Most of us probably don’t think of economics as an optimistic field. For some of us it pulls up thoughts of Milton Friedman; for others, it’s relegated to a class taken, or the Federal Reserve. But as Heather McGhee and Helene Gayle discussed McGhee’s new book, and her research, economics itself became a space of hope for a better future.
Much of McGhee and Gayle’s conversation had little to do with optimism, yet optimism is very much there. The conversation began with a discussion of the guilty verdict announced earlier in the day in the murder trial of former police officer Derrick Chauvin, with McGhee noting that while it was a moment of accountability, many families who have lost loved ones to police violence have never seen such accountability for themselves.
McGhee, who was born in Chicago’s Chatham neighborhood, noted that the city has been foundational for her: it gave her a touchstone for understanding things ranging from race and Black politics—Harold Washington is an early memory—to labor movements and inequality, all of which ran through the conversation in their own ways.
McGhee, the former President of the think tank Demos, left her job there to engage in the years of research for the book The Sum of Us not because of any one incident but, as she told Gayle, because of a series of them, a desire to understand what was happening in our collective culture that makes it so hard for the United States to make positive progress. And while much of the research she has assembled is bleak, The Sum of Us, and McGhee’s own outlook, remain strikingly optimistic.
Everything we believe comes from a story we have been told, as McGhee notes, and she exposes more than one story in her conversation with Gayle. The radicalized presence of zero-sum thinking, in which progress for one means loss for another, has grown over the decades, as the “us” included in public works—such as the public pool—has grown to encompass a racially diverse, and therefore more accurate, we the people. Indeed, McGhee noted that the racial divisions and the “us versus them” mentality of much of white supremacist culture has been sold to white Americans since the US was 13 colonies, making it deeply engrained in the national consciousness.
The parable of the drained public pool, which figures prominently in The Sum of Us and in McGhee and Gayle’s conversation, is a particularly striking illustration of the cost of racism in public policy. In the 1930s and 40s, the United States went on an extensive public building project, from roads to libraries and from schools to public pools. At that time, many pools—or even most—were segregated. As the Civil Rights movement picked up steam in the 1950s, however, many communities drained their public pools—and, in one case, shut down their entire park district—rather than sharing a public good with their fellow Americans. It is a striking example of the ways in which “us versus them,” and the zero-sum narratives of white supremacy, hurt everyone in the US.
It was, McGhee notes, during this era that white Americans began to turn away from the public policies that had improved quality of life for everyone: rather than sharing the wealth with all Americans, they denied the truths of their economic prosperity, turning away from collective solutions. White Americans, McGhee stressed, turned away from the collective solutions that had brought prosperity only when the collective became multiracial.
But every great movement has been multiracial, from the very beginning of America’s history, and McGhee sees great movements rising now as well. If we are able to step beyond the zero-sum thinking of white supremacist logic, and if we are able to reverse engineer that drained public pool, McGhee sees a future in which America can once again make great strides toward collective betterment. We just have to get there.