Winning message for Democrats on racism highlights harm to Americans of all races

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Right now, an array of Democratic organizations are reviewing the results of the 2020 races and analyzing how they can do better in the future—particularly in down-ballot contests, and in areas with larger Latino populations. The review is wide-ranging, and covers topics as disparate as tactics, the impact of not doing in-person canvassing, how to talk about COVID-19, and more—including, hopefully, how stupid it is to not have and provide support for good candidates in every race. One issue under review—as always for any party—is messaging. Democrats could do a lot worse than starting their review on messaging by reading Heather McGhee’s new book: The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, which showed up at #3 on the New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction last week.

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You might know McGhee as the previous president of Demos, which describes itself as “a dynamic “think-and-do” tank that powers the movement for a just, inclusive, multiracial democracy.” After leading Demos for four years, in 2018 she left that position (she remains a distinguished senior fellow there) to write the aforementioned book.

The product of both careful research as well as extensive travel and conversation with Americans all over the country, The Sum of Us offers far more than a messaging blueprint to Democrats. It provides a history of how we got to the place we are when it comes to racism and economic inequality—and makes devastatingly clear how intertwined those two phenomena have always been. But as for a source for strategic advice, McGhee might well be the Dear Abby of Democratic politics.

How did we get to the place where we are, namely one where Republicans have become, quite openly, the party of white grievance? McGhee sums it up succinctly.

A majority of white Americans had voted for a worldview supported not by a different set of numbers than I had, but by a fundamentally different story about how the economy works, about race and government; about who belongs and who deserves; about how we got here and what the future holds. That story was more powerful than cold economic calculations. And it was exactly what was keeping us from having nice things—to the contrary, it had brought us Donald Trump.

The research McGhee conducted showed her that fear of demographic change, of losing power and status, and of the implementation of a system that will somehow oppress whites once they are in the numerical minority are what drives support for Trumpism. Furthermore, those fears lead a majority of whites—including overwhelming majorities among whites without a college degree—to vote Republican and thus oppose policies that might actually benefit them, simply because groups they fear would also benefit.

In Chapter 2, McGhee told a simple story that gave her argument flesh and blood by connecting it to real events that had a tragic, easily understood impact on the white and Black members of the community and, by extension, every community in America that embraced segregation as well as other forms of discrimination.

As the story goes, towns and counties all across the South once had wonderful public pools. One of the most beautiful was in Montgomery, Alabama. It was called the Oak Park Pool, and children who swam there loved it. But only white children were allowed to swim there. Long story short, in September 1958 a federal court ruled that the town could not operate a segregated pool because it violated the United States Constitution. The city government swiftly complied. It closed the pool, paved over it, and planted grass on top. Not only that, the city of Montgomery shut down all its public parks—even the zoo had to go. The white children cried to their elders. But the white elders held firm. No whites only pools? Fine, no swimming for anyone.

The same basic principle applies to so many other issues, as McGhee detailed. Take Medicaid expansion—it would help plenty of white people, but racial resentment leads too many whites to decide they’d rather deny it to everyone in order to make sure Black and brown people don’t receive help.

Republicans present American society as a zero-sum game, with racial and other groups pitted against each other—if one race gains, the other must lose. That story is a false one and, McGhee argues, the left and the right are both telling it, albeit in different ways and with different motivations.

The way the right tells that story is obvious: ”they (we all know who ‘they’ are) are coming for your stuff/jobs/schools.” But the left does it too, McGhee explains, in the way we talk in general about disparities, by “focus[ing] on how white people benefited from systemic racism.” McGhee asks “was that the real story?” Most whites suffered, rather than benefitted, under the failures of the status quo—of which systemic racism is a fundamental part. Americans of color were losing, yes. “But did white people win?” she asks. “No, for the most part they lost right along with the rest of us. Racism got in the way of all of us having nice things.” Like swimming pools—which is why McGhee, in a CNN interview about the book, referred to this phenomenon as “drained pool politics.” The real winners are those at the top; they are disproportionately white, yes—but they’re all rich, something most whites are not.

Disparities in America result from conservative policies that, McGhee argues, hurt Americans of color and most whites. “It is conventional progressive economic wisdom that racism accelerates inequality for communities of color, but what if racism is actually driving inequality for everyone?” This is the guts of her analysis on how things are now, and it informs the way she believes progressives need to talk in order to win the kind of power required to change things going forward.

By no means is McGhee calling for ignoring race in favor of some kind of race-blind economic argument. The author knows that “the ledger of racial harms is nowhere near balanced.”

She recognizes the “risk” she is taking by broadening the scope of the conversation about the toll racism enacts beyond that felt by the people it most directly targets. She cites Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, both of whom wrote about how racism poisons the racists, and updates their argument as follows: “what’s clearer now in our time of growing inequality is that the economic benefit of the racial bargain is shrinking for all but the richest… . 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.”

In a podcast interview with Ezra Klein, McGhee spoke about the research—conducted under the auspices of Demos during her time there—that undergirds her belief in the need to talk about racism and economic inequality in a particular way (this is research that I’ve written about previously).

So you have the race left, which is talking about racial disparities and racial injustice, and which definitely galvanizes many people of color, though not all, and many white people who’ve made it part of their identity to be anti-racist, and then you have the class left that often says, you know what, that’s divisive. Let’s talk about economic populism, and let’s talk about the plutocrats and the 99 percent. There’s no difference among the 99 percent. It’s the 1 percent versus everybody else.

And what we found was that given how overwhelmingly powerful the megaphone is for the zero-sum scapegoating story, it wasn’t effective even with persuadable, slightly progressive voters, to ignore that zero-sum story and just say, hey, no, it’s about the 1 percent and the 99 percent. Ignore those divides. Ignore the stereotypes that are deeply ingrained in your brain about immigrants and poor Black people. Ignore what Donald Trump is saying and what Fox News is saying and what your neighbor is saying.

You have to actually give people a new way to think about that dominant narrative, because it’s not like they can ignore the dominant narrative. They need to recast the dominant narrative as a tool of the plutocrats, as a tool that stops us from joining together across lines of race to do what we can only do together and what we can’t do alone — things like adequately fund our infrastructure and our schools, things like tackle climate change, things like rewrite our trade laws to make sure that every American who wants one has a decent job. And it’s really important to not ignore just how profoundly racialized the story of the American economy and government is and has been for all of our history.

To return to the book, McGhee doesn’t just talk in abstracts and stories, she applies her analysis to broad policy choices. For example, most recently, COVID-19 saw the failure of our institutions to protect Black, brown, and Indigenous Americans. But here’s the thing, taking the steps to protect them properly would have made everyone else—including whites—safer too.

Of the many policy examples—some going back centuries—McGhee presents to demonstrate her case, the one about subprime mortgages is particularly instructive. She tells the story of the Tomlins, who in 1998 were essentially bamboozled into signing on to a mortgage with a subprime rate that they—with excellent credit—should not have had to pay in order to get a loan. The story included kickbacks from the lender to the corrupt mortgage broker—who lied about having a fiduciary responsibility to her customers, borrowers like the Tomlins.

The Tomlins are Black, and their plight parallels that of a large number of disproportionately Black and Latino households who were sold a bill of goods on subprime mortgages after the industry was deregulated in the late 1990s—a push led by Republicans but which centrist Democrats, including President Bill Clinton, joined as well. McGhee noted that between 2004 and 2008, Black and Latino households looking for a mortgage who had the same strong credit scores as white ones were three times as likely to end up borrowing at a higher interest rate.

Because the abuses were concentrated among those minority groups, little attention was paid outside of the activist community. McGhee called it “a tragedy playing out in Black and brown communities that would later take center stage in the global economy… . The earliest predatory mortgage lending victims, disproportionately Black, were the canaries in the coal mine, but their warning went unheeded.” She points out that had these abuses been halted earlier, the 2008 mortgage crash and the Great Recession that followed might have been far less severe or even avoided altogether.

That crash cost people their jobs, their homes, and their savings. It destroyed lives—the majority of those were white lives. Racism blinded the country to the problem festering in the mortgage industry until it was too late, and millions of white people suffered right alongside Americans of color. McGhee, after telling the story of the Tomlins, related what happened to a white homeowner, Amy Rogers, and how the crash—and the predatory policies of her lender, Wells Fargo, cost her the home she had worked so hard to own and keep. “The people who took Amy’s house could do so with impunity in 2013 only because they had been doing it to homeowners of color for over a decade already, and had built the practices, corporate cultures, and legal and regulatory loopholes to enable that plunder back when few people cared.”

Those white people like Amy Rogers who faced foreclosure after 2008 didn’t ultimately benefit from racism in the housing market. African Americans getting screwed on their mortgages in the years prior didn’t put money in those white people’s pockets—in the end, those unfair mortgage practices destroyed their homeownership dreams too. The book is full of real people that the author interviewed to demonstrate how, on issue after issue, racism harms white people as well as Americans of color. McGhee wants that to be the progressive message, because it is both true and can deliver the victories necessary to make change.

Labor unions have a long, complex history when it comes to racism, and McGhee doesn’t shy away from it. Yes, unions have practiced racial exclusion in the past. Nevertheless, employers dividing workers—especially by race—has been the single-most effective “tool against collective bargaining” as well as against a united, multiracial workforce organizing itself to demand better compensation and working conditions. Business owners benefit from “stoking competition and suspicion across groups.” It’s as simple as that. McGhee wants progressives to change workers’ consciousness, and explains how they can do it.

The message has to explicitly focus on cross-racial unity in order to directly combat the racial divisions pushed by conservative forces fronting for the economic elite. McGhee told of the signs she saw in Kansas City’s movement of fast food workers: “RACIAL UNITY NOW: WE WON’T FIGHT EACH OTHER” and “BLACK, WHITE, BROWN: WE FIGHT WAGE SLAVERY AND RACIAL DIVISION” and “BLACK, WHITE, BROWN: DEFEAT MCPOVERTY AND DEFEAT HATE.” She contrasted this kind of message with ones she saw during a unionization drive in Canton, Ohio—one that failed. That one had discussed race only by talking about racial justice. The Kansas City movement “explicitly included white people in the coalition and named division, not just racial oppression, as a common enemy.”

That message changed the consciousness of white workers like Bridget Hughes. Bridget told the author that, before joining the movement, she had seen immigrants and people of color as her competition—“stealing our jobs … us against them”—the zero-sum racial story. And her employers fed that division, Bridget pointed out. But the movement made her see things differently. “In order for all of us to come up, they have to come up too—because we have to come up together. Because honestly, as long as we’re divided, we’re conquered.”

This movement of workers, McGhee noted, took on not only wage increases, but also “explicitly [said] that overcoming racism was crucial to their class-based goal.” Bridget added, in talking about the election of Trump in 2016, “the whole point of this movement is for white workers to understand that racism affects white workers as well. Because it keeps us divided from our Black and our brown brothers and sisters. So we need to understand that as white workers, we, too, need to stand up and fight against racism.”

Here we see a united movement fighting for racial and economic justice, and having a much better chance of success because it was intentional about including members of all racial groups, as McGhee emphasized. “By inviting white workers to see how the powerful profited from selling them a racist story that cost everybody (‘whether brown, Black, or white,’ as workers so often said), the Fight for $15 had managed to win the support of whites as well.”

This solidarity is what we need, and the author cites how labor’s greatest historical successes occurred after unions finally integrated and brought to bear the collective power of the multiracial working class. Even now, the achievements already won by Fight for $15 demonstrates the power of that cross-racial, working-class unity—and they are going to keep winning.

Regarding what kinds of policies we need, McGhee endorsed an approach developed by john a. powell, a Berkeley law professor, called “targeted universalism.” One size fits all universal solutions cannot solve problems created and exacerbated by racism, but we still need to address injustices and inequalities that affect members of all groups. So, McGhee advocates for targeted universalism, by which policy makers “set a universal policy goal and then develop strategies to achieve the goal that take into account the varied situations of the groups involved.” For example, McGhee points to proposals on housing made by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and now-Vice President Kamala Harris during their 2020 presidential campaigns that would deliver financial assistance to potential homeowners living in areas affected by historic redlining as part of a broader program to help lower-income people buy homes.

McGhee is not ignorant of the spoils that white supremacy in all its forms, including slavery, gave to its beneficiaries. Even there, however, she argues that a different system might well have brought greater material benefits to many whites. “The zero-sum story of racial hierarchy…is an invention of the worst elements of our society: people who gained power through ruthless exploitation and kept it by sowing constant division. It has always optimally benefited only the few while limiting the potential of the rest of us, and therefore the whole.” The alternative path would have been—and remains—cross-racial solidarity of the many standing united against the interests of the powerful few.

This is not a radically new idea. Speaking of material benefits, McGhee’s argument reminds me of the famous Lyndon Johnson line, quoted during the Trump presidency by Charles Blow: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” McGhee herself noted that absorbing a steady diet of racial resentment and an illusory feeling of racial superiority doesn’t actually fill anyone’s stomach. In fact it directly damages many white people’s health—a point also documented powerfully by Jonathan Metzl, in his book Dying of Whiteness, which McGhee cites.

Similarly, McGhee declares: “To this day, the wealthy and the powerful are selling the zero-sum story for their own profit, hoping to keep people with much in common from making common cause with each other.” The conservative movement is “invested in ginning up white resentment toward lateral scapegoats (similarly or worse-situated people of color) to escape accountability for a massive redistribution of wealth from the many to the few.”

McGhee has a different hope, growing out of the rejection of Trumpism at the ballot box in 2020, as she found people who rejected that old story in favor of “a new formula of cross-racial solidarity” that produced a “‘Solidarity Dividend’ from higher wages to cleaner air, made possible through collective action.” Moving forward, McGhee wants to change our “consciousness,” and “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.”

Winning in politics is all about telling stories that resonate with voters. Republicans have long understood that their path to power lies in telling a story that, to paraphrase The American President, makes white people afraid of something, and then tells them who to blame for it. That something is their fellow Americans—those who have a different skin color.

As Democrats conduct their post-election review, and develop their plans for how to do better next time, they must realize the importance of telling a different story. Our story—laid out beautifully by Heather McGhee in her new book—is one that connects racism and economic inequality, instead of elevating the primacy of either one over the other.

The story McGhee wants Democrats to tell can change the way people of different races who share a similar economic situation understand their relationship to one another. It can create a multiracial coalition of all those struggling to make it economically, united against the plutocrats oppressing every one of them. That’s a coalition that can bring about real progressive change on issues ranging from wages and taxes, to consumer protection, to climate, to police violence, to racial discrimination. All Democrats have to do is listen to her.

Ian Reifowitz is the author of  The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)





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