Welcome to Moyers on Democracy.
Heather McGhee is descended from slaves in the American South. Her great- grandparents and grandparents came north to work in the steel mills. She grew up on the south side of Chicago, taught in Spain and studied writing in Hollywood, then decided to change the world, or at least try. At 22, working for the non-profit organization Demos in New York, she plunged into the fight for debt reform, then tackled Wall Street corruption and consumer protection, and wound up president of Demos, leading its campaign against political and economic inequality. Her forthcoming book – THE SUM OF US – dedicated to her mother, Dr. Gail Christopher — couldn’t be more timely. Hopefully it will wind up on Joe Biden’s bedside reading table as he prepares to cope with a raging pandemic, an economic crisis, our overwhelmed health system, and an imperiled work force. There’s plenty of food for thought – and quite a heap of hope – in Heather McGhee’s informed account of how we can prosper together if only we cross the racial divide. Here at Moyers on Democracy we hope THE SUM OF US winds up on your reading table, too. Here to talk with Heather McGhee is Bill Moyers.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome, Heather. Very good to see you again. If President-elect Joe Biden asked me for one book to read between now and the inauguration, I would recommend your book THE SUM OF US. And I would urge him to require every new member of the White House staff, member of the Cabinet, and incoming director of an agency or department to read it as well.
HEATHER MCGHEE: Wow.
BILL MOYERS: You set out to actually do an accounting of the hidden cost of racism.
What’s the core message you would hope they would take from it as they put together an administration trying to do what Biden keeps saying is his aspiration, to unify the country?
HEATHER MCGHEE: The message of the book THE SUM OF US is quite simple. It’s that racism has a cost for everyone. And its primary function in our society has been to grease the wheels for a machine of greed that has impoverished almost everyone. Now more than ever today, racial division as a tool wielded by those who are the most wealthy, the most powerful, and the most self-interested, is something that breaks down potential coalitions between people who have common struggle. It makes us demonize one another when, in fact, we should be linking arms to improve all of our lives. And it impoverishes everything that we share in common, from our air, to our infrastructure, to our systems of education and our democracy itself. Racism has a cost for everyone and ultimately, when we can create cross-racial solidarity, we can all benefit.
Listen to the interview:
BILL MOYERS: Did you really learn anything new that intuitively you didn’t bring to this task with you?
HEATHER MCGHEE: Yes, I was born on the South Side of Chicago and I grew up in the beginning of the Inequality Era, when the good manufacturing jobs were going away, when, you know, the divide between the wealthy and everybody else was widening. And I also grew up in a political era when there was so much scapegoating of Black and brown people, particularly Black people, single mothers, like my own single mother. And I knew that that dominant political narrative was wrong and that it was sort of being used to distract and divide us. That said, I also came of age in my career in the progressive economic orthodoxy that was, at the time, pretty colorblind. It was mostly focused on the rules of taxation, labor policy, spending and investment. All of these issues that have, of course, racially disparate impacts and racial disparities to them. But they weren’t seen as racial issues. They were seen as economic issues. And so, the thing I learned as a young policy wonk was there’s economic inequality and racism makes that inequality worse for people of color. And I had a few experiences as I was sort of growing up in my career that sort of tried to turn the light on for me. And point me in this direction of what I would eventually do, which is flip that formulation. Not that there’s inequality, and racism makes it worse for people of color, but rather racism, structural racism, political and strategic racism makes inequality happen for everyone. It is the driver of inequality.
BILL MOYERS: You had the sense, that many white Americans believe there’s an “us” and a “them.” And what’s good for them is bad for us. They want our jobs. They want our schools. They want our neighborhoods. There became something fearful in the response that reflected an unwillingness to see beyond the gap to what you were talking about. The white working class. And the Black working class, they were all in the same boat. They just didn’t row together.
HEATHER MCGHEE: That’s exactly right. It is that zero-sum paradigm that I think is at the heart of our dysfunction as a society. The idea that, although we are, of course, one people and in many ways, our fortunes rise and fall together, and it’s particularly predominant among white Americans, this view that there’s a zero-sum racial competition.
BILL MOYERS: Zero-sum, meaning?
HEATHER MCGHEE: Meaning what I have comes at your expense. Meaning if you add up what I have and you’ve taken away, it’s just a zero. There is no mutual benefit or interest. It is one for one, eye for eye. That paradigm, particularly at a time of rapid demographic change, when there is a narrative that white America is losing out, will not be the majority, and if they’re not the numerical majority, they will not be the power majority. And they will be treated, potentially, as minorities have been treated under a white dominant society. It’s very deep. So, I went to discover where it came from. And I had to sort of unlearn a lot of bad history that I had learned growing up as an American child. And really identify how that zero-sum racial paradigm was sort of the lie at the root of our founding. And it was used by the plantation class and the colonial class in order to justify chattel slavery and near genocide of Indigenous peoples and sell that brutal economy to the majority of white people who were landless white people. And it’s become a sort of core weapon for people who want to concentrate wealth, who want to aggregate power. I mean, obviously, in the Trump era, it’s more naked and vivid than it’s ever been. The constant scapegoating and the punching down, while, of course, the only thing that the regime delivers is tax cuts for itself and unemployment for millions more.
BILL MOYERS: Give me a thumbnail sketch of what was in your mind as you saw the opposite of what our society could be.
HEATHER MCGHEE: I ended up including, in the end, a chapter about the moral costs of racism, the personal costs. I came at it from an economic policy standpoint. I do this work, this policy work, out of a faith in the unseen. Because it is unseen. A multiracial democracy with a robust safety net and social contract that doesn’t have an asterisk by it. That doesn’t limit it to the people of the ruling class and to whites only. You know, it’s really important to rewrite what I understood as the core economic narrative on the left, which was that there was a New Deal era– started in the ’30s and in the ’40s and ’50s. This era of shared prosperity where we built the great American middle class. It’s very clear that each and every one of those investments, each and every one of those contracts for high union density, high wages, subsidization of education and housing, all of that had an asterisk and was done in a racially restrictive way by our government. And it was when in the 1960s we fought and struggled to remove that asterisk that that social contract frayed and we began to move into the Inequality Era. The central story at the heart of my book, Bill, is the story that was replicated in countless towns across the country, where public swimming pools that had been financed by tax dollars– we used to have over 2,000 in this country, these sort of grand resort pools that were the heart of communities. They were ways in which the government was sort of committing to a high, almost bourgeois quality of life for working and middle class people. It was bringing together, you know, white folks of different European ancestry and immigrants and having them sort of all meet in this social commons of recreation. They were often segregated and whites only. And when in the 1950s the country began to require, often through the courts, that these pools were integrated, so many towns across the country, and not just in the South, decided to drain their public swimming pools rather than integrate them.
BILL MOYERS: That happened, I regret to tell you, in my hometown. Why didn’t the Civil Rights Act of ’64, the Voting Rights Act of ’65 and other changes in that early half of the ’60s, bring about this more equal society with adequately funded schools and reliable infrastructure, with wages that keep families out of poverty and a public health system that can handle all comers, including pandemics?
HEATHER MCGHEE: I open the book by positing it in the form of, “Why can’t we just have nice things,” right?
BILL MOYERS: Right.
HEATHER MCGHEE: You know, the answer is racism. And not just sort of individual, ugly, violent racism. Not biological racism. The belief system that every Black is sort of inherently inferior to white people. After the Civil Rights Movement, a few phenomena happened to drain the pool of our society altogether. One, the will among white Americans to have basically a robust commons, to have a public pool at all, began to just plummet. I looked back at some public opinion polling about the idea that we should have high wages that keep people out of poverty, a guaranteed income, and a job for anyone in America who wants one. Up until the mid-1960s, the majority of white people agreed with that idea. They wanted a robust, active government that guaranteed a high quality of life. And it was in the middle of the 1960s, in fact, when that demand began to be echoed prominently by the Black civil rights movement who marched on Washington for jobs and freedom, had a list of demands that included a jobs guarantee and a high minimum wage, that that support by white people almost vanished. And you began to see the white majority move towards a conservative economic vision that basically, you know, picked up their toys and went home. In the pool metaphor, communities ended up having private swimming clubs that you had to pay $50 for. They ended up having backyard pools. You had to be rich enough to have that. We lost out on the idea of a guarantee of a decent quality of life for everyone. And it really was about the shift among white Americans from the New Deal consensus because the people that they had been taught for generations were inferior and dangerous, were suddenly allowed to swim in the same pool. And that seemed like a betrayal. It made all things public seem dirty and a place they didn’t want to be. Including the major vehicles of collective action in this country: labor unions and the government. And you began to see white people turn away from those institutions once they were more integrated. And what we had in response was the Inequality Era where there was no counter-veiling power to corporate power and the concentration of wealth. And the bottom 90% of the country’s income distribution has sputtered and stalled because of it.
BILL MOYERS: Martin Luther King used to say that the most segregated hour in America is Sunday morning at 11:00. That, of course, stood out in 1954 when the Supreme Court decided in Brown versus Board of Education that schools had to be integrated. Jerry Falwell, who was a prominent pastor of a large church in Virginia and ultimately the founder of the Moral Majority immediately declared that he was going to start a private religious school. And it turned out that only whites showed up there. That was replicated across the country.
HEATHER MCGHEE: That’s right. Can’t imagine why. To be honest, Bill, I think that the period of time when I grew up in the 1980s and ’90s, we had a different dominant racial story. And that racial story was colorblindness, right? It was this idea that, to be a good person, you were supposed to not see color. You were supposed to not treat anyone differently because of their color. That sounds great. True aspiration of the civil rights movement. But what ended up happening is it meant not that you didn’t see race, but that you didn’t see racism. People weren’t educated with the language to talk about the still manifest differences that were actually getting worse and worse. Black and brown Americans were finally given a glimpse of the American dream in the mid-1960s, where the formal barriers began to come down. The racial covenants, the redlining, the job discrimination, the barriers on joining labor unions. All of that began to finally come down. The education desegregation– just when that American dream became harder to reach for everyone because we began to have a totally different ethos in Washington, changing the rules to make it harder for labor unions to win contract. Stop increasing the minimum wage. Deregulating the financial industry to make housing less affordable and more predatory. All of these moves that we know as the things that brought about inequality, that’s the economy in which Black and brown people were finally able to enter. And so, you began to see all of these disparities that actually got worse after the civil rights movement in the 1970s. The racial wealth gap, the income gap began to accelerate. And, because there was no language around racism’s enduring impact, the dominant white narrative was just, “There’s something wrong with their culture. They’re not trying hard enough.” You know, “My ancestors came here from Italy and Poland and they were able to go from being penniless to owning a house in one generation. Why can’t Black people too?” All of those things we now know as “racial resentment.” Basically, blaming people of color for racial disparities. That is really the fuel to the fire of the right wing’s political dominance. Social scientists see it as a predictor for more conservative attitudes around the economy, the desire not to regulate greenhouse gases on climate change– all of these issues that are so vital to the question of whether our society can survive and thrive, racial resentment is holding the white majority back from joining in common cause with people of color.
BILL MOYERS: Is that when you began hearing, “Why can’t we have nice things?”
HEATHER MCGHEE: That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: And the “we” was?
I think we really do have a secular religion in America, this idea that the powerful have to ask us for their permission to rule, right? The founders left holes in the bedrock of that revolutionary idea in order to make room for slavery and racial subjugation.
HEATHER MCGHEE: The “we” is all Americans. It’s people of color, right, who sort of disproportionately don’t have nice things. But it’s also everybody who struggles as we watch our government fail to reliably improve the quality of life for most Americans. To rebuild our bridges and dams. To fund our public schools. To provide college on a free and affordable basis, the way public college was for much of the 20th century. To respond to this existential threat of climate change and to handle these pandemics. I was able to devote one chapter to sort of each of those big problems and find the ways in which racism is sort of the uncredited actor in the tragedy. But what’s great, Bill, is that because this was a real journey across the country — I went from Maine, to Mississippi, to California and back again — I also got to know people who had overcome those racial divides. Who had rejected the story, whether it’s through Fox News or the Republican party message machine or the conservative takeover of social media. I met dozens of white people who looked across at their Black and brown neighbors and said, “You have the same struggle that I have. And in fact, it’s only by linking arms that we can actually overcome these barriers.” And I began to call it the solidarity dividend. This idea that there’s something that we can unlock to the benefit of us all that we cannot get to if we remain divided. I talked to workers who were organizing. I talked to neighbors who were organizing to take on the big polluters in their neighborhoods. I talked to parents who were fighting for integrated schools, people who were fighting to change the rules of our democracy so that everyone can vote. And I kept seeing these real quantifiable solidarity dividends that this country’s hurtling towards a future in which we have no racial majority. And we have two paths. We can decide that means that we are going to be in a dog eat dog competition for dominance. Or we can decide that the proximity of so much difference will reveal our common humanity. And when I saw people who had lived their lives and experienced real cross-racial solidarity and won because of it– they were transformed. They were true Americans. They were the kind of people that I think our country could be full of if we can finally reject this old and false idea that it’s a zero-sum competition. That there isn’t enough for all of us. That progress for one racial group has to come at the expense of the other.
BILL MOYERS: We’ve invested the word “democracy,” with so much sacred aura. But we never really have had a real democracy.
HEATHER MCGHEE: No, that’s right. I started my career really trying to answer these big economic questions. But I ended up really discovering that the rules of our democracy are as unequal as our economic rules. There’s a chapter in the middle of the book called “Never a Real Democracy.” If you go back to the beginning, this sacred democracy– I think we really do have a secular religion in America, this idea that the powerful have to ask us for their permission to rule, right? The founders left holes in the bedrock of that revolutionary idea in order to make room for slavery and racial subjugation. And time and time again, with every generation, there has been a concerted effort to keep chipping away, to keep democracy, which in this country, would be a multiracial democracy, from taking root.
BILL MOYERS: At age 22, you went to work for a research and advocacy group, a nonprofit outfit that produces statistical research, white papers, Congressional testimony, legislative drafts, public campaigns, media outreach. And your specialty was economic policy. What made you think that you could help the people and issues you’re talking about with a spreadsheet?
HEATHER MCGHEE: Oh, it was just– it was naivety, but it was some pieces of success, right?
And the issue that I first kind of cut my teeth on, Bill, was the issue of debt, which at that point had been skyrocketing among working and middle class families. And it was really just not on the radar of policy makers in Washington. Washington had deregulated the credit card company, the mortgage companies, the payday lenders, the rent to own lenders. And kept it moving as the profits were raked in. And didn’t really understand what was going on in sort of family budgets at that time, where credit card debt tripled over the course of the 1990s, where people were starting to take equity out of their homes-
BILL MOYERS: This includes Black and brown homeowners, right? They were starting—
HEATHER MCGHEE: That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: –to take equity out of their first homes they probably own–
HEATHER MCGHEE: That’s exactly right.
BILL MOYERS: –through what you call some strange new mortgage loans. Right?
HEATHER MCGHEE: That’s right. We started to see this was not the 30-year fixed rate loan. This was a new subprime loan. And this issue, more than anything, really made me realize the way that racism will come home to roost for us all. The ways in which racism can blind otherwise intelligent, smart, powerful people from the basic facts in front of them, and the way that racism provides the fuel for these instruments of massive greed. The subprime mortgage crisis began in Black and brown communities in the late 1990s and early 2000s, where these unregulated lenders were targeting Black existing homeowners. With these loans that exploded on them, basically. That were full of tricks and traps. That would go on to cause waves of foreclosures in the early 2000s. And I was a young policy wonk, looking at this economic data, listening to community meetings of advocates who were saying the phone wouldn’t stop ringing. The you know, people were knock on the doors. And within six months that new mortgage that people took out was leading might into foreclosure. The rate had skyrocketed. There were new fees and penalties. And for over a decade, the people with the power to stop the subprime mortgage crisis from exploding did nothing. And so much of the rationale for not addressing what was a totally unfair financial instrument was racist stereotypes. The idea that these are people who just didn’t know how to deal with money, who bit off more than they could chew. We put them into houses they couldn’t afford. Mike Bloomberg said this in the moment of the crisis in September of 2008. He said, the problem, the root cause of the financial crisis was it was the end of red lining and advocates wanted people to have loans who hadn’t had them before and so the standards were lowered. The majority of subprime loans went to people with good credit scores. It wasn’t that they were risky borrowers, it was that the loans were risky. For much of the 2000s up until the very end, the majority of these subprime loans were refinances, which means they were already homeowners. This wasn’t people who shouldn’t have been able to afford a house, who were sort of improperly put up in a high station that they weren’t really worthy of. These were hardworking homeowners who had done everything they could to get a piece of the American dream. And in the case of Black homeowners, had done so, despite all of the odds and after generations of being denied property. And Wall Street greed fueled by racist stereotypes and racist indifference, enabled by a targeting that was made possible by racist segregation. That allowed there to be these neighborhoods where you could target, ended up creating a financial product that then got spread across the entire investment portfolio of millions of people and institutions. And then, of course, we all know how the story ended, with the crash of 2008. But it is my firm conviction that we would not have had a financial crisis if it had not been for racism.
BILL MOYERS: Now, something happened on the last day you spent at the Capitol presenting that Demos debt research to members of Congress. You were then 25. You had some new professional shoes on that kept slipping off. And as you tell the story, you bent down to adjust them near the door of what you didn’t know at the moment was a Senate office. You heard something.
HEATHER MCGHEE: I heard a bombastic male voice going on about these deadbeats who had children with multiple women and then were trying to escape their personal responsibility. Were using the government to try to get through bankruptcy to not have to pay child support, to avoid their debts. And there was something in the tone in the invective. He never said anything about race. He didn’t say, you know, “These N-words.” He didn’t say anything like that. But there was something in the invective that just made me realize, “Oh. This member of Congress who’s about to make a decision about whether or not to change the bankruptcy rules to make it harder for people who are flat out to ever get a fresh start.” The idea that this senator has about those people is absolutely colored by something. Maybe it’s racism. Maybe it’s classism. Maybe it’s both. But there was just something there I was armed with this data. And he was armed with this disdain. And it wasn’t going toe to toe. And we ended up losing that fight. It presaged the fights to try to prevent the financial crisis, which we also lost, because the people with the power to shape the rules just didn’t respect and didn’t care about the people who were the canaries in the coalmine of the financial crisis. And that was one of those moments where the light bulb started to go on. I thought that I could solve the problem of inequality with numbers. Right, everything I had learned about economics was that people were going to act in their rational self-interest. And if we just sort of show enough people that it wasn’t working, that the numbers weren’t adding up, that wages were stagnating, that people were going into debt and bankruptcy, that the health care numbers were skyrocketing of the uninsured, and poverty was on the rise. If we could just sort of show enough people the numbers, people would make better decisions. And then those better economic decisions would disproportionately benefit, you know, people who were my people, Black people, brown people, people of color. And ultimately, what I discovered and what was the hunch that drove this journey to write this book was that it’s in fact exactly the opposite. That our ideas about who belongs and who deserves are much more determinative of our politics, and therefore, our economic decision making than cold numbers than anything I could’ve sort of brought to bear at a think tank.
BILL MOYERS: So after all this, you said after listening to that bombastic voice, you walked out of the Capitol and you saw all these white folks with their briefcases and nice cars, dressed in suits going home for dinner that evening. And you said, “I felt stupid.”
HEATHER MCGHEE: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
HEATHER MCGHEE: I did. I felt like I had replaced the knowledge that I’d learned in the mostly white world of think tanks and policy advocacy. I had bought into that idea that statistics and research and economic policy could prevail in that realm of the rational. And in so doing, almost forgotten some of the first lessons I learned as a Black person in America about what the majority of white people see when they see us. And how quick the white majority often is to believe the worst about us. To think that we are cheating at a game that they are winning at fair and square. And it’s hard for me to even say that. The majority of white conservatives and moderates agree with the statement, “Black people take more from society than we give.” That’s today, right? That’s not a 1963 attitude. But, you know, it was really important to me, Bill, to figure out why. I don’t accept that this is sort of just the way things are. That the majority of white people are going to feel this way. And this is just sort of a natural outgrowth of being a human being or being white or whatever. It just– it felt to me like I wanted to figure out where the story came from. And so I looked back in the history and saw how powerful and important it was to the coherence of the white American story in the United States, to our democracy, to the republic, to our foundational economy. And then how this idea of the zero-sum, of a zero-sum racial hierarchy had been sort of reanimated generation after generation, always by people at the top of the social and economic hierarchy. Selling this idea for their own profit to people fundamentally desperate enough to buy it. And that’s where I lay the blame. I think of this narrative, this, you know, makers and takers, freeloaders and taxpayers, racial resentment narrative, racial grievance narrative, anti-immigrant narrative as ultimately a story that people can choose to believe or not believe. But it is being relentlessly marketed and sold by the people with the largest bullhorns in our society right now. The person occupying the White House for the last four years, the most watched cable news network. This is the story that’s being aggressively sold to white people. And I’m not surprised in many ways that the majority of them are still buying it.
BILL MOYERS: There’s another moment in 2010. You’re on a phone call with three progressive economists. All white men. It’s a planning meeting. The Tea Party has come to town with force. Everyone, including Democrats who had Obama’s ear were saying, “We need a grand bargain to create a dramatically small government by 2040 or 2050, including cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.” And you were preparing numbers to show that such a bargain would be a death blow to a middle class that was at the time of that recession already on its knees when you said there was another way to go. A second stimulus and investments to grow the middle class. What did they tell you, those progressive economists who heard you make a strong case for another stimulus and investments to grow the middle class?
HEATHER MCGHEE: So, we were partners on this. We were going to lay out this alternative path. And I said, “So when we’re talking about the fiscal picture in 2040 or 2050,” which is what these big budgets, these big debt plans, these grand bargains were about, I said, “Well, you know, 2040 and 2050 is also a demographic change tipping point. So, where in our proposal, in our report, are we going to make the racial point that all of these programs that are on the chopping block right now were created without concern for their cost, when the goal was to build a white middle class? And they paid for themselves in economic growth and now these guys are trying to fundamentally renege on the deal for a future middle class that could be majority people of color.” And I remember nobody spoke. And I checked to see if I’d been muted, right? So I was, like, “Oh, but maybe I was muted. Let me look at the mute button.” And no, no, the light was still green. One of the economists actually said then, finally sort of cleared his throat and said, “We know that. And you know that. But let’s not lead with our chin here. We’re trying to be persuasive.” And, of course, what he was saying was the unspoken conventional wisdom, that you can’t talk about the racial unfairness because you’re trying to convince a white power structure to do something that would be beneficial to all people. Including, you know, the vast majority of white people are going to suffer if you cut Social Security and Medicare and, you know, put spending caps on put investments from now into the future. But there was this idea that we couldn’t talk about race. Of course, there was a racial element to it. Of course, racism was part of the way that the white power structure could even contemplate deliberately cutting the ladders to the middle class. Because it was going to happen in some future in which the majority was no longer going to be white. And that for me was another ah-ha moment, was another moment when I said, you know what? There is a racial politics to these economic dollars and cents questions that we are debating under the first Black president, which is when the Tea Party came in. When the grand bargain was proposed. But I think that we avoid these racial politics questions at our peril. It’s a very clear dilemma at the heart of our multiracial democracy.
BILL MOYERS: And that’s also why, the right wing of the last 30 years, that’s how politically they took these attitudes you heard in that bombastic voice. And they became the default for both conservative politicians and conservative media, “makers” and “takers,” “taxpayers” and “freeloaders,” “handouts” and “welfare queens.” “They’re coming after your job, your safety, your way of life.” And those became, irrespective of facts, those became the central planks of the right’s advances since Ronald Reagan.
HEATHER MCGHEE: That’s exactly right. This sense of racial competition, of racial threat, of a threat to your status that has kept together a white majority in the Republican column even when that white majority is opposed to many of the economic ideas of that party. In the chapter where I look at the draining of the public pools I also then talk about how, in my time, the pool has been a more metaphorical one. A pool of resources, the idea that we could do anything together. You know, i.e., government. And the way that white Americans have turned their backs on government, have become opposed to government. This was obviously made very clear with the rise of the Tea Party, but it’s been a core part of the Republican story, is that government is not to be trusted because it took the side of brown and Black people. And you should fear and loathe people of color– distrust the government because it coddles people of color. And who then is left to trust? Us, the 1%, the market, the predominantly, almost exclusively white ruling class. And so that’s how you’ve had this unholy alliance between the people that Trump brags are his favorite, right? The under-educated in a party that, all it can really ever get the muster to do is cut taxes on the wealthy, right?
BILL MOYERS: You wrote, “Over the past 50 years, the Koch brothers–” Charles and David Koch, “–organized vast sums of money to advance a vision for America that includes limited democracy, a rollback of civil rights, and unfettered capitalism. That’s why the hundreds of millionaires in the Koch network have taken aim at the rules of democracy, funding think tanks, legal organizations, public intellectuals and advocacy groups to promote a smaller and less powerful electorate and weaker campaign finance laws. Since 2010, the groups they fund have spurred more than 100 pieces of state legislation to make it harder to vote, almost half of which have passed, launched dozens of lawsuits attacking both voter protections and controls on big money and politics, including both Shelby County versus Holder” that’s the decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act, “…and the case resulting in the notorious corporations are people decisions,” Citizens United. That’s what we’re up against. This side has done while you have been saying, you know, you told me when we talked in 2012. I asked you, “How do we have a new social contract if we don’t have a sense of community?” You said, you can’t solve a problem with the consciousness that created it. You’ve got powerful, wealthy, organized people on the other side of the fight you’re waging who are just constantly throwing money at the people who want to defeat you.
HEATHER MCGHEE: That’s right. The fact that the economy has just not been guaranteeing a decent quality of life for everyone who puts in hard work. That economic story has the potential to unite people who are struggling across lines of race. They know that it is harder and harder to eat Jim Crow, right? It’s just not going to feed you, right, at the end of the day. And this pandemic that we are currently living through, which I include in the conclusion of my book, is one of the many manifestations of the costs of racism to us all. Where if we had a society that protected low paid workers, that didn’t have such a high concentration of people in jail. That had truly universal health care and a public health system and well-funded hospitals and infrastructure, we would be like other countries in having a pandemic, but not leading the world in mortality. The fact that, you know, the country with the largest economy on the earth is the one that is leading the world and basically falling down on the job is one of the great examples of the obvious costs of the dysfunction that racism has wrought in our society. There was a study from the Center for Policing Equity that did a model of a city and looked at all of the different transmission routes for the coronavirus. And the majority of them were ones in which racial disparities, racist structures were accelerating the spread. Whether it was the police in the criminal justice system or a mostly brown and Black and immigrant, low wage, low benefit essential worker economy where workers were both more likely to need to still be at work and be called to work, but less likely to have basic protections. And we’ve got to recognize that ultimately, an injury to one does become an injury to all. That is why it costs so much money and requires so much coordination and campaigning in order to divide us from our fellow Americans. You know, it is working. It is working in the sense that we still have a white majority that is fearful of, resentful of, believes, you know, pretty widespread negative stereotypes about their neighbors of color. But I don’t believe that is our destiny. And, throughout the book, I tell stories of people who come together across lines of race and put aside that old story that has not served them. And link up arms and accomplish amazing things.
BILL MOYERS: If President-elect Biden called you to come down and asked you, “Okay, I’ve got the pandemic, I’ve got the economy, I’ve got the health care system facing us in crisis. What framework can I put those into that satisfy the moral compass you’re talking about, what can I do?”
HEATHER MCGHEE: I think he has to speak directly to the lie. He has to call it out. He has to say, “There are those who would believe that if our government helps your neighbors, that it will come at your expense. And they are wrong.” He has to explicitly name where those ideas are coming from and who is profiting from them, he has to be willing to call out the sources of the lie and offer up a framework of cross-racial solidarity. And weave it into the policy. So, for example, Bill, people have talked a lot about how we need a new jobs program in this country, right? We need to put millions of people to work solving our big problems, whether it’s green jobs or health care jobs. It’s a huge part of his agenda, the Build Back Better Agenda. We need to do that in a way that fosters cross-racial solidarity, right? And if we don’t see that diversity as our super power, if we try to minimize our own individual and collective strength by saying that we can be defeated by something as shallow as skin color or language then we’re going to keep draining our own pool, keep sabotaging our own success. Keep hamstringing our own players on our own team. That is not the America I see as a person who is of a generation, that is the beginning of the most diverse generations in American history. The America I see is one in which we finally realize that diversity is our super power, that finding solidarity across lines of race is how we get out of the trap of a zero-sum competition. And that the reinvestment that we must do to heal from this pandemic, to heal from the divisions of the Trump-Fox era and Trumpisms, to relight the fires so we can finally see the American dream and all glimpse it together. We have to do it with a consciousness of solidarity. We have to do it in a way that calls out the lie of racism and racial hierarchy, puts it aside and firmly in our past. And recognizes the potential, the gorgeous potential of this country. I do think that President-elect Biden has a kind of old-fashioned patriotism that at his core, right? He always says things like, you know, “We’re better than this. This is not who we are. Come on, man. This is not who we are!” And I also think his eight years of proximity to Barack Obama, who had more of the kind of patriotism that I’m talking about. Which is not a blind patriotism, which is a patriotism born of knowing how much we’ve overcome. I think if we can meld that, you know, we might possibly be able to call more Americans of all races into a real sense of being there for one another. Of recognizing that we are greater than the sum of our parts. Recognizing that We the People truly does mean all the people. I think we can do it.
BILL MOYERS: The book is THE SUM OF US. Heather McGhee, thank you very much for writing it, for believing it, for living it and for being with us today.
HEATHER MCGHEE: Bill, thank you for everything.
ANNOUNCER: Thanks for listening to Moyers on Democracy. On our website you can watch Heather McGhee’s recent TED Talk. Until next time, you’ll find all this and more at Billmoyers.com.