Commentary: End ‘Zero-Sum’ Thinking, Earn ‘Solidarity Dividend’

Ideas for Dealing With Racial, Ethnic and Socio-Economic Issues

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles probing causation and correlation in the impact of racism on public policy issues, as discussed in a new book on the subject. 

“We know what we need. Why can’t we have it?” Those are the questions raised in the introduction to Heather McGhee’s “The Sum Of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone,” which came out this year and is available at the Easton Public Library.

The needs McGhee has in mind are nothing short of the “basic aspects of a high functioning society,” such as a “reliable infrastructure,” an economy that “keeps workers out of poverty,” school systems that are “adequately funded,” and a “public health system” capable of dealing with health crises.  

The reader realizes very quickly that the “we” of this author’s story of need is everyone of whatever class or race who for generations have not experienced an “improved quality of life.” McGhee writes: “This includes the white Americans who are the largest group of the impoverished, as well as the Americans of color who are disproportionately so.” 

With a bachelor of arts degree in American Studies from Yale University and a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, and the former president of Demos, a think tank that focuses on inequality issues, McGhee has the necessary background to explore solutions to current divisive issues. 

She currently chairs the board of Color of Change, which advocates against racism on behalf of economic and social justice for Black Americans, but McGhee asserts in her book that such advocacy will also help white Americans who are experiencing economic and social injustice. She is bold enough to ask and answer this question: “How can we prosper together?”

The Sum of Us takes the reader on an excursion through a myriad of issues, making the author’s case against “zero-sum thinking,” and on behalf of the goal of a “solidarity dividend” across racial, ethnic, and class lines. The first step toward developing such a mutuality of economic and social interests would be to eliminate what McGhee calls the “hierarchy” of zero-sum thinking, the idea that gain for one would be a loss for the other, that giving to Black Americans, for example, would mean taking from white Americans. Who fosters and promotes this mentality? McGhee claims that it is not the people who are experiencing economic and social injustice. 

“The zero sum is an old story sold by wealthy interests for their own profit, and its persistence requires people desperate enough to buy it,” McGhee writes. “Today, the racial zero-sum story is resurgent because there is a political movement invested in ginning up white resentment to escape accountability for a massive redistribution of wealth from the many to the few.” 

In her rendering of this old-story-made-new, McGhee says people of color are being used as “lateral scapegoats,” the similarly or worse-situated who are then seen by struggling white Americans as competitors for aid. “This divide-and-conquer strategy has been essential to the creation and maintenance of the Inequality Era’s most defining feature: the hollowing out of goods we share.”

Or should be sharing. That is a key theme for in The Sum of Us. In her final chapter, “The Solidarity Dividend,” McGhee says, “what we’ve got now just isn’t working.” The fact that the “entire middle class owns less than the wealthiest one percent impedes economic growth. Ultimately having millions of people on the sidelines with too much debt and not enough opportunity saps the vitality of the economy.”

What to do about it? McGhee’s answer is for the country to realize that its “racial inequality is not only the most extreme manifestation of inequality, but also the template, setting up a scaffolding of hierarchy that increasingly few people of any race can climb.” So, she proposes that dealing with all the issues of racial inequality will create a new template to open the way up for all. “The crises of climate change, pandemics, and mass involuntary movements are already here, and in the United States each has exposed the poverty of our public capacity to prevent and react. Save for the ultra-wealthy, we’re all living at the bottom of the drained pool now.”    

This first article in a series devoted to exploring The Sum of Us on the issues and signs of the times should have made it clear by this point that Heather McGhee is not out to accommodate and cajole white American readers who deny the hold of racism on this country. But it is also clear that she believes the only way out of the country’s discontent is by way of solving the problems caused by racism.  McGhee argues that we, the all of us, would gain from committing to such a correction. 

The reader is left with the challenge of deciding whether or not McGhee has successfully made a causal connection between racism and prevailing economic and social problems. Many might argue that the connection between racism and the issue is more a correlation than a cause. That would provide the comfort of seeing the disparities and inequities experienced by Black Americans as the result of unintended consequences of well-intentioned policies and practices, for which white Americans should not have to bear any responsibility. “But we-are-not-racists” is the plaintiff cry that often accompanies such a mindset.

Finally, does it make a difference for public-policy making whether such connections are causal or correlated? Throughout her book, McGhee makes a strong case that white Americans who are not of the privileged class share the inequities borne by Black Americans, at least in kind, if not in degree. This could be due to causality or correlation, but it is not an accident, not the product of chance or bad luck. It is the result of policy decisions made by those in positions of power. McGhee’s focus, of course, is on racial inequities, but it is broad enough to encompass all who are not prospering, all who struggle with the inequities. 

Could this be the basis on which different races, ethnic groups, and classes make common cause on such issues as college debt, voter suppression, health inequities, labor exploitation, housing exclusion, and environmental injustice? …

To be continued.

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