MONDAY’S POST–INADVERTENTLY PUBLISHED EARLY…(Every once in a while, I hit the wrong button…)
It has taken nearly 150 years–since the end of the Civil War in 1865–for America to face up to our most consequential deviation from the sentiments expressed in the Declaration of Independence. During most of that time period, we have engaged in various kinds of denial–the most widespread and egregious being the oft-repeated assertion that the war was fought over “states’ rights.”
That description was true, as far as it went. The war was fought to defend the “right” of some states to authorize and enforce the enslavement of black human beings.
Although very few school history classes have taught the realities of slavery, reconstruction and the various horrifying efforts to thwart the civil rights movement, we find ourselves at a point where the reality and extent of racial animus can no longer be ignored. Over the last four or five years, members of what the late Molly Ivins used to call “the chattering classes” have focused more honestly on the extent to which racial grievance permeates our politics and distorts American public policy.
I posted a few days ago about the eruption in the Indiana General Assembly, but the verbal expressions of incivility certainly weren’t the only metric of racial bias: the assault on Indianapolis by more suburban and rural lawmakers–displayed this session in a number of truly offensive bills–is driven in large measure by disdain for the racial diversity of urban life. Legislative support for Indiana’s costly voucher program, which aims to “privatize” (and not so incidentally, resegregate) education, has its roots in that same disdain.
The under-appreciated problem with policy grounded in racial and ethnic bias is that such policies don’t hurt just the people who are targeted; they also hurt those who support them, as a new book makes very clear.
McGhee’s book is about the many ways racism has defeated efforts to create a more economically just America. Once the civil rights movement expanded America’s conception of “the public,” white America’s support for public goods collapsed. People of color have suffered the most from the resulting austerity, but it’s made life a lot worse for most white people, too. McGhee’s central metaphor is that of towns and cities that closed their public pools rather than share them with Black people, leaving everyone who couldn’t afford a private pool materially worse off.
One of the most fascinating things about “The Sum of Us” is how it challenges the assumptions of both white antiracism activists and progressives who just want to talk about class. McGhee argues that it’s futile to try to address decades of disinvestment in schools, infrastructure, health care and more without talking about racial resentment.
She describes research done by the Race-Class Narrative Project, a Demos initiative that grew out of her work for the book. McGhee and her colleagues, she writes, discovered that if you “try to convince anyone but the most committed progressives (disproportionately people of color) about big public solutions without addressing race, most will agree … right up until they hear the countermessage that does talk, even implicitly, about race.”
There is a widespread zero-sum approach to social justice–a deep-seated fear that equality for “them” will diminish dominance/status for “us.”
McGhee’s book shifts the focus from the ways in which racism benefits white people to the substantial costs it imposes on them.
Why is student debt so crushing in a country that once had excellent universities that were cheap or even free? Why is American health care such a disaster? Why is our democracy being strangled by minority rule? As the first line of McGhee’s book asks, “Why can’t we have nice things?” Racism is a huge part of the answer.
An unhealed wound will form a scab; a healed wound will leave a scar. Racism is America’s wound. There will always be a scar, but it won’t heal until we recognize and acknowledge the ongoing, significant damage it causes to all of us.
As Goldberg says, counting on altruism will only get you so far.