Heather McGhee has been in public policy for the past 20 years, largely focused on economics. After nearly 16 years at Demos, a “think-and-do” tank, including four years as president, she realized that despite incredibly compelling economic research, at times, decision makers made decisions counter to what the best evidence showed. She took a leave of absence as president, and embarked on a journey to try to answer a simple question – Why can’t we have nice things? We, being all Americans, and nice things being things that most developed nations have managed to provide for their people – health care, parental leave, a social safety net, and, of course, a good school in every neighborhood.
Her journey took her across the country for conversations with all sorts of people, and led to the new book, The Sum of Us, which has been on the New York Times Bestseller’s list since was released. We are incredibly grateful to Heather McGhee for agreeing to come on the show in the midst of a serious promotional schedule. We are also honored that Integrated Schools makes an appearance in the book.
- The Sum Of Us
- Our Bookshop.org Storefront
- Demos – Public Policy “Think-and-Do” Tank
Ta-Nehesi Coats – The Case for Reparations
- Dr. Gail Christopher
- Adrian Piper – Conceptual Artist
- Sherrilyn Ifill
- NAACP Legal Defense Fund
- Black Doll Test
- Debra Holoien
- Chase Bellingham and Matthew Hunt
- Kellogg Foundation
- The New Jim Crow – Michelle Alexander
- The Color of Law – Richard Rothstein
- Bryan Stevenson of Equal Justice Initiative
Don’t forget to register for our next webinar: How We Show Up, April 19th 5pm PDT / 8pm EDT. This free, 90 minute webinar will feature parents from Integrated Schools. We’ll be sharing personal stories of how we, as parents and caregivers with racial or economic privilege, work to center anti-racist integration when we arrive in integrating schools.
Join our Patreon to support this work, and connect with us and other listeners to discuss these issues even further.
The Integrated Schools Podcast was created by Courtney Mykytyn and Andrew Lefkowits.
This episode was produced, edited, and mixed by Andrew Lefkowits.
Music by Kevin Casey
Andrew: Welcome to the Integrated Schools Podcast. I'm Andrew, a White dad from Denver, and this is “Zero-Sum Politics: Heather McGhee on How Racism Hurts Us All”. Back in February, buzz started building about a new book coming out that seemed very much in line with our mission at Integrated Schools. The book is called The Sum of Us. And we were all excited to dive in when it came out.
Little did we know that we are actually in the book. Parent board and leadership team member Ali Takata was interviewed for the book back in 2019 and her story fills several pages of The Sum of Us. We connected with the author, Heather McGhee, and she agreed to come on the podcast in the midst of a crazy promotional schedule.
And I am so glad she did because the book is amazing and totally helped me see the world in a different way. She talks about this zero-sum mindset that runs through nearly all of our politics. The idea that gains for some must come at the cost of others and that if some people are getting ahead, it must mean that others are falling behind. It's an idea rooted in the hierarchy of human value that our country was founded upon and it fits right into so many of the narratives we have around schools, right? We want to get our kids into the best schools, the best afterschool programs, the best sports teams so that they can get ahead of other kids. The goal isn’t good schools, but simply better-than schools.
If the pie of school quality is small and fixed, we end up fighting for the biggest piece we can get. And the result is that everyone has worse schools. And it isn't just schools. The Sum of Us is full of other examples, as well as clear articulations of what's lost when that narrative drives public policy.
Ms. McGhee has been in public policy for the past 20 years, largely focused on economics. She was a leading voice warning of the subprime mortgage crisis and particularly the harm it was likely to do to Black and Brown families. Her research shows that the story we tell about the subprime crisis, that it was about families taking out more debt than could afford irresponsible borrowers, who shouldn't be buying homes: That's all wrong.
In fact, more than half of the $2.5 trillion in subprime loans made between 2000 and 2007, went to borrowers who actually qualified for cheaper and safer prime loans. And in roughly that same timeframe, less than 10% of subprime loans were for first-time home buyers. The vast majority were for refinancing existing homes. The problem was that the banks were incentivized towards these newly devised and increasingly complex subprime loans. It wasn't a problem with risky borrowers. The problem was risky loans.
As Ms. McGhee tried to make sense out of how all this was allowed to happen, how the government didn't step in to protect borrowers, she found a familiar racialized story. In fact, the same story that led to redlining: Black people aren't financially responsible. The lie undergirding the stereotype wasn't the point. The point was that racism, individual, institutional, and structural, allowed lenders, brokers, and investors to target people of color and get away with it.
Now, particularly if you've read Richard Rothstein’s The Color Of Law, all of this may feel appalling but maybe not necessarily shocking. But Ms. McGhee's unique insight, and the theme that really drives her book, is that while racism allowed for the conditions to create the subprime crisis, the impact of it was felt much more broadly than just in the Black community.
In fact, had we been able to look past the convenient racial lie that drove public discourse at the time, we might've seen the Great Recession coming. Had we heeded the warning of the canary in the coal mine, we could have potentially averted a financial catastrophe in which White people made up, by far, the largest number of victims. And thus, as in so many aspects of our life, racism hurts us all. It hurts Black and Brown folks first, and with the most impact, but we all suffer.
This idea that racism hurts us all, and that it's emboldened by a zero-sum mindset fostered through White supremacy, a mindset that believes that when a person of color gains, it must come at the cost of a White person, is the theme of The Sum Of Us. And housing is just one area where this phenomenon impacts life in America. The links to public schools and the ways this zero-sum mindset impact our educational system are countless.
And that is why I was so honored to get to speak to Ms. McGhee about it. The book is amazing. There's a link to purchase it in the show notes. Bookshop.org allows you to support local, independent bookstores and a portion of the proceeds from each sale come back to Integrated Schools. So, let's take a listen.
Heather McGhee: My name is Heather McGhee. I'm the author of the new book, The Sum Of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together.
Andrew: Yes, it is such a great book. I'm so glad you're here. I'm wondering if we can just start with your bio a little bit, maybe go all the way back to Chicago. You can tell us about the apartment that you grew up in and the neighborhood that you grew up in and how that impacted you.
Heather McGhee: Yeah, so I was born on the South Side of Chicago and my parents lived in an apartment building that was owned by my great-grandmother, Flossie McGhee, who ultimately lived to be over a hundred and was a huge part of my life growing up. Flossie, Gram Flossie, bought that apartment building on the South Side of Chicago in a neighborhood known as Chatham or Chatham Avalon, which was 90 plus percent Black, on a land contract, which are those kinds of predatory contracts that Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about in his article for The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations”, when he talks about the real estate market in Chicago.
And it was one of those wealth stripping contracts where, because there were all these racial covenants and redlining, the only way Black folks could buy would be to buy kind of a shell from a White landowner and pay every month. And if you ever missed a payment, that was it. You, it wasn't like you were building up equity, you didn't get any equity or the deed until your final payment.
And so it was this incredibly risky enterprise, and the interest rates were double digits, and there were all these fees. And my Great Grandma, Flossie, was a domestic worker and nanny and a house cleaner, um, and she also played the numbers and she was really lucky with the numbers. And so she would have her, you know, tiny little paychecks and tips. And then she was always gambling with the neighborhood numbers game and combination of that allowed her to, against all odds, buy and keep this apartment building. And my dad and my mom lived in the basement apartment and she, you know, rented out the, the other floors.
Andrew: That's amazing. And it was a, it was a- almost entirely Black neighborhood. What was the impact on you as a young child of growing up in that environment?
Heather McGhee: Well, so we moved around a lot, which is also, I think, a feature of, you know, being on the edge of the middle-class, right. So we were constantly moving. After my parents got divorced, which happened when I was two, I lived with my mom and my brother and we lived about half my childhood on the South Side, and then at some point my mom got a bigger job, a bigger contract, and we were able to move to Evanston, which is a Near North suburb of Chicago.
A few years later, my dad ended up getting a better job and moving to Oak Park. And so both Evanston and Oak Park are these like super proximate to Chicago inner-ring suburbs that are known, particularly Oak Park is really known for its integration. There was a lot of explicit work done during the era of blockbusting and White flight to maintain an integrated neighborhood in Oak Park. And then in Evanston, I mean I was looking back at my fifth grade school picture and it was like pretty much the population of the city and of the country. You know was, it was around like 20%, 30% Black, so it was sort of more Black, but it was a pretty diverse little integrated public school.
So I was really, I, I think I've had like every kind of educational experience from disinvested 90 plus Black public schools to 90 plus percent Black Catholic school, which I went to for one year, um, where like the only White faces were like Jesus on the walls and the White principal and some of the teachers. And then I went to these, you know, pretty integrated public schools. And then I went to an almost entirely White private school for boarding school for my seventh, eighth and ninth grade years in Massachusetts. I left home, um, and it was, it was a pretty wild, uh, cultural shock. And then I went to a private school for high school, that was also a boarding school outside of Boston, that was very diverse racially for a private school, but of course is a private school and one of the toniest schools in the country. So there's not a lot of class diversity, and what class diversity there is, is, is very intentional, you know.
Andrew: Righ. So, so your mother was a healer of some sort.
Heather McGhee: My mom, whose name is Dr. Gail Christopher, was a holistic health doctor back before that was cool. Uh, in the ‘70s and ‘80s. And she had a practice, a holistic discipline called naprapathy that works on the connective tissue and she was a clinical nutritionist. And so she saw patients. In fact, my dad was one of her patients. He had a racquetball injury. If that, like, dates, you know, when that was, right?
Andrew: I mean, that makes a picture right there, for sure.
Heather McGhee: Nobody, nobody plays racquetball anymore, but it was like all the rage for a while in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, maybe too many knee injuries, I don't know. But she always had one foot in kind of social policy. She very much understood early on, I think, that you can't really heal an unwell physical body that's in an unwell social body. And she was very clear about the social determinants of health and the way racism was itself a sort of risk factor of, of health. And so she would have contracts to work with single moms and teenage moms in the projects and at a group home, and she was sort of, as I say in the book, she had an entrepreneur's mind and a social worker's heart.
Andrew: So she was like onto the racism causes physical harm...
Andrew: ...sort of before that was like a thing that people talked about.
Heather McGhee: That's exactly right. I mean she, she was kind of one of the gods, the mothers, of the social determinants of health.
Andrew: Right. So she, she knew about that. How did she sort of reconcile what that with then sending you to an almost entirely White boarding school?Or how did she, like, prepare you to, to kind of I'm guessing that you did not find a, an entirely White boarding school free from racism.
Heather McGhee: Um, you know it's so interesting. I think about, you know, I'm a mom now. Uh, I have a two and a half year old son. I think about the ways in which my mother both knew as much as there is to know about racism, right, both in her personal life and intellectually, and yet felt like to prepare her Black children for life, she needed to, above all, give us the self-esteem that the world was arrayed to rob from us. So that we would always feel like we could do anything. And there's sort of a tension there. It's like do you, do you tell your children that the world is stacked against them? Well obviously not, like that's no way…
Andrew: You don’t open with that.
Heather McGhee: She believes in the power of consciousness to shape experiences, right. So she wanted to have the consciousness that we could sort of dissolve mountains. That we could do anything. And my mom would tell us that, but she didn't have that consciousness for herself, right. She's a woman, she's Black, she was a single mom, like, there was just sort of nothing about the world that would have echoed that back to her about herself .
And interestingly I first identified that consciousness, the idea that you have total power to effectuate what you want in the world, I first really heard it when I went to a White school and saw the way these kids like walked through the world as if they just owned it. And I was like, Oh that's what she was talking about, you know, and so...
Andrew: Right. Lord give the confidence of a mediocre White man.
Heather McGhee: Exactly, right. I was like, Oh that's what she means, that's what it would look like to feel, as the conceptual artist Adrian Piper says, No bounded sense of self at all, right? Like that there's no limitation on your impact in the world.
Now you know, obviously that's a problem when you have that sense of agency and efficacy and have no consciousness about the inequalities of the world. So there's a lot of ways in which, particularly when held by people with sort of unreflective privilege, that's a major problem. But ultimately what racism does to, you know, children of color and what sexism does to little girls, right, is, is teach us that we're less than. And so as a parent I think she wanted to teach us that we are just as good as, while also instilling the values that we are here as service to our community, which was never, never a question, right. Like it never occurred to me not to try to make the world better with my life, that was just what of course you have to do. That's why you're here.
Andrew: So w-, what was that experience like being at an all-White boarding school? I mean, I imagine there was some racism but also you thrived in many ways. I'm assuming it, it wasn't all bad.
Heather McGhee: For sure, I experienced a bunch of explicit racism and unconscious racism but it wasn't terrible, right. It was on balance and a wonderful experience for me because it was a truly precious educational nursery, right. Like it's so, it was so small, my school was so small. I went from a massive public school to this tiny school where I lived in a little old house as a dormitory with like five adults and like nine kids and had these tiny, tiny classes. My graduating class was, I think, like 14 or 15 kids, right. So there's sort of no way for an intellectually starved, precocious kid, to not thrive in an experience like that, because Isuddenly had access to so much adult attention and you know.
Andrew: Particularly with, with the, like with that, that sense that your mom had instilled that you, you can move mountains, that, that you can you can own the world.
Heather McGhee: Yeah and I was a nerd, right. I was a true nerd. So it was like, Great there are more books here, you know? And yet I think the thing that was the most profound even though I was I was able to create friendships with White kids, and actually there were a lot of Asian boarders, right, who came from Hong Kong and Japan and China, so that they were actually my closest friends, as well as a Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx who was my roommate, um, the whole time. I was able to make friends and it wasn't an experience of being totally isolated, even though I was the only Black girl in my, only Black person, in my class. It was a class of 14 kids.
But even as I went through to high school which was Milton Academy 50% day, 50% boarder, it's like 30 to 40% kids of color when I was there, if I'm not mistaken. I, you know, I generally speaking, found my niche, right. Like I was a theater nerd and I did that, you know, like I, I, I, was okay and I think honestly because I'd had that forced adaptation into this White New England world so young, I was 11 in 7th grade, you know, like I'd had a few years to get used to the weirdnesses of White, White culture, right. Like, it was like, Oh okay, this is the way you do things, all right, all right, I can do that, I can figure this out, you know.
But the, the real lagging thing, the thing that never really worked for me was I never felt beautiful. Like, it just, that wasn't gonna fly, right. Like, the White girl supremacy, um, the White hair, the White skin, the White body type, the White beauty products, the just, the White way of speaking and laughing and flirting. Like this, just this idea of White femininity was so total, and I was so outside of it. And when you're young, right, when you're going through puberty, that's kinda like the thing. That's like the most important thing. And so that was completely denied to me by spending my adolescence in a very White world. If I had been in a global majority school or if I had been in a, you know, Black community still for school, um I think that would have been very different.
Andrew: I heard, I heard you say that the first time you saw yourself for real, the first time that you, like you, you viewed yourself as sort of a full beautiful human being was when you were studying abroad in Italy.
Heather McGhee: Oh yeah! You've gone into the B-sides, Andrew. I don't remember where I said that.
Andrew: I went deep. I went deep. How much of it was just the time in your life and how much of it was that like you needed to get out of America you had to leave this country to be able to do that.
Heather McGhee: Um, that was the first time where I saw myself outside of the White supremacist American beauty standards. And I was like Oh! Oh, Oh, Oh... Oh... Oh, Oh, you know, so that was, uh, that was a big wake up call. I think it really was about leaving, yeah, just the American norm that is so obsessed with a very narrow type of White femininity.
Andrew: Right, and even Italy. I mean, you didn't go to, you didn't go to Ghana.
Heather McGhee: Right, no, exactly. I didn't have to go that far. I could have gone to Canada probably have been better, right
Andrew: Uh that's great. Um, alright, let’s talk about the book a little bit, The Sum of Us. You open with why can't we have nice things and the kind of driving metaphor is this drained pool. I’m wondering you tell us how you came to that and, and why that's the theme that runs through the book.
Heather McGhee: Yeah, so I spent nearly 20 years working in public policy, mostly economic policy, trying to sort of solve the question of, Why can't we have nice things, why can't we, being we all Americans. Nice things being not like laundry that does itself, but things like universal health care and a real public health system to handle pandemics and reliable modern infrastructure and childcare and a well-funded school in every neighborhood. These are the nice things that other advanced economies somehow manage to handle and figure out for their people and we decidedly don't. And the We is all Americans and by that I mean both disproportionately Black and Brown Americans, but also White Americans who are the largest group of the uninsured and the largest group of the impoverished. And I went to a whole bunch of places across the country to figure out the answer to that question. You know, what’s the root of our dysfunction?
And one of the first places I went was Montgomery, Alabama where I visited the central park in the city. It's called Oak Park. And I walked the grounds of what used to be a massive public swimming pool and is now a big wide expanse of grass. And the story of the Oak Park pool is a story that was replicated across the country, and for me really began to stand as a symbol of what racism had cost this whole country.
Andrew: In this case, they cost us these really nice swimming pools.
Heather McGhee: There were these grand resort-style pools and they were just this sort of example of a commitment at the time, the sort of governing ethos that was part of the New Deal era, that was like the United States government has responsibility to make the people of this country's standard of living as high as possible. We're going to have massive subsidies for home ownership for working class folks who never would have dreamed of owning their own home. We're going to create this New Deal labor protections. We're going to later create the GI Bill. We're going to have, you know, market rules that foster competition and strong consumer protections, high minimum wage, really make sure that the labor laws are tilted towards the, the right to form a union, all of these things. And it created the greatest middle-class the world had ever seen.
And yet virtually all that I just talked about, in terms of those public protections and benefits, were effectively for Whites only in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. Whether it was explicitly, like with redlining and housing, or through disparate impact, like the fact that millions of Black GIs didn't get the benefits of the GI Bill because of redlining and housing and, and educational segregation. And the pools as well, in many places across the country, were for Whites only, either by ordinance or by custom, which was usually enforced by violence.
And in the 1960s, late ‘50s and ‘60s, Black communities began to say, Hey, those are our tax dollars we should be able to swim too. And in Montgomery, Alabama, as well as in many other places, Ohio, West Virginia, Washington state, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, the towns decided to drain their public pools rather than integrate them.
Andrew: D- decided to say, if we have to share this public good with Black people, we'd rather just not have it. Like we'd rather just close the whole thing down. What, what did you take away from that? What was the, what was the kind of hidden, or maybe not so hidden, meaning in that?
Heather McGhee: For me that is a story of a White elite making a decision that robbed the masses of White people of something that had once been seen as a public benefit. It then made swimming something that you could do if you could afford to do it, right. If you could build a backyard pool, which is why we started to see this boom in backyard pools, and these members-only swim clubs, these private swim clubs that cropped up everywhere. And of course it meant that, you know, Black families never, never ever got to swim in these public pools.
And the idea of the drained pool and drained pool politics is what happens when the majority of White people turn their backs on public goods because of their suspicion that the public is not good. And that the people who are included in the public are not good. And of course that has been the story of White flight from public schools since school integration as well.
Andrew: Right, once you, once you start seeing it then everywhere. It's in, it's in our public schools, it's in our pools, it's in our parks, it's in our higher education, it's in housing. Um, I wonder if we can sort of step back a little bit, to one of the themes, particularly of chapter seven “Living Apart” is, is how segregated we are. And wondering if you can talk a little bit about how that came to be? Kind of what, what were the incentives for the people in power to that segregation, to keep people apart. I think you said the physical separation is the most powerful way to ensure the allegiance of the White masses to race over class.
Heather McGhee: Did I say that?
Andrew: Well, that's what says in your book.
Heather McGhee: Um, so chapter seven is, is “Living Apart” and as I do in every chapter, give a few pages of history, right. We can't understand where we are now if we don't understand the rules that, that led us here. And I did research that I did not know before I set out to write the book, about exactly how we got so segregated and the idea that it was not actually an invention of the Jim Crow South, that the North was actually who segregated first. Because in the South, under slavery, you didn't need segregation, right? You wanted Black people as close as possible, you wanted access to their bodies and their labor.
Whereas in the North, there was this view that free Black people needed to be kept separate because you wanted to keep the groups of workers separate from each other and in competition. Because that would allow you to keep wages low. That if you could pit the Irish workers against the Black workers, then it would be easier for you to pay whichever group was willing to work for cheaper, right. And there's always threat of substitution.
So the lesson there for me was that the economic logic is always what guides the racial understanding, right? There's no, like, inherent understanding of the different races and how they're supposed to operate and what their sort of caricature is, it's guided by the economic imperative.
Andrew: Right. Race didn't create the economic differences, the need for economic differences is what created race. Why we have race at all is because we needed some way to justify keeping, keeping some people down and some people up, to create hierarchy of human value.
Heather McGhee: Well said, Andrew. Exactly right. Um, I talk about sort of where the segregation came from. I talk as I do, I probably mentioned in every chapter at some point in the other, just because it's so important to understanding our economy today and understanding our school system today and all of that, you know. The decision in the New Deal by the federal government to redline and then later to require racial covenants in all of its housing developments that were subsidized. I talk about that history but then there is, as Richard Rothstein obviously in The Color Of Law, the sort of insight that, that provoked him to write the book, is this, this general approach that powerful people have today. Which is to say, Oh yeah we used to segregate by law and now it's just a matter of personal preference. And he really wrote The Color of Law to kind of explode that idea.
And so as I think about now the different ways that we are segregated today, the way it most shows up in the choices that we feel like we're making, is around choice around school, right? And that's, that's probably the place where most Americans of all races make the most significant racialized choices for themselves and for their children. Where it's very clear- how segregated do I want my schools to be, right. It's sort of like the choice, right?
Andrew: Right with-, without understanding the racialized nature of it, right? Like that, that that is the racialized choice we're making, but we don't even think of it as being about race. We don't even think about it as, you know, choosing how segregated I want my school to be, we think of it as like, Oh, I want the good schools or the good test scores or the good neighborhood or those things. And I'm struck by how little we White people think of that as a problem.
Heather McGhee: Yeah. So in the chapter “Living Apart” I wanted to flip on its head what is often thought about as segregation is our problem as Black people, right? We're the ones who are segregated. We're the ones who are kept away from the good stuff. And that is of course true, right. I mean, of course you can't look at the racial wealth divide and not see how segregation has cost Black communities and Black families. But it's also true that the most segregated racial group in America is White people, right? Most likely to live only with people of their own race, most likely to have totally homogenous social networks, it's White people. And so I wanted to flip it on its head a little bit and say, what, well, What are the costs to all of us? We only ever think of it, like, you know, there's this imaginary divide and the benefits accrue to one side and the cost to the other. And yet our whole system is sicker and more impoverished because of this lie of racial hierarchy and the segregation that is used to enforce it.
Andrew: Yeah. And that feels like such a missed opportunity, that framing, because we, we could have had that, could have understood that back, and so I think back to, you know, you talk about the, the appendices to the Brown v. Board decision and you know, I think, there's some pushback to some of that. I think, you know, rightfully so the, the focus on kind of, like, deficit mindset of how if Black people can't see themselves as White people then they are harmed or whatever. But, but I feel like the story that doesn't get told is that there was actually research in there talking about the harms to White kids of segregation. And if, if White people are the most segregated people in the country, we don't ever think about that as a harm to us.
Heather McGhee: That's right. Credit to Sherrilyn Ifill, the head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, for first making me aware of that missed part of the, the social science research. We are also familiar with the doll test, right? The Black dolls and how, you know, segregation had caused Black children to to know that the Black dolls were worse. But there was also the best social science of the day was saying that White children are harmed by a system that communicates values of fairness and equality, and then acts in such a detrimental way, in an unfair way, and that keeps them apart from other children. And I think about that in terms of a logic that could have made an intervention in the zero-sum way of thinking about race. The way in which we think about our community as a whole as being divided into an us and them. And it's sort of about you know parceling out benefits on one side and costs on the other.
Andrew: A fixed pie of benefits.
Heather McGhee: A fixed pie of benefits.
Andrew: One, one small pie of benefits that if, if more go to you less go to me.
Heather McGhee: Exactly, exactly. And I think about the logic that the Brown decision communicated, which was basically that it is unconstitutional to keep Black children out of the good White stuff, right? And the good White space, which reified the idea that White spaces are good, and, you know, we still have that logic, right. It's, it's still quantified in the differential in housing values in neighborhoods that have White schools with high test scores, it's still quantified in the, you know, GreatSchools indexing, it's, it's still quantified...
Andrew: We try to not to say their name on this podcast.
Heather McGhee: Sorry, nevermind, the ___ schools. So I wanted to both unearth that history of Brown v. Board and to talk to parents who had chosen global majority schools and to some of the children after that decision, to see what kind of world that created for them. And it was one of the more inspiring set of conversations that I had, for sure.
Andrew: Yeah, I mean I think about all of the harm that comes from, sort of that, that missed opportunity to reframe that. I mean, you even cite Deborah Holoien, you know research that like the presence of one Black student is actually beneficial to White kids but only one Black student is not actually that beneficial to the Black student, you know, in the same way as, as a big group. And so I feel like so much of our diversifying of schools efforts are kind of predicated on that, like, White-benefit viewpoint. That like, Yeah, we can have a couple of Black kids in our good White schools and that will be good for our White kids because we want our kids to have diversity, and we want our kids to, like know, you know, some people who are not like, not a lot of people, you know.
Andrew: Right. Yeah, I mean, you know, I think Chase Billingham and Matthew Hunt have this research that, you know all things being held equal, somewhere around 30-35% Black students is where White parents start to say that's not a good school anymore. And there's just, just, yeah, this missed opportunity to reframe that as and then I think that you know it shows up we look at U.S corporations spend $8 billion a year on diversity training which it's like remedial education for White kids who never experienced that in their incredibly White schools. There's just this, like, massive cost. So there's a cost to the White kids and then there's a cost to the system as a whole for, for having done that.
Heather McGhee: It's, from an economic standpoint, racism segregation, this level of massive disparity, is a killer, right? Like it just absolutely costing us so much. And it's, it's common sense, right? If you have so many of the players on your team sidelined because they are locked out of opportunity and they're saddled with debt, obviously they're not going to be on the field scoring points for your team, right.
But then the reason why we keep tolerating that as a country is that we don't see ourselves as one team. We see ourselves as an us and a them. And by we, I really mean, you know, White Americans who are far more likely in the social science data to have this worldview of the zero-sum. People of color don't believe that our progress has to come at White folks’ expense, but White people unfortunately do see the world in that zero-sum way.
Andrew: Yeah, yeah. Is there a way that growing incoming inequality allows for some of this to continue? Like the wealthy get wealthier, they're able to accumulate power and then replace the public good with private options.
Heather McGhee: Oh, totally.
Andrew: So like, you're not so invested in the public pool, if you can have a pool in your backyard. You’re not so invested in the public higher education, if you can pay to go to the elite schools. You're not so invested in good public schools, if you can pay to either, you know, go to private school, or as we see so often make your one little niche, highly segregated public school function like a private school through fundraising and other dollars and that. Is it a chicken and egg there?
Heather McGhee: Well, it's just a mutually reinforcing cycle, right. And think both on the top end, right, there's this sort of arms race to run away from what systemic racism has done to our public schools. But then there's also the fact that our country's floor is so low that makes that mentality of scarcity when we have an economy that allows people to be one paycheck away from homelessness. When there's no guarantee of any kind of government support for so many millions of Americans if just one wrong thing happens. And usually when one wrong thing happens, seven wrong things happen. You know your carburetor dies, you lose your job, you lose your house, then you lose your kids, right. Like that's actually happening every hour of day in this country. Then if the narrative that you have is, I'm on my own to fight this fight, there's no government safety net, there's no sense of solidarity, then you are sort of selfishly hoarding and desperately feeling justified in giving your kids as much possible protection from that terrible possibility, right?
And if there was more of a sense that, you know, we're not going to let anybody face that level of deprivation then I think White parents might unclench their fists a little bit around this need to protect their children from the hell that is the American economy.
So I think it both works at the top end, inequality does, in terms of creating this, this vicious cycle of resource hoarding, and not having a floor of decent life, creates at the bottom and at the middle, this, this sense of desperate clinging to every small advantage that a White supremacist society can dole out to you.
And this is what I find throughout my journey to write The Sum of Us, as the most inspiring thing, is when people actually say, You know what, no, I'm not going to fight over crumbs, I'm going to link arms with the other millions of people who are also facing these common struggles and say, We want better things for all of us. And that's really the only way that we've ever made progress in this country. And I started calling those things “the solidarity dividends”, these gains that can only come through collective action... that we simply can't win on our own.
Things like better funded schools. Like it's I know, I know that a lot of parents think they can just like, can do it on their own. But like, you know, there is something called taxes and public investment, and public goods that are supposed to have us be able to have music programs and arts enrichment and public pools and public parks and public libraries. Like, you know, those are best delivered publicly and we shouldn't have to keep trying to privatize them, but that's been the logic of racism and the logic of the drained public pool at work.
Andrew: Right. Because, because we're, we're just like so terrified of some of those benefits going to “them” because we are not a “we”.
Heather McGhee: If the government and the ruling elite has taught you to disdain and distrust a group of people, and then sort of on a dime tells you that you're supposed to share public goods and the public pool with them, that was seen by the majority of White Americans, either consciously or unconsciously, as a betrayal. And this rise of anti-government sentiment since then has really been about that, that core betrayal. I, I find data in the book that shows that two-thirds of White Americans before the civil rights movement wanted the government to guarantee a job for everyone in America and wanted a minimum income in the country. And then by 19-, I know, you laugh because can you imagine...
Two--thirds of White people! Because two-thirds of Black people still think that's a great idea because it is a great idea, right. But that level of support plummeted between 1960 and 1964, among White people, from nearly 70% to just 35%, and between 1960 and 1964. Yeah we had the March on Washington. We had Kennedy going through a big media blitz for civil rights. And then of course we know that Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, would be the last Democrat to run for president and win the majority of the White vote.
Andrew: Yeah, I don't think I had actually put that together in my mind that, that since Johnson linked the Democratic Party with civil rights, the majority of White people have not supported the Democrat for president. And, you know, even more broadly have pulled back on support for the role of government in supporting the public, right. Have gone from it being okay to give quote handouts, to create a middle class, when that middle class was White to, to feeling like the government shouldn't be giving handouts. Have gone from, you know, the idea of setting a floor for a standard of living in this country to, to not at all. It's, yeah, it's it's, uh huh, it's a little depressing. Yeah, that's hard.
You know, thinking specifically about the segregation piece and related to schools, what, what could be gained if we could push back on that, if we could do something about that? And maybe to start with, sort of, as individuals, like personally. And I think there's a great example of that is, Fiona who you interviewed for the book.
Heather McGhee: Yeah. So I talked to Fiona, who is the daughter of Tracy. Tracy is a woman, a White woman in Poughkeepsie who, before there was a movement around it, you know, opted to keep her two White children in the global majority school that was in their district of where they lived.
And Poughkeepsie, Poughkeepsie is the place where IBM has headquartered. And there's actually this crazy thing that happens all the time, where the White neighborhood sues to secede their school district from the tax base of the broader part of the city. And that area called Spackenkill, includes IBM, right? So all the revenues from the big employer in the city get hoarded with the White neighborhood and then the rest of the city has to go without.
Andrew: That the city lured in with tax breaks up the wazoo.
Heather McGhee: Exactly, right. Um, so that's crazy. Um, but so she did not do that. She did not move to Spackenkill, she was living in, in a diverse neighborhood in Poughkeepsie and sent her kids to that public school. And so she talked about her decision to do that and all that, but I really wanted to talk to her kids who are now teenagers.
Her daughter, Fiona, was a freshman in college when I met her. And she was just so lovely. And she really talked about what a, what a gift it was for her to go to Poughkeepsie High, which is the public school, which is a majority Black and Brown School. And how it really shaped her view of the world and her level of, like, bridge-building empathy. It really put her on the path that is now her career path. She wants to work in environmental justice and social justice, and it's because she just has a more well-rounded view of the world.
And she is now at a college where it's, you know, overwhelmingly White and the Black and Brown population is actually quite small. And she talked a little bit, while always being very generous to the White students, but she did talk about, like, their level of just visceral comfort around being around Black students was so much lower. But she did say, she said, You know, kids who went to segregated schools basically, you know, it's not like they can't get there. It's just harder for them and it's gonna take them longer. Yeah, it was really beautiful to have that conversation with her.
Andrew: Yeah. So that's the sort of, personal, what can be gained for White kids. I mean, that's certainly, you know, some part of why my kids are in the school, they are, um, more broadly, thinking about, kind of, what could be gained for a society. I mean, I think like, like she is, she starts out with a head start, right? She is, she is more likely to be a helpful ally in the fight for racial justice because it's less work for her because of her comfort, because of all those things.
Heather McGhee: A hundred percent.
Andrew: But, but I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about, so when we mentioned your mom a couple of times now, Dr. Christopher, she has this sort of vision of truth, racial healing, and transformation. And why don't you tell us a little bit about that? And then if you see a role for, for schools in doing some of that work.
Heather McGhee: So a few years ago, my mom, when she was at the Kellogg Foundation, which is a social justice philanthropy, she created a framework for the country undergoing a process, which we've never done and sorely needed to, of a kind of a truth commission. But one that understands that we have to tell the truth. We need to heal from our racial wounds, all of us, and then we need to transform. We don't need to reconcile because we were never together to begin with, right? We were born as a country with this false belief in a hierarchy of human value. So she created this framework for communities to use, which you can find more information about at healourcommunities.org.
And it basically is a way for stakeholders in a community or an institution to come together , and do a process that unearths the real racial history of the community or the institution and creates opportunities for racial healing and these things called racial healing circles, which have a whole sort of system and protocol around them, and then identifies a community vision that is new. That is, what is, what does our community look like if it's free of this false belief in a hierarchy of human value?
And it's really a remarkable effort. I mean, obviously I'm somewhat biased in that. It's my mother's own genius, but I came around to it kind of late in life, you know, as sort of an economics person, I only sort of later really realized how much racism was at the core.
Um, but the idea is that, you know, we're still a very young country and if we can get everyone on the same page about the basic facts, which are not so hard to figure out, right. We've only been around for a little over 200 years, you know. If we get on the same page, then we can turn it, you know. And if we can replace the values that were hammered into us in order to justify an economic model that we no longer support, right? We no longer support chattel slavery, and therefore, why do we still have the belief systems that supported it, when it's costing us so much, and when it has convinced the majority of White voters to turn away from the formula that created the great White middle class. When it's costing us so much in terms of opportunity for our children, when it's creating mass delusion that stops us from addressing climate change. When it's perpetuating assaults on our democracy, you know. The cost is too high and the benefits of working together and of really seeing that the proximity of so much difference, human difference, um, can reveal our, our common humanity. That, that is so much more important than these false divisions.
Andrew: I love it. I love that there's both a looking back and a looking forward element to it, right. That, that we have to see the past with clear eyes. And we have to be able to imagine a better future. And I do think, I mean, I hope maybe that schools could play a role in something like this, right? Because schools have the possibility, at least for proximity to human difference, right? For revealing our common humanity. And I think the power of youth to envision a future that we can't imagine feels really powerful to me.
Um, but before I let you go, I have one more thing that I'd like to ask you. So I think that the book is amazing. I think it's a great offering to our country. A book that, I read it and like completely changed my perspective. I feel like, you know, same thing with Color of Law, with New Jim Crow, this sort of like, Oh my God, it's so obvious. It makes so much sense. And now I can't unsee it. I think we are fortunate that you wrote it. I think it's an important piece of perfecting our union.
Heather McGhee: Thank you.
Andrew: And sort of thinking about the trajectory of your life, right? All, all of the things that had to go right for you to end up where you are... from, you know, your, your great grandmother, Flossie, actually being able to make all the payments on her place. To your mom, instilling this sort of sense that you can do anything, that you can be anyone, that you can go to an all-White boarding school and still maintain your humanity and, and not have that cost to your soul. There's sort of this, like these generations of your family that have fought these battles year over year, slowly advancing the cause of your family, and I think also slowly advancing the cause of America, right? I mean, you said your mom was like, This is always, this is what you do is you give back as you find a way to kind of lift people up. It's sort of bringing us closer to living the ideals of our nation, right. And then, and then I think about maybe the most devastating part of your book, for me at least, was the Black homeowners...
Heather McGhee: Yeah,
Andrew: ...targeted in the subprime mortgage crisis.
Heather McGhee: Yeah,
Andrew: And, and the ways that so many of them will never recover...
Heather McGhee: Yeah.
Andrew: Will never have the opportunity to set their kids up for success in the ways that you were set up for success.
Heather McGhee: Yeah.
Andrew: And what a devastating tragedy that is for them, obviously, but for us as a country, you know, all of the brilliance that we will never get to kind of tap into that will never, never lift us up as a country.
Heather McGhee: Yeah. Yeah.
Andrew: Because of that. You said you have a two and a half year old. When you think about the, kind of the trajectory of the country, the world that you want him to inherit, what does it look like? Like what, what's that dream? I think you have a clear-eyed realism about the myth of American exceptionalism in the past...
Heather McGhee: Hm.
Andrew: But it feels like you hold out hope for a vision of, of American exceptionalism in the future. And I'm wondering what that vision looks like.
Heather McGhee: Thank you. Um, my vision is that this country, which will soon be a place with no racial majority, really does create a new world, right? Not a new world based on stolen land and stolen people and stolen labor, but a new world based on our common humanity as revealed by being so close to all the peoples of the world, which is where we are headed.
And if we can reveal our common humanity and really finally reject the lie from our founding, the lie of racial hierarchy, with the power and the resources that we've amassed, much of it ill-gotten, we can create the investments and opportunity structures and problem-solving that saves the planet and that heals the world. Like I truly do believe it. I mean, there's, there's nothing we can't do as a people, if we set our minds to it. And yet by robbing us of our history and by lying to us about who we all are, the forces that are trying to move us backwards have, have robbed us of our superpower. I do believe that diversity is our superpower in this country and that we've got to refill the pool of public goods for everyone. We've got to realize that because of history, because of racism, we're not all standing at the same depths of that pool, right? That one size is not going to fit all. And that it's right and good that there be repair and reparations to unleash the power and the productivity of all of our people. And that if we do so, you know, not the sky isn't the limit, the solar system is the limit, right. I mean, I grew up with Star Trek. I'm still gunning for that. That's what I think we're going to do.
Andrew: Holding out hope.
Heather McGhee: I think we're going to do that. Yeah, I mean, I think it really is about our power to solve problems collectively, to ensure the common good, to make sure that every child has the capacity and opportunity to live up to her potential. And that that potential is one that is found and discovered in relationship with other human beings. And I'm, I'm actually an optimistic person. I believe that we can get there. I believe particularly that the youngest generation of Americans is already there and just dragging us, kicking and screaming into the beautiful future.
Andrew:. For sure. Yeah.
Heather McGhee: And, um, I'm really, I'm so grateful to you, Andrew, and to Courtney, and to, all of the people in this community for, for being a beacon of what we should be doing with our community and with our, with our schools.
Andrew: Thank you for that. That's beautiful. Your hope is, is contagious. I'm so grateful for it. I'm so grateful for the book and for, for all that you are doing to, uh, yeah, to help perfect our union. It’s inspiring and the book is incredible. I mean, it's ostensibly a policy book. I know you are, you know, claim to be a policy wonk there is nothing policy wonky about the book. It is, so, uh, I mean, I guess when you get into the notes, the second half of the book, which is all notes, maybe it gets a little wonky, but the story is so compelling, it's just, it's great. Thank you for writing it and thank you for sharing it and thank you for coming on.
Heather McGhee: Thank you, Andrew. Thank you for all that you do.
Andrew: My deepest thanks to Ms. McGhee for coming on the show. I know that she did a live stream with John Legend on Instagram, and that she's a regular on Meet the Press. But now she can finally put “guest on the Integrated Schools Podcast on her resume”. Seriously though, I am humbled that she came on and so grateful that she included Ali's story and Integrated Schools in her book, because it really does tap into something that's fundamental to our work.
You know, this idea of the solidarity dividend, that we all benefit when we all benefit. That, you know, rather than fighting over slices of a too small pie, we can actually just make the pie bigger, if we do it together. This is the vision that drives us. And I continue to believe in the promise of schools to do so much of that work. The idea that we must tell the truth about our past, confront the racism that led to where we find ourselves today, and then transform our society: schools feel like a place to do that. And it's not easy and it's not fast, but if we want to get past drained pool politics, if we want to create a generation that can see past a zero-sum mindset, we have to start with the kids and we have to start in schools.
I agree that diversity is our superpower, but to tap into it, we have to create spaces where everyone can bring their full humanity. As Bryan Stevenson from the Equal Justice Initiative says, We need to be in proximity, we need to change the narrative away from one of deficiency of Black and Brown people, we need to keep hope, and we need to be willing to be uncomfortable and inconvenienced. If we can lean into that. I truly believe there's a thriving, multiracial democracy waiting on the other side.
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