The Social and Environmental Justice Book Group just finished reading Heather McGhee’s book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. Here are some thoughts from this book that we wanted to share with you.
Part I: Jan
Last week, as I was out walking, I could see three people who had come from the pedestrian bridge. On my left, a young black couple were walking rapidly, and calling and waving as they went. Ahead of them, about a block away from them on my right, a White woman was walking as fast as she could away from them—almost running at times. A couple of times she stopped to turn and look at them, and then hurried away even faster. As I got closer, I could hear what the Black couple were shouting: “Hey lady, you dropped this! We’re just trying to give it back to you!” But the woman just kept on running away from them. Finally the young woman shrugged and said to me sadly, “We were just trying to help her…”
Racism taught the white woman to fear the young couple, and it deprived her of whatever it was that she had dropped. And racism may well have taught the Black couple not to bother trying to be helpful again.
We think of racism as a problem only for Black people, and of course they carry its greatest burdens. But it also deprives all Americans of benefits and goods that people in other nations enjoy. McGhee frames her book around the example of public swimming pools.
In the middle of the last century, most American cities maintained free public swimming pools as a civic good, a tool of democracy. After all, in a swimsuit, everyone is equal.
Except Black people. The pools were for White people only. As the NAACP and other groups fought for access to the pools all citizens paid for, cities and towns across the nation found creative ways to keep from integrating their public pools. In Baltimore, White people stopped using them. There was a surge of private, back-yard pools being built. Some cities formed swim clubs open only by invitation—to white people—and leased the public pools to the clubs. In St. Louis, 5,000 armed White people showed up to guard their pool from Black swimmers and attack any Black people in the vicinity.
But many cities just closed their pools and parks, drained the pools, and filled them with dirt or concrete. Rather than share with their Black neighbors, these White people preferred to deprive themselves.
Most of the rest of this book explains how racism has deprived Americans of such public benefits as low-cost or free higher education, manageable home loans, free or low-cost healthcare, labor unions, protected voting rights where the person with the most votes actually wins, good public schools, and healthy air, water, and soil. In each of these areas, public goods have been either reserved overtly or by stealth for White people, or eliminated rather than shared with Black people.
McGhee says, “If the benefits can’t be whites-only, you can’t have them at all. And if you say it’s racist? Prove it.”
These practices and polices seem to be grounded in what’s called the “zero-sum theory”—the idea that there’s only a limited amount of good stuff…be that wealth, or social status, or freedom. And if you get more of that good stuff, then I get less. So if I have to share, I lose.
Part II: Meighan
Why do white people in this country think in zero-sum terms? Where is this animus toward Black people coming from? We all know there’s a long history of racism in this country. You may not realize how far back it goes.
The Doctrine of Discovery is a Papal Bull issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493. We all remember what happened in 1492: Columbus “discovered” America and claimed it for Spain, unbeknownst to the hundreds of thousands of Native Americans already living in this land. So in 1493, Europe was trying to lay the groundwork for staking claims to these lands.
[The Doctrine of Discovery] established a demarcation line one hundred leagues west of the Azores and Cape Verde Islands and assigned Spain the exclusive right to acquire territorial possessions and to trade in all lands west of that line. All others were forbidden to approach the lands west of the line without special license from the rulers of Spain. This effectively gave Spain a monopoly on the lands in the New World.
The Bull stated that any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be “discovered,” claimed, and exploited by Christian rulers and declared that “the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.” This “Doctrine of Discovery” became the basis of all European claims in the Americas as well as the foundation for the United States’ western expansion. In the US Supreme Court in the 1823 case, Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion in the unanimous decision held “that the principle of discovery gave European nations an absolute right to New World lands.” In essence, American Indians had only a right of occupancy, which could be abolished. [The Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History, https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-resources/spotlight-primary-source/doctrine-discovery-1493]
The Doctrine of Discovery provides the colonialist rationale for Manifest Destiny, the idea that people of European descent were entitled to push west across the United States, claim all the land for themselves, and kill or remove all native inhabitants who got in the way. It justified kidnaping Native American children, putting them in mission schools, cutting their hair, putting them in European clothing, and punishing them for speaking their native languages.
The same attitude toward people unlike themselves justified the commodification of Africans as slaves. Different skin color, different continent, different faith. We know all this, but it may be an eye-opener to realize how enshrined these doctrines are in our legal system.
Our U.S. Constitution has some fine words in it about liberty and justice and equality, but from the outset those concepts were not meant to be applied to everyone. They were meant for white male landowners. Not for women. Not for poor white people. Not for slaves, who were counted as only 3/5 of a person and were certainly not guaranteed freedom or the right to vote.
This shameful history of discrimination and oppression is the hidden wound that white people carry around. No one wants to realize that their group of people has all along been the oppressors. No one with a sense of social justice wants to watch a six-year-old Black girl being escorted to school by the National Guard through a sea of snarling, screaming, hating faces and say, “Yes! Those oppressors—those are my people. I’m so proud.” No one wants to have the blinders taken from their eyes to see that their privileges rest on the backs of oppressed, abused people. Cotton for the textile mills in the North came from slave plantations in the South.
The Civil Rights Movement helped to unveil what white people had been carefully taught not to see. That Black people were 5/5 human, just as deserving of a good education, a mortgage, a decent house, a safe neighborhood, work that pays a living wage, health care—all of it.
Perhaps Jesus tells the rich young man to give away his possessions because he wants the man to see that the whole system that gave him such wealth is corrupt. The man says he has followed all the commandments since his youth. That’s a great start. But as a young man, he hasn’t had time to amass wealth on his own. Any wealth he has comes from an accident of birth—from being well-positioned in a corrupt and oppressive system. Perhaps his father is a tax collector, extorting payment from poor people who are driven off their land in order to fund the Roman occupation. Jesus invites him to walk away from his possessions and follow him, if he really wants to be perfect. Francis of Assisi did that: he turned his back on family wealth, social standing, a life of power and ease. But how many others could do it? Jesus shakes the young man out of his illusion that all he has to do is be nice and follow the rules. Jesus isn’t about being nice or following rules if they are corrupt. He’s about taking down the whole corrupt system and starting over in such a way that everyone is included, on even footing—everyone has what they need to thrive.
Our racial biases are taught, sometimes very subtly. They are part of our legacy in this country, dating back centuries. They are enshrined in our U.S. Constitution and had to have specific amendments tacked on to try and undo some of them. Powerful forces want to hang onto an undemocratic system of white supremacy and are organizing to take away rights through voter suppression, casting doubt about election results, taking away women’s rights, and more.
If we want to answer Jesus’ invitation to unmake a centuries-old corrupt system, we have to do more than just be nice to each other. We have to confront our history and work for a more just society moving forward. We have to be willing to use our own privilege to make some noise, to stand up for justice, to name the racism and oppression we see.
Part III: Jan
McGhee knows she can’t tell us about this dismal history without offering a solution, and hope. The solution is what’s called the “solidarity dividend.”
Lewiston, Maine, is a small town in America’s whitest state. Its formerly prosperous industry had moved to the South or overseas, where labor was cheap. By the 1980s, Lewiston was shrinking and dying.
And then came the Somali War and thousands of refugees came to the US. Some came to Maine, and some settled in Lewiston, and as African people united with friends from all over Africa, Lewiston’s population began to grow again. The new people started small businesses and contributed to Lewiston’s economy.
As McGhee says, “today’s immigrants of color are revitalizing America.” Small communities all over the country are growing again and starting to thrive because of their new populations. This was possible because White people in these communities were able put aside the anxieties they may have felt about “replacement,” and recognize that their communities need new people to thrive. So they’ve offered things like free ESL classes and help getting college degrees to get their new neighbors started.
And they received benefits that no one could have anticipated. A woman in Lewiston, named Cecile, was a descendant of French-Canadians who had come to Maine to work in the cotton mills. As French speakers, they were second-class citizens, and so like many immigrants, they suppressed their “outsider” culture, and stopped even speaking French at home. They became fully “White” at the cost of their own culture and identity.
Cecile looked for other “Francos” to find a sense of community and culture, and improve on what little French she knew, but what she found was a dispirited, elderly group whose French was not much better than hers. They pointed her toward another club, though— a group of French-speaking African immigrants. She discovered she was the only white person there, but they welcomed her warmly, spoke French with her, and gave her the community she’d been searching for. Eventually, some of the older White Francos joined the club, where the Africans became their French teachers! And they helped the Africans connect with services in the town.
This is what can happen when people challenge the belief that “your gain is my loss.” As Lewiston grows and prospers again, it changes, radically, but the new community has enriched all lives in ways none of them thought possible. This is part of the Solidarity Dividend.
You and I can experience the Solidarity Dividend every time we go for a walk. Congress passed the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, and it included curb cuts in sidewalks at every intersection, so people using wheelchairs could get up onto the sidewalk. There was resistance from city governments—in Seattle I remember a lot of grumbling about the expense to taxpayers to accommodate just a few.
But it turned out, once the curb cuts were in place, that it wasn’t just people in wheelchairs using them. Pregnant women, people carrying heavy groceries or pushing strollers, athletes with sprains or broken legs, old folks with tired knees—all suddenly realized what a terrific idea curb cuts are.
That’s part of the Solidarity Dividend. When we make “special accommodations” for needs we may not actually share, we discover that there is a gift there for us, too.
Part of the lesson of the curb cut effect is that we have to design solutions for the particular needs of different populations. A few people in America have benefitted from the zero-sum theory. Others have been terribly harmed. The wealth of an average White family in America is about $171,000, including savings, investments, pensions, and real property. The average Black family’s wealth is about $17,000. McGhee says, “Wealth is where history shows up in your wallet.” The wealth gap is a result of centuries of discrimination in employment, housing, and education. Its history includes unpaid forced labor, Jim Crow laws, violent retribution for Black success, as in Tulsa, Oklahoma, redlining, and dishonest lending. Any solution is going to have to address that disparity.
Part IV: Meighan
It can be done. McGhee offers Five Discoveries to guide us in this work. Unlike the rich young man, we can open our eyes to the real justice work that needs to be done. And here are some things to keep in mind:
Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation groups have sprung up around the country to do this work. The group in Dallas, Texas, held trainings for people and organizations throughout the Dallas area about how to do the very work we’re talking about. They talked to people throughout the community—city council members, high school students, business leaders, police officers—to create a vision. They wrote up the racial history of Dallas and then laid out the new vision in a shocking report called “A New Community Vision for Dallas.” They held trainings and National Day of Racial Healing events.
Then an off-duty police officer came home to her apartment building one evening, mistakenly got off the elevator on the wrong floor, opened what she thought was her own door, saw a Black man sitting there watching TV, and shot him. Killed him. His name was Botham Jean. He was in his own apartment. The police officer was in the wrong. When the media started doing its usual things of blaming the Black victim, 20 organizations that had been through this racial justice training sent letters to the local media saying that the police and media narrative about this event was racist. They met with the head of the Dallas Morning News paper and said the paper had the opportunity to made amends, to get this story right. That changed the focus and the tone for how the media covered this story.
It takes a lot to change a narrative that dates back centuries. This is a step.
You may have heard that Pope Francis recently made a trip to Canada. When hundreds of small graves were found in the past year or so on the grounds of those former Christian mission schools, we all learned what a nightmare the schools were for the First Nations children. Unlike the rich young man in the parable, the Pope saw the justice work that had to begin. So he visited multiple locations in Canada, spoke with tribal elders. He said, “This was wrong, and I’m sorry that this happened to you and your ancestors.” It doesn’t fix everything. Some people think it doesn’t fix anything. But others were open to this gesture. It’s a step: acknowledging publicly the wrongs that were done and apologizing. It opens the way for healing and a new path forward.
That’s how we begin: with a step. And another step. We learn to see our privilege, to see that it’s built on the backs of others. And then, instead of defending that wrong, we name it publicly, we apologize, we take a step to make it right. We refill the pool—for everyone—and we start offering lessons on how to swim in these new waters. May it be so.