We Can Defeat Zero-Sum Politics (with Heather McGhee)
April 20, 2023
Click to read the full transcript
Heather McGhee [clip]: There’s a common sense that everybody knows—and this gets to neoliberalism—that things that are public have been degraded and destroyed. Particularly if Black people are anywhere near them.
Felicia Wong: Progressive economic policies set out to solve some of our country’s biggest problems.
Michael Tomasky: Problems like wealth inequality, below minimum wage, and excessive corporate power.
Felicia: But can economic progressivism actually address problems if they’re rooted in race and racism?
Michael: How does systemic racism keep us from embracing the public goods that would make all of our lives better?
Felicia: Can we change the stories being told to Americans about race?
Michael: Those are the big questions we address on this episode of How to Save a Country.
Felicia: I’m Felicia Wong, president and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute.
Michael: I’m Michael Tomasky, editor of The New Republic.
Felicia: And this is the podcast about the ideas and the people contributing to a new political vision and a new economic vision for the United States.
Felicia: So Michael, last week we talked to Lilliana Mason and one of her most fascinating insights was how people will deny themselves things that they really need or want—things like health care—if they think that those goods are going to go not only to them but to people who aren’t like them, people they might resent because they have a lot of what Lily called out-group hatred.
Michael: There’s a lot of that going around and there aren’t many people who know more about it than Heather McGhee.
Felicia: We talked to Heather at the New Common Sense Conference, which was put on by the Hewlett Foundation. It’s cool because this is our first podcast recording in front of a live audience, and also because the Hewlett Foundation is a big supporter of this entire conversation about whether or not we can have a new political economy. We owe them a big debt of gratitude. In this conversation, you get a sense of Heather’s storytelling genius. I especially loved her idea that we might already have some “solidarity dividend” at scale, that we are really working together across race, even at a national level. And man, it’s great to get good news because many days our democracy does seem pretty fragile.
Heather [clip]: I think most of the Biden agenda is a solidarity dividend brought to us by a multiracial coalition that rejected the politics of division and hate and put Democrats in a trifecta to be able to refill the pool of public goods. I think it’s all a solidarity dividend.
Michael: Heather is the former head of Demos think tank. She set out a few years ago to go around the country and talk to people about this and wrote this terrific book, The Sum of Us, which became a New York Times bestseller and which dug very deeply into all this.
Felicia: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. We’re here at this event for our first ever live tapping of How to Save a Country. (applauds) We’re so fortunate that Heather McGhee has agreed to speak with us this evening. Heather has been a driving force, a driving thinker behind some of the biggest ideas of our age. She’s fresh off of an appearance on The Daily Show last night, flew in today to do this conversation with us.
Michael: What could happen tomorrow night? Dancing with the Stars?
Felicia: I love Heather’s work because she really imagines what would happen if we move to a more positive sum America, a world where you can have positive-sum solidarity. Michael and I are really excited to hear more about her work, what she’s learned from being on the road with her book, her podcast, talk about politics, talk about the future, try to end on a note of hope.
Michael: I think most people in this room read your book or know your book—
Heather: Or said they did a reading.
Michael: Or said they did, or read reviews, or have seen you interviewed. But for the benefit of those few who have not, just give us a quick couple minute summary of what you covered in the book and what your thesis was.
Heather: Happy to. I wrote The Sum of Us out of frustration because I had been a professional wonk for nearly 20 years, helping to build and then lead Demos. Our mission was to address inequality in our economy and our democracy, and we were using all the tools that we were supposed to use: research and advocacy, litigation, legislative drafting, lobbying. And we had some victories: Dodd-Frank, the Credit Card Act, pro-voter reforms in various states, but we weren’t winning enough on the obvious stuff that our country should have been doing in its own economic self-interest. And I knew how we had moved from, as I like to say, a football-shaped economy to a bow-tie shaped economy. I knew how we had made that transition over the past 50 years, but I didn’t feel like we collectively had a good answer for why. Why a country that had figured out the formula for the American dream had turned its back on that dream, and why specifically the majority of white Americans continued to vote for a party and an ideology that was contributing to their economic decline and making them more and more likely to be in the same boat as us, as people of color. So I really quit my dream job running Demos and I hit the road. I spent three years traveling the country talking to ordinary people, getting out of the disciplines that I had been trained in law and economics and going into the social sciences. What I discovered was that racism in our politics and our policymaking was actually driving inequality. It wasn’t that inequality was accelerated by racism to the detriment of people of color. We had a disparities frame for how we talked about the relationship between race and inequality. There’s inequality that is driven by trade policy and tax policy, and then it’s accelerated with really bad outcomes for people of color because of discrimination and disadvantage. I [found that] actually, the why of how we could have gotten to a common sense of neoliberalism—and I’ll come back to that word in a minute—had a lot to do with racist ideas. The central metaphor at the heart of my book is the story of the drained public pool of what happened to us, a very glittering symbol of the New Deal public goods ethos, which was these big lavishly funded grand resort style swimming pools, and how they were often usually segregated. And in the era of public pool integration during the Civil Rights Movement, many towns and cities across the country drained their public pools rather than integrate them. Of course, I use that as a metaphor to describe the loss of white support for public goods and for collective action, labor unions, as well as robust government policies, and to make the point that, like a drained pool, there is a cost to everyone of going without public solutions for public problems. I link drain-pool politics to why we have the debt for the diploma system instead of free college. And why we never filled in the pool of public goods in the first place around health care. I link it to our collective action problems around climate, our democracy, all of these public policy head scratchers. But it’s a really hopeful book about racism.
Michael: I was going to say. That’s the metaphor, that’s the image from the book that got very widespread attention and that everyone paid attention to. But there’s also an optimistic part of the book.
Heather: There are three core ideas in the book. There’s the zero-sum racial hierarchy—this zero-sum framework that says that progress for people of color has to come at white folks’ expense. That’s really the core right-wing narrative right now. After the tragedy that is the massacre in Buffalo, the idea of the great replacement theory became more well known. And it’s a central argument of Tucker Carlson and all of that is very much how we got here in drained pool politics, the economic ramifications of that in the real world. But as soon as I saw this common thread of racism underneath so many of our most vexing public problems, I realized that if I could see places where people had rejected the zero-sum mindset and come together across lines of race to have the collective power that you can get, through solidarity and in a multiracial society where divide and conquer politics has been the wedge for the plutocracy it has to be a cross-racial solidarity, then the sky’s the limit on what can be accomplished. That was my theory. Then I went around the country, both for the book and then a year after the book was published again to create a documentary podcast also called The Sum of Us that was focused on this concept I call the solidarity dividend, which is the idea that there are real gains that we can unlock—cleaner air and water, higher wages, better funded schools—but through the power of cross-racial solidarity. I’m a big believer in stories as a way to get complicated ideas to stick. The audience for the book and the podcast is not us. The cover looks like a novel, and the stories that I include throughout the book of charismatic, ordinary people doing extraordinary things is my way of trying to show by example, because I think that the human mind is really wired for story and we have to figure out how we’re supposed to do this thing. And we lean models that show us that we can actually, while not ignoring race and disparity and history, come together and achieve great things.
Michael: There’s another story from Lewiston, Maine, that was a very moving story. Can you talk about that?
Heather: Lewiston, Maine, is a deindustrialized dying mill town. The decline of that town and many industrial areas and small towns across the country with the changing demographics in America, with claims for equal rights by women and people of color and queer people. You could see that that is a very easy, obvious story for people to try to make sense of what happened to them. But, by an accident of history, Lewiston, Maine, became a resettlement site for thousands of people in the largest African refugee resettlement in American history. So you had these new people, which is what any urban planner in a dying mill town would love to see, but those new people were mostly Black, Muslim immigrants and refugees. In a small town in Maine. The whitest state in the nation. What could go wrong? There was a Klan rally; it was all the things. I was able to spend a lot of time there and talk to white people who were the classic middle-aged, small town, conservatives who had experienced drug addiction, substance abuse, loneliness and isolation, job loss, Case Deaton diseases of despair, and their lives had been transformed and saved by their relationships with these new Mainers. I tell a story about this cross-cultural connection of a woman named Cecile who really wanted to get back in touch with her French roots, because the last new people had been Francos—French Canadian Catholic workers to the textile mills. Cecile was the child of one of those families, and she was isolated and retired and depressed and suicidal. One day she decided to go down to the Franco Cultural Center downtown and try to reconnect with her heritage and with her people. She walked into the room and everybody’s at these round banquet tables. There are bell jars in the middle of every table, with dollar bills stuffed in, and everybody’s speaking English. And she’s so disappointed. She’s like, “What’s going on? I came here to speak French, to be connected.” And [they say], “We have a rule that if you speak in English and not French, you have to put a quarter in the jar,” but there’s a dollar limit, and nobody speaks French anymore. So they just come in, put a dollar in the jar, and go on with their conversations in English. Cecile is crestfallen, but the guy next to her says, “There is a French club where they really do speak French. It’s just over at the Hillside public housing projects.” She’s like, “Oh, interesting.” So she goes there and walks in the door at three o’clock on a Tuesday, and of course, it’s African Francophone people speaking the most beautiful French she’s heard. She spends the day speaking the most French that she’s spoken since her parents passed away, and she combines the two French clubs. I tell that story, and it’s a heartwarming story of cross-cultural humanity but also that civic infrastructure that grew up in Lewiston around this refugee resettlement created the cross-racial backbone of a campaign that overturned, by ballot initiative, the first one in the country, a five-time Republican veto of Medicaid expansion in Maine. So the grassroot coalition had Somali taxi drivers using their network of radios to ferry elderly homebound Mainers to the polls to win MaineCare. There’s stories like that, and then the podcast of The Sum of Us is really my little attempt to have us do more storytelling to show what is possible and what’s happening. This is all actually happening.
Michael: What would you say, in these four years now, you’ve learned open people’s minds and make them change?
Heather: The image of the pool is really sticky for people. It’s sticky because it’s both unbelievable and totally believable. And it’s great that way. It’s like, “Oh, they would drain their own pool and bury it?” and they’re like, “Oh yeah, we would do that.” Because there’s a common sense that everybody knows—and this gets to neoliberalism—that things that are public have been degraded and destroyed, particularly if Black people are anywhere near them. There’s that common sense that we all know that makes that shocking story really stand in for a lot. It’s very quick to go from the drained pool to college. Once more than just white men were allowed to go to college, we drained the pool of public resources around college. We never filled in the pool in the first place around health care, and there’s so many ways in which that’s racialized. White people are the largest share of the uninsured and yet the majority of white Americans have been anti-Obamacare since it was signed into law. And then there is something fundamental that maybe we take for granted, which is that the dominant narrative about why there are the inequalities today has for a long time, and obviously the consciousness raising around after George Floyd’s murder and everything changed that for a certain significant portion of the well-educated population, [excludes the fact that] most people don’t know how the racial wealth gap was created. They don’t know about the structural reasons for the obvious racial economic inequalities. There’s something very powerful about succeeding, if you can, in doing that in a simple, elegant, quick way because it really fundamentally answers a big question that most Americans have had, which is: why? Are Black people just allergic to money? Why? Why, why, why? Last summer, I was talking to this white suburban mom named Rachel, who’s from Oklahoma, and she had never, until the Watchmen, known about the Tulsa race massacre. She said, “I grew up in Oklahoma. I was educated in Oklahoma schools my whole career.” And she said, “I was furious when I learned about it. I felt like I’d been robbed of something. I remember, as a kid, driving in my dad’s car and going through a poor black neighborhood and asking him, ‘Why?’ and he didn’t have an answer. And if I had known that there was a Black Wall Street, that Greenwood used to be thriving, that it was actually this act that destroyed the wealth.” And then 50 years later, Greenwood was rebuilt and a highway was driven through it, destroying Black wealth again. It would’ve fundamentally changed her outlook on Black people to know that history. White fragility is real, the way in which learning all that can scare a lot of people and can create a lot of defensiveness is real. My experience has been that there’s something about telling it through stories of memorable people, something about the way I say it with a smile, has had things fall into place for people who need to understand how we got here.
Felicia: Right. I want to pick up on your point about ‘people didn’t know’. I’d love you to say more about the things that people didn’t know, not just Tulsa and Black Wall Street, but what are the other things that you learned in your travels that people just didn’t know? What do you think that has to do with a lot of the pushback right now around teaching Black history, teaching the history of race in this country?
Heather: That mom, Rachel, I say mom’s cause I met her in a mom’s group; she’s more than a mother. She was very clear that her politics changed once she knew. She supports reparations, she’s skeptical of white conservative racial grievance. The research shows that teaching a fuller account of history to students makes white students more empathetic to people of color, makes Black and Brown students feel more empowered and civically engaged, and makes all students more critical of the way things are and more empowered that something they could do could change it. So of course they want to ban it.
Felicia: It’s long seemed to me that neoliberalism stole part of the aspiration of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1960s. It watered down the call for public solutions, which is a lot of what you talk about. The idea of a jobs guarantee or the idea of school desegregation were cresting in the mid to late ’60s. Many civil rights leaders, obviously Martin Luther King Jr., but many others became more and more radicalized in their economic calls, and just as that was cresting, neoliberalism also came onto the scene, promising basically that “no, if people of all races just compete for jobs, then markets themselves will compete racism away.” Talk about that a little bit. How do you see that moment in history? Is that part of the drained pool story?
Heather: I think it is. That was part of the liberal elite’s logic. Underneath that, the common sense logic for regular people was that the government went from being the enforcer of the racial hierarchy to the up-ender of it. That was seen as a betrayal. In 1956 and 1960, two-thirds of white Americans believed that government ought to guarantee a job to anyone who wanted one, who couldn’t find a good one in the private sector. And two-thirds of white Americans supported the idea of a universal basic income, basically like a floor below which no family should fall. That was 1956 and 1960. By 1964, the share of white Americans supporting those two economic guarantees had fallen nearly in half, and has stayed quite low since. If you’re looking at this ANES data that I was looking at, and I see this big swing from 1960 to 1964, I have to look beyond the spreadsheet. What was happening between 1960 and 1964? 1963 is the March on Washington, which is for jobs and freedom, and where suddenly black activists and their allies and organized labor are demanding on the mall. This core, small pamphlet size set of demands includes a federal job guarantee and a national living wage.
John Lewis [clip]: For in the Delta in Mississippi, in southwest Georgia, in the Black Belt of Alabama, in Harlem, in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and all over this nation, the Black masses are on the march for jobs and freedom.
Heather: And then of course, 1963 is the year that Kennedy goes on that media blitz around civil rights, firmly associating his party, which is the party of the New Deal, with civil rights.
John F. Kennedy [clip]: One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free.
Heather: And we know his successor, Lyndon Johnson, would become the last Democrat running for president to win the majority of white voters to this day. You had a grassroots-level suspicion of the role of government once it went from being the silent wind at my back, creating the foundation of shared prosperity through the New Deal public order, and then you had an elite capture of the idea of market competition with the guise of meritocracy and the best and the brightest from each racial and ethnic group. The bottom line is that you also had a group of people, not that much bigger than this group of people right now, making a plan to use racial politics and logic to help popularize an economic agenda to redistribute wealth upward.
Felicia: One other question I want to ask you about that period in time, because that was really the last period in time where we had the federal government pushing very hard for us to all live together. This is part of what is so brilliant about your work is that it works on so many different levels and most of people’s experience of race and class are through our neighborhoods and our schools. How much of people’s pragmatic pushback was around the very fundamental politics of schools or the politics of neighborhoods?
Heather: Housing is in every chapter of my book. I just can’t avoid it because of its impact on wealth, obviously, and because it’s such an obvious and recent example of explicitly racist policy, still deciding virtually everything about our communities, from zoning to school funding and all. It’s everywhere in my book, and my way of thinking, because it does shape our conception of self and how we live. When thinking about the push for desegregation of schools and neighborhoods, you have to start the story back at why there was segregation in the first place. Segregation is not the natural state, and learning as I did, and Richard Rothstein’s been really influential and informative on this, about how much it was not a given. It was not a given that we wouldn’t live together. What was communicated by creating ghettos, by having the federal government (never substantiated) saying a high negro concentration is a bad credit risk, having it be totally fine to compel clauses and deeds that say that in Richmond, California, only people wholly of the Caucasian race during World War II could own or lease these new, beautiful suburban houses. What that communicates to the white and soon-to-be white Americans is there’s something fundamentally wrong with Black people. Same with the pools; there’s something fundamentally wrong with Black people if you can’t even swim in the same water as them. And there’s something really right about you. We have to get at these stories and these beliefs. Everything we believe comes from a story we’ve been told, both an explicit story, a fable, and a story that is told by where we are allowed and expected to live and what our neighborhood looks like and what justifications we attach to all of that.
Felicia: I want to talk a little more about that book Heather just mentioned. It’s called The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein. That book lays out explicitly the way so many of our problems around inequality in housing and inequality in schooling, but especially Rothstein talks about housing. How all of those problems are tied to race and racial segregation. Here’s a clip of Rothstein talking about his book in conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Richard Rothstein: Today, nationwide, we have a ratio in income. African American income on average is about 60 percent of white income, African American wealth is 5 to 7 percent of white wealth. Most families in this country gain their wealth through housing equity. This enormous difference between 60 percent income ratio and 5 percent wealth ratio is almost entirely attributable to unconstitutional federal housing policy that was practiced in the ’30s, ’40s, and into the ’50s. So the wealth gap is attributable to this residential segregation.
Felicia: There are two reasons why what Rothstein says here is so important. One is that he’s pointing out the importance of wealth. Not just income, not just the wages we get in our paychecks on a weekly or a monthly basis, but actually wealth. That store of assets that we hold and that we pass on generation to generation. Rothstein points out that wealth is the important thing to look at, not just income, and wealth is tied to things like housing. The second thing that Rothstein says here that’s really important is that this housing segregation, housing inequality is something that governments, including the government run by Franklin Roosevelt, either perpetrated or allowed to happen.
Michael: And the second point is a really important one, and one that I took away from the book when I read it. This was done by Democrats, and Republicans too in some areas because Republicans ran Orange County or whatever it was; this was bipartisan. This is one of the most lamentable legacies of twentieth-century liberalism.
Felicia: Yeah. It happened not just in the South, but it happened everywhere. It certainly happened in Northern cities. It’s something that really structures our politics, not just our housing politics, not just our schooling politics, but I think all our politics today.
Michael: The laws have changed, but the practice hasn’t really changed that much. Those covenants and laws upholding discrimination in the building of suburbs and who could purchase in certain neighborhoods, those laws are all gone. But the practice hasn’t really changed yet. Anybody can google a map of segregated housing patterns in the U.S. and see in five seconds what we’re talking about.
Felicia: This is absolutely corrosive, and changing it is going to take a tremendous amount of work, not just laws and policies, but a lot of cultural change as well. I think the question we’re trying to get at here, Michael, and what Heather’s trying to get at, is whether, given this history of what government has done and allowed with respect to race and racialized economics in this country, we can really ever reestablish trust with government, for people who feel like government has not always been on their side. I want to know what Heather thinks about how we can rebuild this trust cap.
Felicia: I want to bring us back to the present. One of your current roles is that you are a professor at CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, and last season when we talked to Deepak Bhargava who also teaches at CUNY, we were talking about the child tax credit. He mentioned that many of his students, who were almost exclusively students of color, were highly suspicious of the child tax credit because their experience of government had been pretty awful in many ways. There was some fundamental mistrust of this thing that they might have found in their bank account, like “what was the catch?” Many of your stories are stories about positive racial solidarity, and yet, if one of the legacies of our past 40 years has been that government has been used as a weapon against many poor people, and many people of color, how do we turn that around? The story that Deepak told, it was a single anecdote but it was quite telling that his students were like, “I guess I got the money, but I don’t really buy it.”
Heather: I think it’s really important in conversations like this and in rooms of really bright, technically oriented people who want to use government to do great things, to be reminded that government has been, for most people of color’s and most poor people’s lives, neglectful at best and abusive at worst. That doesn’t stop the vast majority of people of color and low-wealth people, although there is a racial difference from being very supportive, like the child tax credit. I was looking at an Economic Security Project polling around this, and [saw] 75 percent margin support over oppose from Black people, second only to actual moms who were like, “Yes, of course”—there was a 5 percent oppose from [them]. Michael Lipsky, longtime Demos person, wrote a really influential book called Street-Level Bureaucracy. I think we need to revisit it and remember the war on poverty, the child welfare system, the police, the health care system, the schools; that’s how people see the government in their lives: with a tremendous amount of power and tremendous amount of pain. It’s important, as we think about the conversations we’ve been having all day at this conference about industrial policy and clean energy jobs and new battery factories and all that, to make sure that the government is not invisible from all that glitz and glamor.
Michael: Do you see any chance of a solidarity dividend on a national scale? Your stories are local and they’re important and moving and every inch that we can push the boulder is good. But I think we all yearn for something bigger. Is it possible?
Heather: I think most of the Biden agenda is a solidarity dividend, brought to us by a multiracial coalition that rejected the politics of division and hate and put Democrats in a trifecta to be able to refill the pool of public goods. I think it’s all a solidarity dividend. Though I don’t think we could have brought the poverty level down to its lowest level on record. That is absolutely a solidarity dividend, and it really was about a cross-racial, multiracial, anti-racist governing majority, which is what we have in this country. People are talking a lot about the backlash to racial justice and I don’t like using that word because I think it’s not a backlash. It’s not this naturally occurring upswell. I think it is a sabotage of something that has been built, and it’s a sabotage of a machine that’s here, of progress that’s being made, of a coalition that is here. Every time that coalition is asked what it thinks, it keeps saying, “We meant it.” I also think it’s baked into our politics for us to rub our neck at the car crash of crazy antisocial behavior. During the pandemic, you couldn’t turn on the news and not see an anti-mask or anti-vaccine protest. And 75 percent of the country just did what we were supposed to do and kept it moving, but it felt like it was 51 percent. It’s the same with the book ban. Book bans sweeping the country. Eighty-eight percent of the country thinks that we should teach the best and worst parts of our history. There’s lots of different polling about this, it’s just, as we believe in our government, deeply un-American and scary to think of book banning and attacks on our children’s freedom to learn, and cranks taking books off library shelves. We’re not alone and we’re not in the minority, and it’s really important for us to remember that.
Felicia: So what I hear you saying is that your work, the podcast the book, the young adults book, it’s all about reminding us that in real life, despite the constant deluge of news—most of it about race, a lot of it also about gender—there are people who have a new common sense and I don’t know if they’re even fighting back or just trying to live a slightly better life.
Heather: Yeah. They are fighting. They’re absolutely fighting because they’re all under attack. The threats are real. The podcast, for example, when you start talking, it made me think of one of my favorite episodes, which is looking at the history of how it was the religious community, the compassionate religious community they called themselves, who really helped to create abortion freedom in this country. It was in a church basement in Dallas and I went to that Dallas church where Roe v. Wade was conceptualized. And I went there at four in the morning because there’s a bus that these church ladies are sending these young, but not all young, women across state lines to go to New Mexico from Texas to get an abortion. Going back into the history of the religious leaders who were the only people that people could turn to before abortion was legal, there was an underground network of clergy, and that underground network is back again. So it’s always a fight. Even shit that shouldn’t be a fight. Can I say shit?
Felicia: You just did. And I think you can! It’s a fight, Heather, I think you could say it.
Heather: It’s always a fight. But there is a durable, anti-racist majority in this country. It just takes work.
Michael: You can say shit. We just don’t say shithole. I’m going to ask one last question and then we have microphones ready for [the audience]?
Felicia: Yes, all of you, I am certain, have questions for Heather.
Michael: My last question is simple. What’s next for you? What’s your next project?
Heather: I am loving what I’m doing now, spending most of my time talking to people who haven’t read a book on racism or haven’t read a book on the economy, but are open to this message, including fifth graders who are reading the abridged version of my book, which has just been wild and fun. I am writing another book soon. I’m going to start writing another book, which is really solutions-focused. Once we’ve diagnosed that racism is the virus in our society, how do we cure it? Is there a cure? Do societies ever overcome? Have we done it on scale? What’s the answer? What should we do? And how can we fit the kinds of truth and reconciliation processes and post-war conflict learning into our particular context? That’s the next book.
Felicia: Well, Heather, we usually end the podcast by asking our guests how they would save our country. I will say that actually everything you’ve said in the last hour is your vision of how to save our country. Fill the pool. So with that, I would just like to thank you so much for spending this hour talking to us. As always, I’ve learned a lot. It’s been a complete delight. I’d also like to thank all of the folks who have made this podcast possible, including the good people from the Hewlett Foundation, the good people from the Omidyar Network. We’ve had a tremendous amount of support from Heath Wickline, from Alexis Krieg, from Brian Kettenring, and, of course, from Larry Kramer and from Mike Kubzansky. I just want to thank everybody for letting me and Michael go on our own learning journey here on How To Save a Country.
Michael: And let’s thank our studio audience tonight for sticking with us. Now we can all go to the bar. Heather, thank you so much.
Heather: Thank you. Thank you all.
Felicia: So Michael, I think this episode, this conversation with Heather is just critical to the work we’re doing on this season of How to Save a Country because it’s really about not just the fact that racism has shaped our country and continues to shape our country, but actually about the fact that we can’t disentangle what we think of as economic rules or economic policies from race. I think of them as racialized rules, and Heather talks about racial resentment impacting drain-pool politics, driving drain-pool politics, I think that’s something we can’t talk about too much.
Michael: In different ways, all three of these guests so far this season have been talking about different aspects of this: Lilliana Mason talking about identity, Maurice talking about the experience of being an organizer and how you have to step out of your own shoes and step into other people’s shoes and see things through their eyes to build coalitions, and now Heather talking about our bleak history, but the hope of solidarity dividends popping up around the country. It’s all part of the same story.
Michael: Let’s talk about some of the good news, as we’re trying to do for every episode this season. This is good news that started as bad news, went to the Tennessee state legislature. Justin Pearson and Justin Jones were expelled by the state lower house, but obviously it became really good news because it became a galvanizing moment, a really historical moment, Felicia. I couldn’t imagine something like that having happened in the ’20s, and it’s in our history book. It’s a really really important historical moment that we learned about, and that fires our imagination, almost like the beating of Charles Sumner in the Senate. You can feel the history happening.
Felicia: I definitely agree with you that this whole thing has felt like living through history. For me, part of what made me take notice was how terrible this felt in the beginning when we got the news from Tennessee. I thought, “How could this be happening in our country?” But then it’s pivoted. The pivot made me think, “Oh, now we’re living through a historical moment that my kids and my grandkids are going to remember.” For me, what crystalized that history was listening to Representative Justin Pearson’s speech. He called on so much of the human rights traditions, so much of the civil rights traditions; he even mentioned Heather McGhee by name, which tells you how important her work is. His words made me feel like, “OK, maybe we can do this together.”
Justin Pearson [clip]: We’ll always center the voices of the marginalized, we’ll always center the voices of the poor, we’ll always center queer folks, we’ll always center marginalized folks, we’ll always center excluded folks. We’ll always move people who’ve been pushed to the periphery to the center of the conversation to lead the march toward justice. I know that when young people and older people, rich people and poor people behold Heather McGhee’s solidarity dividend, justice will roll down like water, righteousness like everflowing stream.
Felicia: How to Save a Country is a production of PRX in partnership with the Roosevelt Institute and The New Republic.
Michael: Our producer is Marcelo Jauregui-Volpe. Our lead producer is Alli Rodgers. Our executive producer is Jocelyn Gonzalez, and our mix engineer is Pedro Rafael Rosado.
Felicia: Our theme music is courtesy of Codey Randall and Epidemic Sound with other music provided by APM. How to Save a Country is made possible with support from Omidyar Network, a social change venture that is reimagining how capitalism should work. Learn more about their efforts to recenter our economy around individuals, community, and societal well-being at omidyar.com.
Michael: Support also comes from the Hewlett Foundation’s Economy and Society Initiative, working to foster the development of a new common sense about how the economy works and the aims it should serve.
In front of a live audience at the Hewlett Foundation’s New Common Sense Conference in March, Felicia and Michael talk to New York Times bestselling author Heather McGhee about her book The Sum of Us and how racism impacts the implementation and perception of public goods and services. Her research for the book, and for the audio documentary podcast that followed, took her across America and gave her unique insight into how racial resentment can be an obstacle to a better world—and how to overcome it.
Heather argues that the “zero-sum mindset” has altered many white people’s support for public infrastructure because they falsely believe progress for people of color must come at their expense. To combat zero-sum politics, she says, we need to work across our differences to achieve a common good. Heather calls the material improvements that come from this the “solidarity dividend.”
“There are gains, real gains, that we can unlock—cleaner air and water, higher wages, better funded schools—but through the power of cross-racial solidarity,” she explains.
Heather, Michael, and Felicia also talk about how powerful stories shape our beliefs and politics; how housing, inequality, and racial segregation are linked; and how neoliberalism undercut the aspirations of the civil rights movement.
Presented by the Roosevelt Institute, The New Republic, and PRX. Generous funding for this podcast was provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Omidyar Network. Views expressed in this podcast do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of its funders.
Learn more about Heather’s work in her bestselling book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, and listen to her companion podcast.
You can also check out the conversation we hosted last year between Heather and The American Prospect’s Robert Kuttner, “Biden, the FDR Legacy, and the Battle for Democracy.”
In this episode, we also mentioned Richard Rothstein’s book, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.