04 November 2021

The Sum of Us All (2): Working Together to Fill the Pool

Written by 
“Chairman of the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) Archbishop Desmond Tutu (R) hands over the TRC report to South Africa's President Nelson Mandela at the State theater Building in Pretoria on Oct. 29, 1998. South Africa's Truth Commission found that the ruling African National Congress is politically and morally accountable for gross human rights violations committed during its 30-year struggle against apartheid.” Credit: Reuters “Chairman of the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) Archbishop Desmond Tutu (R) hands over the TRC report to South Africa's President Nelson Mandela at the State theater Building in Pretoria on Oct. 29, 1998. South Africa's Truth Commission found that the ruling African National Congress is politically and morally accountable for gross human rights violations committed during its 30-year struggle against apartheid.” Credit: Reuters https://theworld.org/stories/2017-04-06/south-africas-imperfect-progress-20-years-after-truth-reconciliation-commission

The Apostle Paul, a diaspora Jew from Tarsus (today’s Turkey), was also a Roman citizen. Perhaps that is partially why he writes to the church in Corinth, Greece, “Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God” (Rom. 13:1). Jesus too, when faced with a loaded question about paying taxes to Rome (Jews in Palestine were under Roman occupation), famously answered, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God” (Mark 12:17). The apostle John, now an old man and an exile on the Island of Patmos, identifies Rome as Babylon, the quintessential evil city, because it persecutes God’s people and it has “made all the nations of the world drink the wine of her passionate immorality” (Rev. 14:8 NLT).

So human government is at the same time 1) a necessary consequence of our human calling to manage God’s creation – all aspects, including fellow humans – justly and compassionately (Gen. 1; Psalm 8); and 2) a power structure that is easily subverted into becoming a cruel instrument of oppression. That second aspect is likely behind Paul’s exhortation to Timothy, his protégé:


“I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity” (I Tim. 2:1-2, NLT).


Government must do its part

In this second half of my essay on Heather McGee’s book, The Sum of Us All, I will argue that the United States of America will never fulfill its founding pledge to provide liberty and justice for all unless its government redresses the longstanding injustices that have kept its poor from thriving, the most disadvantaged of whom are people of color. Heather McGee explains the role of government this way:


“A functioning society rests on a web of mutuality, a willingness among all involved to share enough with one another to accomplish what no one person can do alone . . . I can’t create my own electric grid, school system, internet, or healthcare system – and the most efficient way to ensure that those things are created and available to all on a fair and open basis is to fund and provide them publicly . . . For most of the twentieth century, leaders of both parties agreed on the wisdom of those investments, from Democratic president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Depression-era jobs programs to Republican president Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System to Republican Richard Nixon’s Supplemental Security Income for the elderly and people with disabilities” (21).


Yet as we saw in the first half of this post, "For most of our history, the beneficiaries of America’s free public investments were whites only." A few examples:


    • The Homestead Act of 1862 (gave 160 acres of land stolen from Indian nations to any citizen or soon-to-be citizen – people who after the 1790 Naturalization Act had to be white); an 1866 southern equivalent allowed less than 6,000 Black families to become landowners, but that’s compared to 1.6 million white familes;
    • During the Great Depression the government subsidized mortgages for millions of white Americans but circled all but a handful of Black neighborhoods in red, signaling that no loans should be made to them;
    • The New Deal raised the minimum wage and overtime pay for most American workers but with pressure from Southern Democrats excluded the jobs that employed most Blacks (domestic and agriculture);
    • The GI Bill of 1944 paid the college tuition of hundreds of thousands of veterans, catapulting a generation of men into professional careers – but few Black servicemen benefited, as local administrators funneled most Black servicemen to segregated vocational schools” (22). Result: homeownership for whites reached 3 out of 4 families; but only two out of 5 families for Blacks and Latinx families;
    • Suburbs were created by government investment in the federal highway system and subsidies for private developers; “but demanded racial covenants (‘white only’ clauses in housing contracts) to prevent Black people from buying into them”;
    • Social Security provided income to millions of elderly Americans, but by excluding certain jobs, ensured that few Blacks could benefit from it;
    • Even unions, which the New Deal favored, barred Blacks from joining them until the 1960s.


Plainly, the net effect of all this government investment in its people under the New Deal was “to ensure a large, secure, and white middle class” (22). Yet with the advent of desegregation and the Civil Rights laws, white people faced the prospect of sharing those benefits with their Black co-citizens. With such a long history of privilege, white Americans had grown accustomed to these advantages, and so much so that ‘the elevated status’ these now conferred upon them seemed 'natural and almost innate.” McGee explains,


“White society had repeatedly denied people of color economic benefits on the premise that they were inferior; those unequal benefits then reified the hierarchy, making whites actually economically superior. What would it mean to white people, both materially and psychologically, if the supposedly inferior people received the same treatment from the government? The period since integration has tested many whites’ commitment to the public, in ways big and small” (22-23).


One easy way to measure this white resentment is to follow the social science studies documenting the racist backlash in the wake of President Barack Obama’s election. Brown University political scientist Michael Tesler studied the connection between race and American attitudes toward the 2010 Affordable Care Act: “He concluded that whites with higher levels of racial resentment and more anti-Black stereotypes grew more opposed to healthcare reform after it became associated with President Obama” (52-53). Another study by Eric Knowles, Brian Lowery, and Rebecca Schaumberg at Stanford University found that the data “support the notions that racial prejudice is one factor driving opposition to Obama and his policies” (53). This is not surprising since people like Rush Limbaugh were calling the ACA “a civil rights bill … this is reparations, whatever you want to call it.”

Yet the people suffering the most from this resistance to the ACA were rural white people. McGhee points to the closure of 120 rural hospitals in the last ten years – and all of them in states that refused to expand Medicaid, as the ACA was calling for. The state leading in hospital closures is Texas (26 so far). At the beginning of the pandemic she talked to Don McBeath, who “does government relations for a Texas network of rural hospitals called TORCH” and asked him why the hospital system was in crisis mode. One big factor, he answered, is that “Texas has probably one of the narrowest Medicaid coverage programs in the country” (54). It turns out, a person making only $4,000 a year is still too rich to qualify for Medicaid! With so few people insured, it’s the state that has to pay all those unpaid medical bills. No wonder the system is failing and people are dying for lack of adequate care.

It’s the same story in other southern states like Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi. But that’s not how the Affordable Care Act was designed:


“When the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, it expanded qualification for Medicaid to 138 percent of the poverty level for all adults (about $30,000 for a family of three in 2020) and equalized eligibility rules across all states. But in 2012, a Supreme Court majority invoked states’ rights to strike down the Medicaid expansion and make it optional. Within the year, the lines were drawn in an all-too-familiar way: almost all the states of the former Confederacy refused to expand Medicaid, while most other states did. Without Medicaid expansion, people of color in those states struggle more – they are the ones most likely to be denied health benefits on the job – but white people are still the largest share of the 4.4 million working Americans who would have Medicaid if the law had been left intact. So, a states’ rights legal theory most often touted to defend segregation struck at the heart of the first Black president’s healthcare protections for working-class people of all races” (56).


The ironic fact is that Texas, with its majority of people of color (40% Latinx, 13% Black, 5% Asian) is represented by a state legislature with a two-thirds majority of whites and a three-quarters majority of males. Governor Greg Abbott intends to keep his GOP majority by means of crude voter suppression. In September 2021 he signed a bill with seven changes that make it harder for many to vote. And most of those will be people of color.

Voter suppression is also a theme McGee highlights in her book. Though it was a regular practice in southern states since the end of the Civil War, it wasn’t until the election of America’s first Black president that this movement, spearheaded and bankrolled by a group of right-wing billionaires, spread to all the swing states.


“These same billionaires funded the lawsuit, Shelby County v. Holder, to bring a challenge to the Voting Rights Act’s most powerful provision. Decided by a 5-4 majority at the beginning of President Obama’s second term, Shelby County v. Holder lifted the federal government’s protection from citizens and states and counties with long records of discriminatory voting procedures. Immediately across the country, Republican legislatures felt free to restrict voting rights … Between the 2013 Shelby decision and the 2018 election, twenty-three states raised new barriers to voting. Although about 11 percent of the population (disproportionately low-income people, seniors, and people of color) do not have access to photo IDs, by 2020, six states still demanded them in order for people to vote, and an additional twenty-six states made voting much easier if you had an ID” (149).


The Solidarity Dividend

Stanford economist Gavin Wright’s 2013 book, Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South, documents how “after the Voting Rights Act . . . southern . . . gubernatorial campaigns increasingly featured themes of economic development and education” (159). That is, they realized they couldn’t just get reelected via racist dog whistling. Increased numbers of ballots also meant that more poor folk had a chance to influence the powerful. This was a win for all the poor, Black and white, but it was mostly due to the Black leadership that all benefited from “investments in public infrastructure, including hospitals, roads, schools, and libraries that had been starved when one-party rule allowed only the southern aristocracy to set the rules” (159).

When democracy is unfettered and widened, allowing all citizens equal access to the polls and other means of political involvement, everyone wins. McGhee’s last chapter, “The Solidarity Dividend,” is the pièce de resistance, the whole point of the book. It begins with a long story of the transformation of Lewiston, Maine, from a booming and prosperous cotton mill city in the late 1800s to the dilapidated and economically depressed city it was until recently. It’s also the second largest city in a state “with the whitest and oldest population in the country,” one of the ten states ranking highest in opioid deaths. The governor, Paul LePage, “campaigned and governed on rhetoric about illegal immigrants on welfare and drug-dealing people of color” (255). He also “vetoed Medicaid expansion for the working class five times and delivered large tax cuts for the wealthy” (256). But that is not the end of the story, and certainly not for Lewiston.

McGhee spent several days walking the streets and talking to people, including the city’s deputy administrator and urban planner, Phil Nadeau, on the job there since the early 2000s. Manufacturing in Lewiston started losing in the 1970s, first to the American South where labor was cheaper, then in the 1980s to China and Southeast Asia. Young people were leaving with no one left to work the service jobs in town. As the population dwindled, Lewiston couldn’t attract new employers.

Then a miracle of sorts happened. In the early 1990s, the government gave a green light for thousands of Somali refugees to be resettled in the US. First, they were sent to the suburbs of Atlanta, Minneapolis, then to Portland, Maine, then to Lewiston. Many other African refugees came too – from Djibouti, Chad, Sudan and the Congo. With a sparkle in his eye, Nadeau told McGhee that these “new Mainers” were renting apartments that had long been empty and “filling storefronts on Lisbon Street that were vacant for a long time. They’re contributing to the economy” (258). Yes, it helped that there was “good regional planning and maintenance of the historic assets,” but a bipartisan think tank estimated that these recent African immigrants “contributed $194 million in state and local taxes in 2018” (259).

Phil Nadeau plans to retire soon and travel around the country to share his story “about how immigration can be a win-win for locals.” He was beaming, she writes. And just behind him, on the wall, was the portrait of a victorious Muhammad Ali looking down on Sonny Liston, whom he had just knocked out in Lewiston’s youth hockey rink in 1965. It was his career-defining fight. It was also when he made public his new Muslim name. Who would have guessed that so many Muslim immigrants would come to settle this city years later?

But Lewiston is far from alone in accepting refugees who then reverse the fortunes of the towns and cities that welcome them. McGhee notes, “for the past twenty years, Latinx, African, and Asian immigrants have been repopulating small towns across America” (259). The first place she mentions is 45 minutes from us, Kennett Square, PA. Arguably the mushroom capital of America, this sleepy town is now half Latinx, and these new immigrants have revitalized this traditional business (my wife’s grandfather co-owned a mushroom company in the vicinity).

This is happening across the country. One study of 2,600 rural towns since 1990 found that two-thirds of them lost population. But among those that gained population, “one in five owes the entirety of its growth to immigration” (260). By 2010, “people of color made up nearly 83 percent of the growth in rural population in America.” Though many of these longtime residents are surely tempted to feel threatened by the newcomers, “the growth and prosperity the new people bring give the lie to the zero-sum model.” As the local newspaper editor of Storm Lake, Iowa, wrote in 2018, if the local residents don’t put behind them their prejudice and work with the newly arrived to rebuild their hometowns, “there will be nobody left to turn out the lights by 2050. . . Asians and Africans and Latinos are our lifeline” (260).

But it’s not all about a growing economy. It’s also about new friendships budding and community being built. The first workers to come to Lewiston were French Canadians. One the stories that sticks with me (I did grow up in France), is that of Cécile Thornton (b. 1955) whose parents spoke French to her as a child. But like the second generation of many immigrants, she lost it over the years. While many others were offering ESL courses to help the immigrants learn English, Cécile, now retired and feeling alone because her whole family had migrated to other states, decided to visit the Franco Center downtown Lewiston to resurrect her French. But she only found a room full of elderly white people like herself who had given up trying to speak French.

But that visit was fruitful in another way. When she complained that she wasn’t going to learn any French there, one man told her, “You should go to the French Club at Hillview.” Hillview, she knew, was a “subsidized housing project.” Undeterred, she soon showed up at that French Club. To her shock, she was the only white person there. On that first visit, she hit it off with Edho who had recently come with his family from Congo. Greetings and small talk turned into the longest French conversation she had had since her childhood. She kept coming, and when she noticed that some of her new African friends were starting classes at the community college, she convinced them to attend the Franco Center, now a more convenient location for them. The result was a joy to behold: the two groups were now becoming friends – “the elderly white Mainers with halting vocabularies learning from new Black Mainers who spoke fluently” (262).

This life-changing experience gave Cécile a new lease on life. She now volunteers with asylum seekers, helping them navigate the social services and connecting them to other resources and people along the way.

Perhaps the most striking story is that of how Bruce Noddin and ZamZam became friends. Bruce, married with two kids, had owned a successful sports equipment store but then fell into drug and alcohol addiction and nearly lost everything, including his life. With his wife’s help and a good recovery program, he started to participate in a jail ministry. One day in the parking lot he met this lady who was bringing some hot food to the Muslim inmates to break their Ramadan fast. They started a conversation; she introduced herself as Zamzam and said he should “join the Maine People’s Alliance, a 32,000-member-strong grassroots group advocating for policies like Medicaid expansion, a minimum wage increase, paid sick leave, and support for home care” (263).

One thing led to another, and Bruce made a lot of new Muslim friends from Somalia and Djibouti. But he took initiative using his leadership skills, and he is today the main organizer of the yearly Community Unity Barbecue that draws hundreds of Lewiston residents. In speaking with McGhee, he expressed his deep gratitude for the turn his life had taken:


“The vision for me for this city, it’s [that we will] embrace our past, embrace our ethnicity . . . and then embrace the people that are here now that are just like those people who came here a hundred plus years ago. They’re exactly like that. But actually, they’re worse off. They didn’t always have a job. They were escaping atrocities in their country. They were escaping possibly dying or seeing their children die. And they need[ed] to work. There should be a massive amount of empathy from that next two, three, four generations down from those people that went through the same stuff as these people are going through, and saying, ‘We’re going to embrace you. You’re going to help us make this city great again’” (264).


McGhee then recounts how Ben Chin, the director of Maine People’s Alliance, helped to build a winning multiracial coalition which has begun to change the face of Maine politics. Ben, a millennial whose grandfather had emigrated from China and who himself had come to Lewiston for college and stayed, was also an Episcopalian lay minister. His community organizing over time paid off. Starting with the 2017 local elections, the Alliance won “a string of victories that begun to refill the pool of public services in Maine – and justify Ben’s faith.” McGhee explains: “Maine became the first state in the nation to expand Medicaid by ballot initiative over the governor’s repeated refusal” (269).

There was indeed a lot of race-baiting during that campaign, but Ben was adamant: what got them to the finish line was the multiracial coalition, “a broad-base of working-class people . . . not the muckety-mucks.” And for the first time, it was the immigrant-led political action committees that made the difference, including the “Somali taxi drivers who used their infrastructure of radios and vehicles to get elderly, homebound immigrant and poor Mainers to the polls safely” (269).

That is the “Solidarity Dividend,” she exclaims. The next year, these activists made possible the election of many new politicians who then “passed reforms to address the opioid epidemic and guarantee a generous paid-time-off for Maine workers.”


A transformational blueprint: TRHT

I want to end with a movement that was McGhee’s mother’s brain child (Dr. Gail Christopher). Her idea soon gained traction and in 2017 fourteen committees across the country adopted it as their project. The blueprint was called Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation (TRHT). By 2018, twenty-four universities had TRHT centers. Then came the George Floyd protests of 2020. In her words,


“Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) introduced a resolution urging the establishment of a U.S. TRHT Commission. The TRHT framework was developed in 2016 with input of over 175 experts convened by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. The experts learned from the forty truth-and-reconciliation processes across the globe that had helped societies process traumas – from South Africa to Chile to Sri Lanka – but they explicitly left the word reconciliation out of the name for the U.S. effort. ‘To reconcile,’ notes the TRHT materials, ‘connotes restoration of friendly relations – “reuniting” or “bringing together again after conflict,” [whereas] the U.S. needs transformation. The nation was conceived . . . on this belief in racial hierarch’” (282).


In Dallas, it was Jerry Hawkins, a middle-aged Black man, who took up the TRHT challenge. At first, it was a stretch for him to even consider this, because a Black veteran had just killed five Dallas police officers and two civilians. But that too was why community leaders were urging Hawkins to take the job. Of the many suggestions offered in the TRHT manual, two of them immediately stuck out to him as urgent. Hawkins explains it to McGhee:


“One was a community racial history . . . this historical analysis of policy and place, of race, and the people from Indigenous times to present. And second was this community visioning process . . . this was of convening [a] multiracial, multifaceted group of people together, to come up with a shared community vision of how to end this hierarchy of human value?” (284)


Over three years, Hawkins and his committee dug deeply into the history of the Dallas area and interviewed hundreds of people from all walks of life. They published a report. As McGhee puts it, “In the opening pages, bold orange words bleed to the edges of a two-page spread: DALLAS IS ON STOLEN LAND. And a few pages later, again: DALLAS WAS BUILT WITH STOLEN LABOR.” She then adds, “Jerry called stolen land and stolen labor the first two public policies in Dallas” (284).

Whereas some cities in America boast multiple organizations working on racial equity, this is the only one in this conservative stronghold of Dallas. Yet it has brought about some spectacular breakthroughs in the hearts of many civic leaders already. Both the city and the Dallas school district boast offices of racial equity. Attitudes have begun to change.


Parting words

I began this second part of this essay on McGhee’s book by citing the Apostle Paul’s admonition to Timothy to “pray for all people,” and especially “for kings and all who are in authority.” Why? So that we could “live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity.” The TRHT manual is right. When it comes to racial healing in America, it’s transformation we need. People of faith would add the word “repentance.” Just as white leaders (and Black ones too) confessed their crimes under the Apartheid regime in South Africa, so healing and true peace could take root. In the U.S. today, we need many more local TRHT initiatives, and we need a national one as well. Join me in praying for that!

Then, perhaps, we could find bipartisan ways to pass laws to “fill the pool” and together – whites, blacks, browns, people of all faiths and no faith, or “the sum of us all” – rebuild the physical, social, and economic infrastructure this nation needs so desperately. Government, hand in hand with business and civil society (including churches, mosques, synagogues, etc.), could help build a society “marked by godliness and dignity,” a beloved community “with liberty and justice for all.”