October 2021

The three Abrahamic traditions picture a Creator God who will judge individuals and nations with perfect justice. After all, He masters all the facts of each case, and He knows the secrets of every human heart. In my last post, I pointed out the positive achievements of J. William Fulbright in sending out thousands of young Americans to create goodwill around the world, as well as his racist attitude in supporting racial segregation at home.

We read in the Qur’an, “Whoever does good does it for himself and whoever does evil does it against himself: your Lord is never unjust to His creatures” (Q. 41:46). In other words, a good God has written justice into the fabric of His universe. In the vernacular, you reap what you sow. The original saying is in Paul’s letter to the Galatians:


Don’t be misled—you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always harvest what you plant. Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit. So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. (Galatians 6:7-9, NLT)


Plainly, my country has a lot to atone for, from the near genocide of its native population to over three centuries of chattel slavery, from the Jim Crow laws and the terror of public lynchings to the red-lining and other laws designed to oppress and dispossess African Americans. But then came the civil rights era and more recently the thousands of whites flooding the streets in 2020 to protest racial injustice and call for an end to systemic racism. Repentance begins with taking stock of the evils we’ve committed. Then we decide to move in the opposite direction. I am hopeful we can change for the better … together.

This is the first of a two-part blog post on a book that came out this year, and none too soon. Heather McGhee, an African American woman (BA in American studies at Yale, JD from UC Berkeley) who has specialized in economic and social policy; additionally, she has “drafted legislation, testified before Congress, and contributed regularly to news shows including NBC’s Meet the Press.” She was president of Demos, a think tank focused on the issue of inequality and “now chairs the board of Color of Change, the nation’s largest online racial justice organization” (from the book jacket).

The book title is straightforward: The Sum of Us All: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. There are no numbered footnotes but a running documentation based on a few short phrases on each page found in the Notes section (100 pages in all!). This is followed up by two full pages of interviews, with full names followed by month and year, and so the book is peppered with the stories of the people McGhee met during her three years of traveling for this project. This is a page turner, but the research that went into it is colossal (because of her many connections, it was a collaborative venture from the start, with grants from several foundations).


A three-year USA road trip

Heather McGhee began her work at Demos in the early 2000s researching household debt. But she discovered it wasn’t just credit card debt that was ensnaring Black and Latinx families in greater proportion to white ones; by then too, disproportionately minority households were being saddled with bankruptcies and foreclosures because of a new type of mortgage loans ominously draining the equity from their homes. These became infamous during the Great Recession: subprime loans that were “sold to investment banks who bundled them and sold shares in them to investors, creating mortgage-backed securities” (92).

At first, it was only poorer communities of color who were canvassed for this type of “refinancing scheme” (first-time owners were in the minority). These investments soon became very profitable for Wall Street firms, while at the same time the loan sharks had no vested interest in helping the homeowners manage to repay them. As she puts it, “The homeowner’s loss could be the investor’s gain.” But because these arrangements worked so well for the financial firms, the mortgage people spread their “unfair and risky practices” to the wider market, and it was white households – in greater numbers – that now fell victim to this predatory lending.

Demos had launched an ambitious study in 2003 on household debt, the most comprehensive ever done on the topic. It garnered them “newspaper editorials, meetings with banks, congressional hearings, and legislation to limit credit card rates and fees” (xiii). But two years later, Congress passed a bankruptcy bill that favored the credit industry and hammered vulnerable household owners even more than before. McGhee took note: research will only go so far in Washington. So when years later Donald Trump entered the White House, she decided to do something radical: step down as president and spend three years touring the country to find out why what she had been taught about economics did not explain the data.

Yes, she was told, race and inequality are related, but in a linear fashion: “structural racism accelerates inequality for communities of color” (xii). But again and again, since the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, white Americans dependably voted for politicians who would shrink taxes for the wealthy while cutting back government spending on education, healthcare, and infrastructure – all goods their lives depended on. And now they voted in droves for “a man whose agenda promised to wreak economic, social, and environmental havoc on them along with everyone else” (xvii)! It didn’t make any sense.

Her first clue came from a series of psychology studies:


Psychologists Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson presented white Americans with news articles about people of color becoming the majority of the population by 2042. The study authors then asked their 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 shift their policy views because of it, even on ‘race-neutral policies’ like raising the minimum wage 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’” (xviii).


She then realized that this idea of racial groups in competition with one another, and whites in particular feeling threatened by the progress non-whites could potentially make, was exactly the propaganda they had been fed over the last few decades by conservative media: beware, because there are “makers and takers,” “taxpayers and freeloaders,” and the liberals lavish “handouts” on those too lazy to work, be they people of color or immigrants forcing their way in. But this racism is a self-defeating trap for the whites just as much as everyone else. This zero-sum paradigm is really a lie peddled by the wealthy one percent who know that fanning the flames of racism gives them the cover they need to exploit the masses – “hoping to keep people with much in common from making common cause with one another” (xxii).


An idea rooted in our history

That zero-sum idea goes all the way back to our history of chattel slavery. The story of the United States cannot be told “without the central character of race” (7). Racial taxonomies of the 17th century aimed not just at differentiating various groups of humans, but at assigning relative worth to each of them. The resulting hierarchy – with Europeans on top – gave the master race “moral permission to exploit and enslave.” [A 2019 article in Quaternary Science Reviews argues that the death of 56 million indigenous people in the Americas after the arrival of the Europeans resulted in the increase of carbon in the atmosphere!] From the beginning, the US economy was built “on literally taking land and labor from racialized others to enrich white colonizers and slaveholders.” The corollary only reinforced the status quo: “that liberation or justice for people of color would necessarily require taking something away from white people” (7).

Slavery enriched both South and North. Slaveowners benefited from both free land and free labor. Think about it:


Under slavery’s formative capitalist logic, an enslaved man or woman was both a worker and an appreciating asset. Recounts economic historian Caitlin Rosenthal, “Thomas Jefferson described the appreciation of slaves as a ‘silent profit’ of between 5 and 10 percent annually, and he advised friends to invest accordingly” (8).


The ongoing costs incurred by the slaveowner were minimal, and he even had an incentive to use sexual violence to increase the number of his slaves. But the benefit accrued to Northerners as well. Northern insurance companies (including some still in business today, like New York Life and Aetna) profited from policies that insured the life of slaves. Such life insurance policies would pay back owners three quarters of a slave’s market value upon death. The fortunes of many other northern corporations were tied up with slavery, which “legally persisted in the North until 1846.” Slavery was feeding all parts of the US economy.

Another way race drilled the zero-sum mentality into the white psyche was in the way it defined who was an American and who was not. Most of the Europeans emigrating to the colonies in the early period were poor and certainly not “free” – overwhelmingly, they came from the servant class. But after several mixed racial rebellions in the late 1600s, colonial governments began to enact new laws that reveal “a deliberate effort to legislate a new hierarchy between poor whites and the ‘basically uncivil, unchristian, and above all, unwhite Native and African laborers’” (10). Here, the zero-sum reality begins to sink in: only whites are given the right to own property and slaves lost that right. One law even stipulated that the proceeds from the sale of a slave’s property would be given to “the poor of the parish,” who were, of course, white.

Hence, at the dawn of the eighteenth century, whites could experience a form of freedom they never dreamed of having in the old country – but it came at the cost of Black subjugation. As McGhee puts it,


“Eternal slavery provided a new caste that even the poorest white-skinned person could hover above and define himself against. . . . You can imagine how, whether or not you owned slaves yourself, you might willingly buy into a zero-sum model to gain the sense of freedom that rises with the subordination of others” (11).


Racism drained the pool

That is the title of McGhee’s second chapter. The public swimming pool is a prime example of white Americans choosing to deny themselves a public good they’re were very much enjoying, but the fact that Black Americans were using it was enough of a reason to shut it down and fill it with concrete. From the late 1940s on, this happened all over America. Sometimes, rather than share the municipal pool with African American children, city councils leased the pool for a song to a private, whites-only association, as happened in Warren, Ohio, and Montgomery, West Virginia. Montgomery, Alabama, had a sprawling public park with a zoo, community center, and the largest pool of the area, as well as a dozen other parks in the city. But when a federal court ruled that monopolizing it for whites was unconstitutional, the city council dissolved the entire park system. That was the rule almost everywhere.

“Draining the pool” is an apt, if sad, metaphor for the way American racism drained public spending for a variety of public goods over the next decades. That it hurt more whites than people of color did not seem to factor into white voting patterns. This is what she learned all over the country from talking to people of all walks of life over three years: anti-government animus was tied to that zero-sum worldview that equates progress for people of color with loss of status and wealth for whites (by the way, Black respondents never saw it that way).

What has that done for us as a nation? Though we are the wealthiest nation on earth, our per capita government spending “is near the bottom of the list of industrial countries, below Latvia and Estonia.” She explains, “Our roads, bridges, and water systems get a D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers. With the exception of about forty years from the New Deal to the 1970s, the United States has had a weaker commitment to public goods, and to the public good, than every country that possess anywhere near our wealth” (17). We’ve been “draining our pool” for a good while now.

Historians and other social scientists have pinpointed exactly when white voters pulled their support for an activist government – one that, according to 65 percent of white people in 1956, “ought to guarantee a job to anyone who wanted one and to provide a minimum standard of living in the country.” Yet between 1960 when that figure was up to 70 percent and 1964 when it crashed to 35 percent, something momentous must have happened. And it did.


“In August 1963, white Americans tuned in to the March on Washington (which was for ‘Jobs and Freedom’). They saw the nation’s capital overtaken by a group of mostly Black activists demanding not just an end to discrimination, but some of the same economic ideas that had been overwhelmingly popular with whites: a jobs guarantee for all workers and a higher minimum wage” (29).


Race was clearly an issue, but not that old form of “biological racism” that put Europeans at the apex of a hierarchy of human racial groupings. No, white Americans had adapted to at least some of the narrative of the civil rights era. Instead of biological racism, it was “a new form of racial disdain” based “on perceived culture and behavior.” As professors Donald R. Kinder and Lynn Saunders’ 1996 book demonstrated (Divided by Color: Racial Politics and Democratic Ideals, U. of Chicago Press), this new kind of anti-Black animus was more of a “racial resentment.” Their study of the American National Election Studies (ANES) survey data indicated that though whites seemed more comfortable with racial equality and integration, “their backing for policies designed to bring equality and integration about has scarcely increased at all. Indeed in some cases white support has actually declined” (30).

McGhee and a colleague dove into the 2016 ANES data and discovered that “there was a sixty-point difference in support of increased government spending based on whether you were a white person with high versus low racial resentment. Government, it turned out, had become a highly racialized character in the white story of our country” (30). She explains,


“When the people with power in a society see a portion of the populace as inferior and underserving, their definition of ‘the public’ becomes conditional. It’s often unconscious, but their perception of the Other as underserving 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” (30).


This attitude, however, does not come out of thin air. McGhee shares how a 2014 book by one of her law school professors, Ian Haney López (Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class), helped her “connect the dots.” President Reagan followed his advisors’ advice by continuing “the fifty-state Southern Strategy that could focus on taxes and spending while still hitting the emotional notes of white resentment.” She then quotes him in a conversation they had about this:


“Plutocrats use dog-whistle politics to appeal to whites with a basic formula. First, fear people of color. Then, hate the government (which coddles people of color). Finally, trust the market and the 1 percent.”


Apparently, this strategy has worked very well, at least until 2020, and this discourse is not about to disappear, funded as it is by a coterie of conservative billionaires and millionaires. But it has “drained the pool” for all of us, as McGhee demonstrates throughout her book – in education (think of student debt, for instance), healthcare, the gutting of unions and workers’ rights, housing, infrastructure and environmental protection.


God’s judgment and grace

I started with the thought of dark clouds of judgment about to close in on us as a nation. The Hebrew Bible’s prophets certainly point to God’s swift judgment on nations that oppress others. Yes, he raised up Babylon, and before that, Assyria, to bring judgment upon several nations, including Israel. But they too in the end harvested destruction for the crimes against humanity they committed so wantonly.

Heather McGhee is not a religious person, she tells us. Nor was her mother, though their family included Christian and Muslim members. But she suspects that there is a transcendent being or force that somehow lies behind reality. But as you will see in the second part of this post, she is certainly hopeful. You don’t see anger or resentment as she tells the story of how racism has cursed our nation to this day. She is amazingly optimistic that a large enough interracial coalition can gather and turn this nation around.

I hope she’s right. As people of faith, as most of my readers are, I surmise, we pray that God himself will step in, lead us to repentance (I include myself, as this article makes clear), and then find ways to work together for the common good across all barriers of race, cultures of origin, and class.