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The Cost of Segregation

A Conversation with Heather McGhee

Heather McGhee is the author of the New York Times bestseller “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together.” Chanda sat down with Heather to unpack the effects of segregation and how we can work together to combat inequality in America.

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Souphak Kienitz  00:01

In this episode, Chanda sat down with Heather McGhee, an author of The New York Times bestseller, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. Heather McGhee is an American political commentator, and educator and strategist, Heather has crafted legislation, testified before Congress and helped shape presidential campaign platforms. I hope you enjoy the show. You’re listening to conversations with Chanda a Minneapolis Foundation podcast that unpacks the community’s grittiest, most vexing problems hosted by Chanda Smith Baker.

Chanda Smith Baker  00:41

Look, I’m excited to talk with you, Tonya Allen, who leads the McKnight Foundation sent your book out to a number of us her letter states in the book, McGhee writes, since this country’s founding, we have not allowed our diversity to be our superpower. And the result is that the United States is not more than the sum of its desperate parts. But if it could be and if it were, all of us would prosper, and it goes on, right, we are greater than and greater for the some of us, I just thought, Man, I need to read the rest of this book. And I wonder how many people actually believe that?

Heather McGhee  01:23

Well, first of all, it’s so lovely to be in this conversation with you. You know, I’m really touched by the first part of what you said, which was that somebody sent you this book, you know, that that really means a lot to me, you know, because that means that one of the goals that I have for The Sum of Us, which is that it would be read in community among people like it would it would allow people with, you know, who live in different places who have different backgrounds who come from different walks of life, to have a way into the big conversation, right, the conversation about who we are as Americans and who we are to one another together. Right? I didn’t you know, this is not like a beach read. But I think, you know, it moves I think, but it’s not the kind of book that you just read on your own and sort of escape into like, I really wanted it to be the kind of thing we like, I want to talk to somebody about this. So that makes me really happy to know that you received this book with a with a letter and a note saying read this, that makes me really happy.

Chanda Smith Baker  02:26

I got a letter and a note. And then my sister Tonya prompted me to buy other copies and do the same. So I want you to know that we all forward it in this community in support of your brilliance and sisterhood and to gain deeper perspective as we are really wrestling with a lot.

Heather McGhee  02:50

So, I also heard in your question, Chanda, that, you know, is there reason to hope do you really is it folly to think that we can really become one people and that we can ever let diversity be our superpower? You know, I will say that my thumb is on the scale of hopefulness, because I am a hopeful person. I’m hopeful because I’ve studied this country and society and its economy. And I know that bad decisions got us into this mess. And I know that better decisions can get us out of it. Right? It’s not it’s not inevitable, right? When people talk about things like being intractable, you know, it’s like, no, that’s not what it is. It’s not the weather here. It’s not something we have no control over. Right? This is, this is people making decisions, you know, and so at any given point, people can make different decisions. And so that gives me hope. What also gives me hope is that I’ve actually been since finishing the book over this past year back out on the road again, I’m talking to you from a hotel room, my second home. Yeah, no, no, there’s no who you know, you know, traveling in a pandemic is not what it used to be. There’s a room services, the restaurant, I went down to get a cup of coffee, that’s not perfect, but anyway. But, you know, I’ve been out on the road for my current project, which is a podcast, spin off of the book, which really just focuses on the concept at the end of the book, the idea of the solidarity dividend of these multiracial coalition’s and I maybe for the same reason, that was the spirit that made you sort of arch your eyebrow and say, I don’t know about this. I needed to get back out here, right, I needed to see, because I wrote I finished the book, the week after the election in 2020, right, we’d had the amazing uprising, summer of 2020. We’d had the pandemic, the Cares Act, all of these things that felt like something really foundational was shifting in our society. We were recognizing that there was unfinished business, we were recognizing that we needed each other. You know, there was money coming out of Washington to help people you know, the poverty rate was the lowest level it’s been on record in the middle of the pandemic, right. So we have with all these forces, you know, we defeated the politics of divide and conquer with, you know, Donald Trump in November. You know, we’re like, yes, it you know, the book doesn’t on a hopeful note. And then, since then, right, we have January 6, we’ve had the attack on honest education and our children’s freedom to learn, we’ve had the backlash of the movement, right, all these things. And so I have been for the past six months out on the road again, because I wanted to, no, I needed to get back in touch with the thing that really gave me hope in the first place, which is going into these corners of the country, where, despite everything telling us to be at odds with one another, people are just rolling up their sleeves and saying, We’ve got to fix this. And that this is, you know, a pipeline that’s threatening our water that this is a corrupt system. This is a school funding formula that is unfair, and unjust, right? All these problems, which I would say have their roots in the racist dysfunction in our society, and people are still coming together, and they’re coming together. It’s not making the nightly news. It’s not making Twitter, but it’s happening.

Chanda Smith Baker  06:12

I think that that’s fair. And I see some evidence of it, I certainly have a lot of conversations around the commitment towards addressing race and racism. I’ve seen many companies and organizations hire their first Diversity, Equity and Inclusion officers. In the book, you make a comment around, there’s a gap between the stated commitment and the actions. And so while we have hope, and while there’s individual sort of commitments and people that are, you know, engaging perhaps differently, and trying to diversify who they’re around, so my next question is going to be about that. But, you know, are you seeing sort of the Express commitment in action that is translating to policy movement?

Heather McGhee  07:02

You mean from the corporate sector?

Chanda Smith Baker  07:05

Or just or just broadly, I don’t want to minimize the actions that are being taken. But I’m not seeing the progress from the actions.

Heather McGhee  07:15

Yeah. I mean, this is another Yes. And right. So let’s talk about the broadest level, right, the highest level nationally, right, we have this administration come in on a whole bunch of promises about racial equity, democracy, climate change and inequality. Right. Those are their four big pieces. If I’m not mistaken. If I remember correctly. And, you know, I will say in the first six months, you saw racial equity and an understanding of the way that policy has been unjust and a willingness to admit the biases in the farm system, right, the biases in the, in the PPP loans from just last year, right. You know, the biases in the transportation system, and the way that the highways were used to destroy black neighborhoods, right things that I never thought I would hear coming out of, like actual agency heads, and not just people who are critiquing it from without, right. And then you saw things like the filibuster, things like, you know, corporate Dems in the party being opposed to much of what was promised. Right. I mean, the build back better act would have been the single largest commitment to homecare workers and childcare workers who are overwhelmingly women of color. And you know, it just because of one or two votes, it’s not the reality, even though those kinds of things universal health care, universal home care, excuse me, universal childcare are overwhelmingly popular, right? So some of the structures that make our system so fragile, whether it’s the filibuster, or the Affirmative Action for rural white people, that is the US Senate. As some people have joked, I think that’s John Stewart’s joke, if I’m not mistaken, you know, have stopped what I do believe were the right intentions and the right goals. At the same time, as I said, the US poverty rate is the lowest level it’s been on record in 2021. And that’s not nothing for rural folks, for black folks, for children. For women, at the same time, we have seen an enormous amount of consciousness raising and here’s where I really wrestled with the two parts of my career and my sort of inclination right so I spent nearly 20 years working in public policy right working on the think tank and leading that think tank Deimos and you know, our sense was you do the reef you do litigation and change policy and good things will flow right yet When I left my job, and I went and then went on this journey that would end up being the some of us, it was really out of a suspicion that there was more to the picture. And that that more of a picture was about not just the facts and figures, not just the laws and rules, but about the hearts and minds, and about how, ultimately, if the beliefs in a society don’t change, then the policy will just work back in. Right. You know, I mean, take school integration, right? We were supposed to have desegregated schools 70 years ago, almost. And yet, the esteem with which most white parents hold black and brown children has not changed that much. And so we still have schools that are as segregated as they were before Brown. Right. So, it’s about culture change is about elite belief in consciousness change in this, this is why I think we would be wrong to only say, well, we didn’t end qualified immunity for police violence. Because I think that the way that the right wing is right now attacking what we think, what we say, what our children can learn, don’t say gay bills, these, you know, anti-so called Critical Race Theory, bills, really, you know, trying to get curriculum change. And all of that is because they know that this consciousness change this awakening, this curiosity, this, this fundamental shift that has happened in so many of the well-meaning white people who, like most of us were ill served by their United States education system, and simply, you know, walked into adulthood ignorant of the depth of the racism in our society, that you can’t really unscramble that egg, you can’t really put the genie back in the bottle people can’t read, you know, the 1619 project, and then an unknow that, right, right, right, people can’t watch 13th Right, the documentary about the criminal justice system and the 13th amendment and unknown that right. So, I do think that there is something more profound and potentially powerful about a consciousness shift, among some 30% of sort of a median white voter, even then, is a law or rule that could be changed with, you know, another administration or, you know, another Supreme Court,

Chanda Smith Baker  12:34

I think the second part that I was sort of leaning into was around this area of the book, where you talk about 2019 21% of white folks, so they seldom or never interacted with black people or people of color. Three quarters of white Americans say their social network is entirely white. And I think that what I see is people that in their good work, are trying to diversify it, but in their social environment, it is remaining not diverse. And so, part of what I read from that part of what I believe and think is inherent in the problem is the segregation, and the lack of relationship, and the fear that we have in between cultures, and neighborhoods and schools and all of these other pieces. And so, for our white listeners that might be thinking hard about what kind of work should they be doing? Like, how should they make investments? Right? Like, how does their social environment factor into what we’re talking about right now.

Heather McGhee  13:39

That’s a really, really good point. And, you know, we can only speak to our own experiences. But I would say, you know, probably as a lifelong Minnesotan from what I know, of the stable from what I know of Minneapolis, you know, it is quite segregated. And, you know, there is a there is work to be done around the Minnesota Nice and around the distance between the perception of the high quality of life and the high standard of living and the friendliness and the neighborliness, you know, and, and the racial undercurrent, so to speak on it helps me You know, I live in I live in Brooklyn. And so, you know, I’ll just say from a personal standpoint, I think it is easier to is harder, where I live to be for a white person to be in that statistic. That is a nationally representative statistic right. Now, that doesn’t mean your intimate circle, right? Is completely diverse or mirrors the community that you live in, but it is it is that’s one of the things I’m also speaking as a New Yorker who has been on the road for the past three days and so I have not been back in Brooklyn since the horrific attacks on the subway and I’m speaking as a New Yorker who’s, you know, grieving the, the attack, just, you know, on people, obviously, but also on our sense of trust in place. Right. You know, I mean, the New York subway is an amazing public good, because rich people, poor people, old people, people from every part of the city, take the subway. And it really makes a difference, right? Like, if you just think about the way in which a car culture place, if you live in a segregated neighborhood, you get into your car, you turn on your radio station, you drive past to people, you get to your work, right? It is not a place where you are shoulder to shoulder with anybody different from you. Like, at all, like ever really necessarily, right? Particularly now, when we’re not going to malls. We’re not, you know, we’re not even going to grocery stores so often, right? But the subway is this place where you can go from Carnegie Hall to East Flatbush, right? I mean, it’s just everybody takes it and everybody has before the pandemic. And now this sense of an attack this feeling of people who have the means to not take the subway, not taking the subway, because there’s fear of crime of homelessness, of now a domestic terror attack. You know, it’s just, it’s hard, right? You have to build a place for diversity, right, you have to invest in public goods to create diversity. Whether they’re integrated public schools were like the kind of public pools I write about at the heart. You know, that’s the metaphor at the heart of my book, where, you know, teenagers could meet and fall in love. Sitting splashing on the side of the pool, checking each other out in the summer, right, that’s how you create a truly integrated society is through these public goods, schools, pools, infrastructure.

Chanda Smith Baker  17:07

You talk a little bit about growing up and understanding race at a young age. And I was reflecting on my own experience. And I’ve shared this before where I grew up in North Minneapolis, which is predominantly black community, I still live here, people see it that way, although I don’t know if it’s ever been predominantly black, just more black people live here. I think it’s 50%. Now people of color in whole. But when I grew up, right, like I grew up across the street from a woman who came from Thailand, her husband was white and had polio as a child, he was in a wheelchair, who lived next door to a native family that had family on the reservation. And they would come, and you know, we interacted with them to a white family that adopted kids from Alaska. And you know, the old white grumpy veteran that lived next door to us. I mean, it was very dynamic. And as you know, I’ve said, I’ve grown up in dimensions, I grew up in a three-dimensional world in which I wasn’t centered, right? My family didn’t center, just my experience, I got to understand what Paul needed in his wheelchair to move around, or watch them start their business, and be around Su Lin when she only spoke in Thai. And I had to figure out what she was saying, because I loved her. And I wanted to be in communication and community with her. Right. So, my, my upbringing was way more dynamic in terms of those experiences. And I’m so grateful for it, because it’s benefited me. And so oftentimes, we talk about segregation from a black frame. In your book, you talk about it. You know, and you shift the question into a white frame and what would be the benefit? Or what is the loss? What is the cost of segregation?

Heather McGhee  18:59

Yeah, that was really important to me, Chanda, it’s such a beautiful story that you tell about your childhood. And it’s clear, right? You benefited from that. So anyway, so I’ll just say that the main point of the chapter is called living apart. And because so much of the book, I’m really trying to tally the hidden costs of racism for this chapter. I really wanted to investigate, you know, obviously, the fingerprints of racism on how we live and where we live, and how our schools are funded, where we go to schools, all that right, the stuff where, frankly, the race question gets the most real for most people, right? What’s your neighborhood? Where do you live? Where do you go to school? And yet, I wanted to flip that I want to say, you know, we usually talk about segregation as something that white people do to people of color. And then you know, I list sort of all the ways in which you know, the Chinese are excluded the native people put on the reservation, right? We’re all pushed away. That’s like, okay, so what does that leave? Is a bunch of lonely white people, right? The most segregated people who are least likely to live with someone outside of their race are white people. And so, there’s just reams and reams of data about the ways in which diversity is great for your developing mind is great for problem solving is great for teamwork is great for ingenuity and creativity and all these things. So, I’m saying, well, that’s the benefit of the diversity. If you don’t have that, you are truly paying a price. And so that’s what that chapter is about. You know, I’m thinking about, again, as I said, I’m on this journey right now for this podcast. It’s not, it’s not out yet, it will be out in the fall. And I think it’s called I think it’s gonna be called with the Sum of Us will see, right now, the working title is the same as the book. But I was in Memphis and this beautiful one of my favorite voices that’s still sort of ringing in my ears. This this woman named Scotty Fitzgerald, who is 70, something African American woman who fights to keep her land from being taken by eminent domain to create a pipeline, an oil pipeline. And she’s talking about the multiracial coalition that ended up rising up to stop this pipeline. And she says, God just loves a bouquet. She says everything God made, he made in multiples in multiple colors in multiple types. God loves a bouquet.

Chanda Smith Baker  21:33

I love it. I love it. So if I bring it home for a moment, George Floyd, yeah. And it hit different. Although, I think emotionally, right. There’s lots of reasons that we’ve talked about in many different ways. And it’s hard to compare, but for whatever reason, we paid a different intention to what happened in that murder. Then somehow, what we did in the case of Philando, Castille, maybe it was a pandemic, maybe it was the clarity of the devastation that was occurring, the witnesses, but there has been awakening to this point of what segregation costs, or what you miss right is, again, all of the diversity, equity inclusion folks that are coming in this space, which I think is awesome. But it was really clear that there were a number of people that were trying to understand what happened when there’s a community people that have been knowing what has been occurring for generations and have not been heard. And so, without being in relationship, it really stunned our community. And you know, the value, right, we talk about kid’s education, like, I really hope that we are not faced with this again in another generation. And I hope that our systems will allow for us to be together in a way that it wouldn’t be quite as shocking, or quite as misunderstood, or that you have to now go find more diverse communities to be around so you can get a hold, because you haven’t had that integrated into your world.

Heather McGhee  23:15

Yeah. Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think, you know, we have to I, the period of time that ended forcefully, right, in June of 2020 was a period of colorblindness, that was the dominant cultural ethos around race, in the 80s and 90s. And, you know, kind of started to it sort of peaked in 2008 with the election of Barack Obama, but then it like, slid quickly downhill as people saw how they treated Barack Obama, right. So, you know, it came crashing to a halt with Trump and that, you know, right. So, if you look at that sort of slope of, of history, and, uh, you know, it’s very much mirrored in our popular culture, right, how then you had the Civil Rights move in the 1960s. In the 1970s, you have so much on, you know, our three little dinky channels that we had so many black characters, black families, black families be adopted by white people, interracial relationships, right. All of Norman Lear stuff. It was like, that was what TV was about, you know, and you had sort of the Cosby era of everything. And it was like, okay, we’re, we’re gonna do this. Look what we did, you know, we as a country, and I think that black people who were financially comfortable and white people were financially comfortable. Were, you know, we’re, we’re, we’re in agreement on this, it was like, let’s go ahead and move forward. You know, let us do this. And colorblindness is the idea that our skin color does not matter, was always an aspiration. And there was a sense that, you know, the quickest way to get to that aspiration is to make that aspiration real, right. And so, you know, when I was growing up, I would say that you know, I had a racial consciousness because my family’s political I mean like what my mother does for work as you know a mother Gail Christopher, she’s a longtime philanthropist and nonprofit leader who works on issues of health disparities and racial equity and designed the truth, racial healing and transformation effort that’s going on in dozens of cities and campuses nationwide. So, you know, I learned about it rightly, it’s not like I was naive, but at the same time, and sort of my day to day, I would say that I and my peers, enjoy black culture, but there wasn’t the feeling that the struggle was ours, to march forward in that same way. And there was because I was born in 1980. And there was a feeling like, the fight was like interpersonal. Yeah, now, right. You know, I’m saying, but it wasn’t, you know, we had to take systems down, you know, like, it was just like, we had to get, right.

Chanda Smith Baker  26:19

You know, my kids are like, we got to take it down. Mom. I hear that. Yeah. And I was I was born a little bit before you, which is you got to figure out how to work within the system, whoever, whoever creates the rules? Yeah. Right, you need to understand who’s in power and figure out how to play the game, right?

Heather McGhee  27:01

That’s right. So, it was about it was about the come up, it was about upward mobility, it was about getting black people and women and black women in spaces where we had not been, and in terms of how you acted to do that. It was like, let us let us try to integrate elite spaces as much as possible. You know, I, my mother sent me to boarding school, you know, to an almost all white boarding school for my teenage years, and or my junior high years, but the school I went to for high school is much more diverse, but and we didn’t even have a real conversation about it. You don’t have to say, it was just sort of like, you’re a smart, precocious kid, I’m absolutely gonna sacrifice everything to get you the best possible school.

Chanda Smith Baker  27:29

Yeah my mind would be like, I don’t know what some people are gonna do to you. I was I’m gonna leave you right here, I will do my best, right? Like, because we have these things right around around race and opportunity that have been embedded in us, all of us in these various ways. So, your mom sends you off?

Heather McGhee  28:01

And she sends me off? And I think she and this is Do you have children? Oh yeah you just said that. There’s this is the dance. Oh, that’s right, you were just at the end. But this is the dance right of wanting to both. And I feel like my mom, you know, sort of took a position on one side of it, but of wanting to both make you aware of the struggle and of racisms existence and to make you vigilant against it. As she always was.  I was like mom not being racist, you know? Always seeing it everywhere, right? But to also teach your children that they’re bound by nothing. Hmm. Right? That’s right. How do you get that balance quite right? To say to your children, nothing will ever hold you back. You are, you know, the creator of your world. And you know, the sky is the limit. And, and not give your children anxiety about how they’re going to be perceived. And yet also be real with them. Right? Like, how Where do you where do you I mean, you have five children? I have a three-year-old so you tell me.

Chanda Smith Baker  29:11

Man, I don’t know. But I mean, there was a time where look, there’s a black tax you go you work twice as hard is everyone else right? There’s narratives, right? You go to school to learn not to talk, you go to work to work, not make friends, like there’s all these things, right? Because it’s embedded in the mistrust. And I think it’s a really important point, right? Because we want to be able to as parents live into the dreams we have for our children and protect them from the disappointments we know that are coming. And it is a very hard balance to have for all of us. Right but when it comes down to race, right when it comes down to like how we all do better when we all do better. I don’t know if I’ve had the right the right blend of it right. I know my kids are thriving. thing in their ways. And I hope that, you know, if you think about the generation, right, you know, my thing was the fight the crack era, right? Tough on drugs. That was the probably one of the most informative pieces of policy and action that I saw hit the ground. Yeah. Right. Yeah. Whereas my kids are like 911, Trayvon, Ferguson, like they are seeing tragedy that is mirroring who they are in a way that I did not experience. So even if I didn’t bring it up. Right, even if I was just talking about sunshine every day, right, my parenting has had to counter the messaging and the fears that they are receiving from what actually is happening in America. And that is my greatest challenge, right? And that’s one of the reasons why I want to have these conversations, because, you know, moving away from the problem is not the answer. But there are more people with answers and possibilities if they just acted into it. What does it take for all of us to be involved in this game? And to not this game of life and progress and justice for all right, the belief that we can be more together, but approaching it from a colorblind perspective, that ain’t it.

Heather McGhee  31:25

It isn’t and it and it crashed and burned, right? Because it’s physically not possible to be colorblind. First of all, like.

Chanda Smith Baker  31:34

What do you say when people say it? I still hear people saying, like, I don’t see race, I see humans, I don’t see ablack person, like I legit. Have that conversation with someone once a week or I don’t even have the conversation. I hear that from somebody. I do. I honestly do. And I just say, oh, that’s, that’s interesting. And I just sort of move around, right? Like I do the nice Minnesota. Oh, that’s interesting.

Heather McGhee  31:59

Minnesota nice will cut ya.

Chanda Smith Baker  32:03

Oh, yeah. So what do you say to someone who has a colorblind perspective?

Heather McGhee  32:06

Well, I mean, there’s one thing to say, which is that that’s physically impossible, there is unless you are actually visually impaired, you are seeing my color, as you are aware of your own power. And you are actually perceiving right, your, the amazing human eye and its connection, through nerves to the brain creates an incredible rainbow tapestry of colors. And our hard wired, learned associations give meaning to those colors, before we even think about it. So, it is physically, biologically not possible not only for you not to see that my skin is sort of a nut brown, but to associate that color with something that is based on the aggregate of the stories that you’ve been told, and the associations that you’ve been taught over the course of your life. So, it’s just not possible. And if you’re saying it’s happening, then you are denying something that’s happening. And if you’re in denying something that let’s talk about denying, right? And the impact of that. Why are you Why do you feel the need to say that? What’s maybe worrisome or frightening about the idea that you see that I have more melanin in my skin than you do? And what are the implications of that for you? So that’s one piece, right? It’s just not possible. The second piece is I would say, you know, what I’ve observed is that being colorblind, or claiming to be colorblind, often in practice, means that you are just being blind to racism, not being blind to race. Say that, again, is that in practice, being colorblind, saying claiming to be colorblind means that you are not being blind to race but you are being blind to racism. And you are refusing to acknowledge disparities. You’re refusing to acknowledge power dynamics, because you’re saying you don’t see any predicate condition for those dynamics or disparities, right? So, what it ends up mean, it takes away your agency and ability to be a good actor in changing the dynamics in your workplace, in your community in this relationship. And it’s just not as fun. It’s not as rich it’s not as real. I mean, you know, Chanda, I’ll be honest straight through, as I was saying, I had this strange, you know, move basically from the Southside of Chicago to, you know, to a very white, New England, social setting. And it was it was wild. But what I did was because I was so young as 11 it, I was like, you know, I’d like not yet gone through puberty, I was not yet adolescence, I was really a child. And so, I didn’t want a child does because I made friends. Right? You know what I mean? I wasn’t, I think if I had gone four or five years later, it would have been much harder. But because I was so young, I was like, well, you know, you’re, you’re my, you’re my, you’re on the playground with me, you know, we got to do this, you know. And so, I learned to love people who were from Hong Kong, from Taiwan, from Japan, and white, like, actually was mostly white and Asian people who have actually been sort of the missing pieces of my black and brown neighborhood, right? It’s sort of like, rounded it out in this way. And I will say that, as we’ve gotten older, some of those friends that have remained, the more they become more conscious, the more authentic our relationships have become, the easier they’ve become, the more fun they’ve become. You know, it’s like, why would you want to deny yourself the authenticity of that relationship? Why would you want to cordon off an area of your life and their life? Or of the dynamics of who you are? The space you occupy in the world from like, okay, we don’t talk about those things. Because that’s not a real relationship.

Chanda Smith Baker  36:41

No, and I don’t know, if we have a real relationship with what’s happened with disparities here in our city, either. Right? Like you, you talk about race being the what is it the uncredited actor, right, that we have, you know, race and racism embedded in our decision making in our policies and our actions and our interpersonal relationships, all the things that we’ve been, you know, layering into this conversation, that Minnesota has some of the worst disparities in the country. And we are often talking about how to address them through programmatic investments, right? I mean, I’m in philanthropy, so programmatic investments. And I think that obviously, you can make a difference in individual lives, you can make, you know, community, neighborhood change, I used to lead the nonprofit, I understand the benefit of those investments. So, I’m not minimizing them. But I also am saying that embedded in all of our systems, is also race and racism. And if it’s an uncredited actor, then how should we be thinking about that? When people are saying we’re not making any movement, despite all their investments, despite Minnesota being one of the most charitable states, generous to having the most fortune 100 and 500. We have not made a dent in our disparities. Right. And we woke up in 2020, kind of to an issue that we thought we were addressing all this. Like, how should we be thinking about race as an uncredited actor in the progress towards more equitable policy and reducing disparities?

Heather McGhee  38:18

So, you’re saying that what is going well, is dollars in neighborhoods of color, and nonprofits that serve neighborhoods of color?

Chanda Smith Baker  38:29

I think that goes well. And I think there’s a lot of great people that make very great investments, right? Like, I can name things that are in my neighborhood right now that I was part of leading that change the way that that block worked, or that life worked, or, you know, the investments that were made, and me or my family, or people that I worked with, like, I don’t want to deny that. But we’re not attacking the bigger issues within the system in the way that I think we thought we could, by making individual progress, or community or neighborhood progress.

Heather McGhee  39:03

Yeah. Well, I think part of this is the is the charity and injustice divide, right, that Dr. King spoke of, that Darren Walker wrote about recently, you know, and I’m paraphrasing the quote here, but, you know, you don’t want to let philanthropy and what is basically the distribution after the fact of concentrated wealth, obscure the unfairness of the concentrated wealth in the first place, right? And this isn’t that creative. So, you know, and this is where I come back to my background in training and work in economics. You know, a you have a society where the main public investments will always dwarf philanthropic investment. The main public investments in intergenerational wealth happened on a whites only basis for most of the 20th century, thereby creating a black white wealth divide. So that means that a black college graduate today, on average has less wealth than a white high school dropout.

Chanda Smith Baker  40:11

Can you say that again? I read that I’ve heard that. But can you say that again?

Heather McGhee  40:15

Yes. So because of the racial wealth divide, black, white wealth divide in this instance, a white high school dropout has on average more wealth, household savings, home equity, retirement stocks, bonds, etc. Then a black college graduate. That is about explicitly racist policymaking, right. Redlining, racial covenants, racial discrimination in the mortgage market after redlining quote, unquote, reverse redlining, predatory mortgage lending. Discriminatory lending to this day, right? We just found out that Wells Fargo denied half of black borrowers during the refinancing boom, but we still got same such same credit score, same profile, black, white borrowers being denied loans, business loans, mortgage loans, right. So, when you have that much of a wealth gap, there aren’t so many ways around it. Right. That’s why for me, I think that wealth-based reparations, which are really about helping to ensure that your average black family has enough of a financial cushion, to really live out the American dream with some sense of security, because that has been denied them, their parents, their grandparents, you don’t even have to go back all the way to slavery. Kudos for to the state of California for passing the bill to move forward on slavery-based reparations. Great, you know, a little closer in, you know, Evansville, Illinois, not too far away from the great state of Minnesota. Doing so as well. You know, I think it’s like with policing, it’s like when you have an upper middle-class neighborhood with great resources, you don’t have a lot of police. You know, crime rates are similar among races, controlling for poverty. It is about whether you have enough money to be comfortable and secure in your life. And no amount of education and hard work. And income is going to make up for that wealth gap anytime soon.

Chanda Smith Baker  42:45

In your book use that a little bit earlier around the pool analogy. Before we go, will you talk about how you landed there and why that thread in the book?

Heather McGhee  42:55

You know, you’re asking the question and I do not know the answer of how do I land there? Like I honestly don’t remember the first time I thought it’s the drain pool like I wish I did that will make a better story as an author.

Chanda Smith Baker  43:10

Did you watch the movies right? Where they the black kid gets in, everybody gets out, everyone’s horrified and they drain the pool. Right?

Heather McGhee  43:15

So I think I knew of the phenomenon of black people, white people draining pools closing public pools. You know, I don’t remember the first time my parents or my grandparents ever told me about that phenomenon. But I sort of grew up with it as wisdom of this is what happened when I went to Montgomery, Alabama and went to Oak Park, which is the sort of Central Park in Montgomery and asked where the pool was, where it had been. Because I knew that on January 1, 1959, the city council had closed the entire Parks and Recreation Department of the city. Drained the public pool, backed up truckloads of dirt, filled it in, seeded it with grass, sold off the animals in the city zoo, closed all of the parks in the city and kept the entire system closed for a decade. Rather than integrate. We’re in 1970 before Montgomery Parks and Recreation opened its doors again. And in 1971 there was a Supreme Court case about closing public pools to fight integration. And the good guys lost that case. So, this is not so long ago. Anyway. So, I mean, this this phenomenon for me. You know, I did become kind of obsessed with it because it felt like this very tangible illustration of the zero-sum mentality the threat that any gains for people of color means a loss for white people. That would lead someone to destroy a good thing rather than share it. Right? Because they’d rather deny somebody else something, than have it and have it be shared on an equal basis. And that that spirit has very often been a downfall. You know, for me, it helped to explain what was a mystery in my, in my career is, which is a mystery in our economic history, which is how did we go from being the society that had the formula that created the greatest middle class the world had ever seen? Right? high wages, high level of taxation, plowing that back into public investments, that infrastructure that was the envy of the world, you know, a secure middle class life, good union jobs, the sort of public goods and public structures that said, you know, what we learned from the lessons of the first Gilded Age, we learned from the Great Depression, we’re going to massively subsidize housing, we’re going to create the GI Bill, Social Security, you know, all of these things that worked. But were as I write the book, each and every one of them in one way or another segregated or for whites only. And just like the public pools, once the Civil Rights Movement finally won the concession that well, okay, I guess black people have contributed to this economic prosperity of this nation. So maybe black people should get a little bit more of, you know, some benefit from it. It was all over. I mean, really, that was the political shift. You know, we know that Lyndon Johnson, after he signed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act became the last Democrat running for president to win the majority of white voters to this day. And I say that not for partisan reasons, but rather just say that there was a massive ideological shift away from government away from collective action towards, well, let’s let the market decide. Well, there’s a racial and gender valence to let the market decide isn’t there, right when the people who are at the top of the marketplace are so usually white men, and not only that, and this is the under lining of my book throughout is that when you move away from collective action, when you turn your back on the formula that built the middle class, yes, some wealthy white people gain and gain enormously gain like they never had before. See today. But just like with the pools, most working and middle class, white folks are worse off. Because they don’t have these public goods that created that kind of nice life, that high quality of life. And they’re struggling in the bottom of a drain pool, too. You know, half of American workers are paid too little to meet their basic needs. And 1% of the population owns more wealth than the entire middle class. So, this system isn’t working very well, for most of us. And that’s where the solidarity dividend comes in, and where there’s this idea, and the stories that I tell throughout the book have to you know, what, the solutions aren’t the same. But there are enough common problems that coming together and refusing to be divided by these cultural or politics by the zero sum lie, is the ticket to rebuilding the American Dream for everybody.

Chanda Smith Baker  48:30

And you feel hopeful that we are on the right track? Because we started with hope, let’s end with hope, right? Like American consciousness, as is shifting and we see some resistance to it. But if the majority, right, if we all understand that we are in this together, and we allow that to push through, and we understand that we actually all do better when we do better.

Heather McGhee  48:55

That’s the hopeful outlook. That is the hopeful outlook. And here’s what I’ll say. I will say that, um, I think everybody listening to this conversation, you and me can tick off the ways in which the news is terrible. Right. I will say that there is also a little bit of a phenomenon right now of kind of the like rubbernecking, of the car crash of the terrible things going on, right. Where, you know, when we think about these book bans, and these attacks on education would feel like you know, a hobbling of the progress that was made, you know, in this mass awakening. They’re not popular, they’re happening. Right these right wing state legislatures are ramming them through but they’re not popular. 88% of the country thinks we need to teach the best parts of our history and the worst parts of our history. Right? Sort of common sense. Scary, right? The idea of banning books. So, there’s that, you know, even things, you know, the division around masks and vaccines, it’s like, yes, fine, it’s terrible. It’s crazy. The length we’ve seen people go to, to do what feels like deeply antisocial by saying I’m not willing to make any kind of sacrifice to keep the most vulnerable people in my community safe. And, and we saw that study recently out of the University of Georgia, if I’m not mistaken, that said that, you know, in, in, in in a test, white people who were told about the racial disparities of COVID became less fearful of COVID, less empathetic towards COVID victims and less supportive of COVID precautions. Right, that wasn’t a test. And we remember we saw that in real life, right under the Trump administration, we saw that happen, right? So that kind of antisocialness feels, you know, terrifying. At the same time, 70% of the country supports wearing the mask when we need to 70% of the country has gotten their shot. You know what I mean? Like, it’s like, there’s a little bit of an inflation, even when we talk about Republicans and Democrats, and we’re like, oh, it’s gotten so partisan. It’s not a 50/50 split in the country of who has those, you know, those IDs, right? We’ve got systems that have kept a minority in power and having an outsized, say, at the state level, and at the federal level, and certainly at the judiciary today. But I do think that there is a multiracial governing majority that wants to see a family understands that we have to do better on these issues, and that wants to see a fairer society.

Chanda Smith Baker  51:41

That’s a good note to end on. I appreciate you being in this conversation with me, Heather McGhee.

Heather McGhee 

Thank you, Sean Chanda, thank you so much.

Souphak Kienitz  51:51

And that’s Heather McGhee, and our host Chanda Smith Baker. If you enjoy this episode, please let us know @ChandaSBaker, or @MPLSfoundation on Twitter, or Instagram. Thank you to Sarah Gillund, John Cuoco, and Darlynn, Benjamin. This is Souphak Kienitz. Thanks for listening.

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About Our Guest

Heather McGhee

A renowned expert on the American economy, Heather McGhee is one of the most brilliant and influential thinkers exploring inequality today. Her viral TED talk and her New York Times bestseller “The Sum of Us” reveal the devastating true cost of racism—not just for people of color, but for everyone. Heather’s talks offer an actionable roadmap during one of the most critical—and most troubled—periods in history.

An influential voice in the media and an NBC contributor, Heather regularly appears on NBC’s Meet the Press and MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Deadline White House, and All In. Her opinions, writing, and research have appeared in numerous outlets, including the Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Politico, and National Public Radio.

Heather holds a B.A. in American Studies from Yale University and a J.D. from the University of California at Berkeley School of Law. She currently serves as a Visiting Lecturer in Urban Studies at the City University of New York’s School of Labor and Urban Studies. She has also held visiting positions at Yale University’s Brady-Johnson Grand Strategy Program and the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics. Heather is the Chair of the Board of Color of Change, the country’s largest online racial justice organization, and serves on multiple other boards of trustees, including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Demos.