Ibram X. Kendi Says,”This is the Book I’ve Been Waiting For.” I Say: Yep.

Kendi’s blurb tops all the praise on the back of Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us. And if Kendi–Professor Antiracism himself–has been waiting for this book, this research, this analysis, how much more do the rest of us stand to gain from paying attention?

The full title is, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together.

At the high school where I taught, one of my favorite principals used to say, “Tell the truth and point towards hope.” McGhee’s title does just that, and so does her book’s contents.

McGhee’s chief metaphor for the costs of racism, whose image graces her cover, is the destruction of public swimming pools all across America, following orders to desegregate them in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision. Cities and towns of all sizes literally poured concrete into their pools or bulldozed them rather than let Black people swim there. As a result, everyone lost:

“Over the next decade [1960s], millions of white Americans who once swam in public for free began to pay rather than swim for free with Black people…The classless utopia faded, replaced by clubs with two-hundred-dollar membership fees and annual dues. A once-public resource became a luxury amenity, and entire communities lost out on the benefits of public life and civic engagement once understood to be the key to making American democracy real.” (p. 28)

McGhee, an expert in economic and social policy, goes on to demonstrate this “close the pools” reaction–and its evenhandedly negative effects on communities–in more current policies such as the expansion of Medicaid (nearly all Republican-led states refuse it, even though the people who most stand to benefit are the poor whites calling it communism); the fight against raising the minimum wage; and the choice of southern white automobile workers to vote down a union.

From the beginning–Bacon’s Rebellion in 1675, when poor whites and Blacks joined forces and scared the pie out of the ruling class–McGhee shows how the ruling class has used race to keep poor whites attached to “zero-sum” thinking: Any gain of a racial minority means a loss for me. Through her narrative, it’s not hard to understand why generations have chosen racial identity over any other potential benefit, be it wages or cool water on a hot summer day.

I knew this. Ibram X. Kendi knows this. I’m willing to bet you knew it too. And most of us probably knew that the Brown v. Board decision outlawing segregation in public institutions relied heavily on psychological research that showed the damaging effect of segregation on Black children–the famous “doll tests.”

But here’s something neither I, nor my Constitutional Law-professor Mate, knew. Take it away, Ms. McGhee:

But there was another path from Brown, one not taken, with profound consequences of our understanding of segregation’s harms. The nine white male justices ignored a part of the social scientists” appendix that also described in prescient detail the harm segregation inflicts on “majority” children. White children “who learn the prejudices of our society,” wrote the social scientists, were “being taught to gain personal status in an unrealistic and non-adaptive way.” They were “not required to evaluated themselves in terms of the more basic standards of actual personal ability and achievement.” What’s more, they “often develop patterns of guilt feelings, rationalizations and other mechanisms which they must use in an attempt to protect themselves from recognizing the essential injustice of their unrealistic fears and hatreds of minority groups.” The best research of the day concluded that “confusion, conflict, moral cynicism, and disrespect for authority may arise in [white] children as a consequence of being taught the moral, religious and democratic principals of justice and fair play by the same persons and institutions who seem to be acting in a prejudiced and discriminatory manner.” (p. 182-3)

When I read this, it knocked me breathless. Those quotes from the early 50’s sound like they’re describing white folks of 2021. And I’m not just talking about the “confused” folks who carried the Confederate flag into the capitol building. I’m talking about people like me, “nice white people,” who, in middle age, are just starting to acknowledge what we’ve lost by living whole lives without close friends of other races.

[photo “Hermandad” by Rufino, Wikimedia Commons]

But. I told you this book’s title promises hope, and the book delivers. McGhee constantly pivots to examples of what she calls the Solidarity Dividend: white and Black workers in Kansas City joining together to win a $15 minimum wage; conservative Connecticut passing “a raft of popular public-interest bills” like paid sick days and public financing of elections; the 95% white town of Lewiston, Maine, at death’s door economically, embracing African immigrants to bring itself back to life. McGhee ends with a clarion call:

Since this country’s founding, we have not allowed our diversity to be our superpower, and the result is that the United States is not more than the sum of its disparate parts. But it could be. And if it were, all of us would prosper. (p. 289)

God knows it’s hard to feel optimistic at this moment in our history. But these concrete examples show what is possible because they already exist. If we all keep pointing to them, divisive fear will stand less of a chance.

Question for y’all: have you seen this Solidarity Dividend in action? Please share.

The Big Antiracism “Now What?”: Can There Be Angels in the Details?

Erin Aubry Kaplan, in her op-ed in the New York Times, “Everyone’s an Antiracist. Now What?” makes a rather devastating point: Congratulations, White People. You have arrived…at the beginning of something:

Recognizing that Black people matter as much as all other Americans is only acknowledging what’s always been true. Embracing Blackness as a something of value and dignity is a baseline for progress, not progress; it is moving into position at the starting line, but it is not the race.

I am finding my days heartened currently by the scope of racial education among people and groups who have, like me, always assumed themselves to be “good,” “non-racist” folks without doing any real work to back up that assumption. People who’ve coasted on privilege for generations (like me) are finally scrutinizing that fact and grappling with the implications. BUT, as Kaplan writes,

But this is all part of Step 1. Being truly antiracist will require white people to be inconvenienced by new policies and practices, legal and social, that affect everything in everyone’s daily lives, from jobs to arts and publishing.

It’s one thing to declare your support for Black Lives Matter with a lawn sign and quite another to give up segregated schools, or always seeing yourself and people like you as the center of the moral universe. The privilege to not engage is one that many may be loath to give up, even if they believe engagement is the right thing to do.

This is the part where people usually say, “Yeah, antiracism’s great, but the devil’s in the details.” As in: what do you mean by antiracist work? What if it’s not only inconvenient by messy, complicated, hard, threatening?

To that thought–my own thought!–I am trying to give this reply: What if those aren’t devils but angels in the details? What if we can find our own redemption as a dominant race by taking some nitty-gritty steps toward REAL equality, REAL justice? Doesn’t that sound like a blessing to you?

So, for my own work, my own “angels,” I am committing to the following:

  1. actively engage in the struggle to protect voting rights in “battleground” states, by phone-banking to promote mail-in balloting, along with promoting progressive candidates from the bottom to the top of the ballot; continue to mail letters to individual voters to urge their participation in November
  2. continue to advocate, through phone calls and email, for the closure of the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, WA, run by the private prison company Geo Group
  3. continue to educate myself about the American carceral state, to see what else needs advocating for (restoration of voting privileges for former felons? prison defunding? what else?)
  4. look for opportunities to support Black businesses, like WeBuyBlack.com (gorgeous dresses!)
  5. stay open to calls for action from organizations like Color of Change, using the privilege of my free time to advocate on specific cases of injustice whenever I have a moment

    Not gonna lie–it’s a tough read.

When I find myself foot-dragging on any of the above actions–which, face it, are not inherently fun–all I have to do is re-read Kaplan’s line: The privilege to not engage is one that many may be loath to give up, even if they believe engagement is the right thing to do.

Photo Courtesy of Color of Change.org

I admit, I’m writing this as much to keep myself motivated as anything. Privileged non-engagement is very, VERY comfortable. That’s why I’ve lived there for most of my life.

Anyway–thanks for reading about my commitments. I’d love to read about yours! Please share your current or next steps, wherever you are on this journey.