By Heather McGhee. One World, 2021. 448 pages. $28/hardcover; $18/paperback; $12.99/eBook.
In the United States, one of the most vital and economically rich countries in the world, how do we reform public policymaking that professes to be colorblind yet disenfranchises so many? Reflecting on the products and services that once defined the American Dream, Heather McGhee, activist lawyer, political analyst, and former president of the think tank Demos, asks “Why can’t we have nice things?” In search of answers, she undertook a personal and professional research journey to learn the extent to which public policy is bound up in racial, social, and political practices that have resulted in inequality. There are two Americas: one Black, one White, competing in a zero-sum game.
The first of ten chapters treats the zero-sum hierarchy from colonial times to the present, referencing (among other matters) war, slavery, and theft of Indigenous lands. McGhee argues that the lingering zero-sum paradigm is both personal and political, and is manifested in economic and social relationships. In “Racism Drained the Pool,” the author discerns the 1950s struggle to integrate public swimming pools at a time when White communities elected to close, drain, and pave over pools rather than desegregate them. Race-based actions—some court-sanctioned—also victimized White people, contends McGhee. Throughout the book, draining the pool serves as an apt metaphor for how U.S. public policy has failed to advance the public good.
When college education proved out of reach for the working class, it created a “debt-for-diploma system” (so called by McGhee’s former Demos colleague Tamara Draut) and retarded entry into the middle class. Racialized politics reduced the availability of affordable healthcare. Despite fair housing laws, practices such as redlining, subprime mortgages, predatory lending, and widespread foreclosures further excluded People of Color and White people from achieving mainstream economic gains. McGhee uses Canton, Miss., to chronicle deeds of solidarity in cross-racial unionizing efforts among workers, as well as the rise of anti-union discourse among Southern White conservatives. In the post-Obama era, mass incarceration and voter suppression (seen as extensions of post-Civil War tactics to disentitle Black voters) became increasingly tolerable in our ailing democracy. We live apart, opines the author, thanks to public policy having enshrined segregation in schools, housing, and exclusionary zoning laws.
On the environmental front, we do not all live under the same sky (chapter 8) when the poor inhabit sacrifice zones or neighborhoods situated near polluted waters, chemical factories, and power plants operated by large corporations. McGhee envisions the accrual of solidarity benefits from the work of multiracial coalitions that strive to achieve environmental justice. In the penultimate chapter, she uncovers the hidden wound we endure as a nation, owing to stalled or absent moral leadership. Colorblind racism impedes progress, and White fear grounds itself in moral logic (“Stand Your Ground” laws), for there is no fixed route for White America to free itself “from the debt of responsibility for racism past and present.”
The hurtful impact of U.S. public policy across color lines is explained in five discoveries the author made while crisscrossing the country to interview subjects. Those who offer raw testimony range from public policymakers and neo-Nazis to minimum wage earners, educators, and politicians. Toward the end of her sojourn, McGhee posits the two critical questions held in reserve: “Can we swim together in the same pool or not?” and “Who is an American, and what are we to one another?”
McGhee’s amply documented book evinces an ability to work from a cross-disciplinary perspective. Her writing is not only accessible but also reveals a fine, clear intelligence supported by a gift for lucid, unpretentious prose. The author is at her best when she plumbs the experiences and history of past generations.
In my adolescence, I heard in familial adult conversations a concern about closed neighborhood swimming pools, segregated schools, “colored property” lists of houses for sale, the voting rights campaign, unequal employment opportunities, and unions. For the current generation of readers, the author provides a pragmatic framework by which to understand inequalities that emanate from public policy decisions. McGhee’s Baldwinesque lens exposes the unresolved and crippling state of race relations defined by zero-sum socioeconomic public policies. Only when we move away from this injurious zero-sum game do we realize: “We are greater than, and greater for, the sum of us.” In the words of Aristotle, “the whole is something besides the parts” (Metaphysics). This book speaks to the ongoing work of Friends in the theater of human rights, criminal justice reform, environmental racism, and education.
Jerry Mizell Williams is a member of Green Street Meeting in Philadelphia, Pa. He is the author of numerous books, articles, and book reviews on colonial Latin America and matters of faith.