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.Continue reading “Book Review: The Sum of Us- What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee.”