jones by Sally Jenkins depicts a multiracial army of abolitionists in the south that fought Confederate soldiers, and progressive unions in the 1930s united their members to defend black residents against assaults.
She calls for reforms to capitalism, such as supporting equitable housing policies. She promotes strategies that connect people with one another and confront the damages of racism. There are not many details about how to accomplish this or why the ruling class would agree to reform the system unless there are massive, disruptive uprisings and greater support for revolution to overthrow them.
In any case, the data on racism and the arguments for solidarity make the book valuable. The Sum of US deserves a place in the national conversation on racism. It makes an excellent choice for book clubs and classrooms.
A Note on Writing
McGhee’s writing is clear and comprehensible. It is a pleasure to read the book. It gives appropriate analogies to explain difficult concepts, such as securitization, redlining, and climate concepts. Even the title is original and highly descriptive of the themes. The content is well organized, supplemented by extensive notes. She applies a creative spin in her examples, such as the swimming pool. Even if the content is familiar, readers can learn how to discuss racism in appealing, non-threatening ways. Her research covers written materials and interviews with workers with varied perspectives throughout the US, including a former skinhead and a racist who supported reforms.
Kendi IX. Stamped from the Beginning
Metzl J. Dying of Whiteness.
Bennett L. The Road Not Taken. “The Road Not Taken” by Lerone Bennett – The Multiracial Unity Blog