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Author: Racially Discriminatory Policies Drive Inequality For Everyone, Not Just People Of Color


Heather McGhee is an author and speaker who says that racially discriminatory laws and practices negatively impact everyone. And she’s got some economic data to back that up.

McGhee’s newest book, “The Sum Of Us,” examines that economic impact. On Thursday, she’ll deliver the keynote address at the Maine Center for Economic Policy’s 2021 Policy Insights Conference.

McGhee spoke with Maine Public host Jennifer Mitchell ahead of the conference.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Mitchell: So when did you realize that economic data was a key to examining the effects of racism on everyone?

McGhee: In many ways, it happened sort of in reverse order. I spent nearly 20 years trying to bring research, litigation and advocacy to our big economic problems: to poverty wages, to the lack of health care, to the crisis of student debt, to unaffordable housing. And it wasn’t until I realized that racism was playing such a strong role in our politics and in our policymaking, that I realized racism was driving inequality for everyone.

So what sort of economic indicators are perhaps the most telling? Where can you really see the story of racist policy kind of unfolding?

Well, you can take it from the biggest macro level. Citigroup did a report last summer that calculated that if we had closed the Black-white economic divides, which were created by public policy and can be fixed by public policy, 20 years ago, our country’s economy would be $16 trillion richer. So that’s zooming way back, the biggest scale, the biggest scale of numbers. And it makes sense, right? If you have so many of the players on your team on the sidelines, because they’re saddled with debt and don’t have enough opportunity, of course, your team is not going to score as many points as you would if your whole team, all of the players, were able to get on the field.

And then you look at the very small kind of kitchen table issues, like the issue of student debt. Public college used to be free, because the government picked up the tab. And that was the case back when 90+% of the college-going population was white. And over the past 40 years, as our students have become more diverse, governments have cut back on funding public colleges, the federal government shifted from free grants to loans that you have to pay back with interest. And now we have a stealth privatization of our public college system, which was the best in the world, and which was a great investment in all of our economic gains. And we have a trillion and a half dollars in student loan debt. That impacts 8 out of 10 Black students who have to borrow because of the racial wealth divide. But it also affects 6 out of 10 white students who also have to borrow. And it’s just a bad public policy decision to have this debt-for-diploma system. And I see the fingerprints of race in the politics behind it and in the policymaking.

So a moment ago, you use the word “team.” And I’m wondering, is that part of the problem, though, that we think in teams and that we have different ideas of who we want on our team? Or who should be on our team? Or who’s a valued member of the team?

Yeah, I think that the core idea that I really like to interrogate in my book is the idea that we as Americans are not all on the same team. When I talk about the team, I mean all of us, the sum of us, which is the name of my book. But what I discovered at the beginning of this journey that I took to write the book was that many white Americans, an increasing number, have this zero-sum worldview. And it’s something that is a story that is sold and marketed when you hear language like “makers and takers,” “taxpayers and freeloaders.” The idea that progress for people of color has to come at white folks’ expense. The idea that $1 in my pocket means $1 less in yours. That’s something that is not economically true. In fact, the opposite is true.

The more that we invest in working- and middle-class people of all races, being able to meet their basic needs and live out their dreams, the more rich and prosperous our entire economy is. The more stores open, the more schools are well funded, the more economic activity we have in our communities. And yet that fear of scarcity is something that has really driven politics and policymaking. So much so that if you take the issue of health care, white Americans are the largest group of the uninsured. And yet, the closest we’ve come to universal health care, the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare, was very associated with a Black president. And so the majority of white people disapprove of the Affordable Care Act even though the ideas in it — Medicaid expansion, staying on your parents’ health insurance till you’re 26, pre-existing conditions — are kind of noncontroversial ideas. And yet the whole package has been so racialized that it’s caused the majority of white people to oppose it, even though they’re the largest group of those who have to go without health insurance.

It seems that there’s sometimes been a habit of viewing racial inequity and racial problems as a Southern problem. And Northern states sometimes struggle with the concept that their histories and policies have had negative racial impacts as well. What trends have you seen in New England states like Maine, you know, that kind of hit that intersection of race and economic consequence?

This is such a good question. It was interesting, Maine is the whitest state in the nation right now. It’s the state whose children are the least likely to go to school with someone who is not white. And it is the state that had the largest Ku Klux Klan outside of the South, mainly to terrorize Catholic immigrants at the turn of the century. It’s also one of the only Northern states that refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. And so it joined most of the states in the former Confederacy in really having a government that said that health care for working-class people is welfare, and we don’t want it.

So if folks take away one message from your keynote on Thursday, what would it be? What’s the takeaway message if people have one thing to remember here?

That I think the takeaway is that it’s not a zero sum, that we can link arms across lines of race and culture, frankly, the same way that many Mainers did at the turn of the century when the immigrants of the day were Franco-Canadians. And if we do so, then we will be able to unlock the solidarity dividends that can offer gains to everyone.