Black Author Heather McGhee
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Black Author Heather McGhee
Heather McGhee, author of “The Sum of Us” / courtesy
Heather McGhee, author of “The Sum of Us” / courtesy

When author Heather McGhee learned in school about inequality, it was that policy drives inequality, not social movements. Ms. McGhee had to suspend disbelief to buy into that idea, because by her experience, economics was all about racism. Ms. McGhee knew in her heart, as she recalled, that “Racism drives inequality.”

A black woman, she knew that structural racism couldn’t be addressed using the current definitions of discrimination that white people created. “You can’t solve a problem within a paradigm that created it,” she said on Monday evening at Magic City Books. McGhee held a conversation with Dr. Ibram X Kendi about her new book, “The Sum of Us.” 

Ms. McGhee holds a degree in American Studies from Yale and a JD law degree from the University of California at Berkeley. Recently, she took several years away from her day job, during which she studied racism and economic policies through interviews and focus groups with people. She came to several conclusions in that time. One involved the recognition that white people were ultimately voting for economic policies that supported racism and maintained white supremacy. Further, she realized that white people benefit from racism, along with policies that reinforce racism. She understood how those laws and social mores keep the target on Black people.

Zero Sum Paradigm

Several times, Ms. McGhee referenced the Zero Sum Paradigm, which boils down to scarcity. It’s the idea that when one population begins forward progress, other groups are driven back. The Zero Sum Paradigm creates an us-versus-them mentality, in which black people are always the “them” that must be kept down so that white people can continue making economic and social progress.

Ms. McGhee reminded the audience of the city of Montgomery, Alabama, which drained a public pool in the 1960s rather than desegregate the area. The pool stayed empty for over a dozen years as white families refused to integrate the space. Ms. McGhee and Dr. Kendi drew parallels between the long-term trauma of racism, and the current situation in Texas, where people of Color face devastation due to a state government that refuses to prioritize marginalized neighborhoods for health and safety. 

The author boldly called out racism and economic policy in her new book because, as she notes, “I wasn’t alone.” She recalled the writings and teachings of authors, historians, and public intellectuals with experience describing racism and economic inequality and inequity. Why, then, is Heather McGhee a target for white folks’ denigration and skepticism? Ms. McGhee has unquestionable credentials in economic policy. She isn’t afraid to talk to the people who are most affected by racism and racist economic policies.  Ms. McGhee knows her positions are controversial — but also common-sense, as the Zero Sum Paradigm was first recognized in the late 1980s. She noted that a history of redlining drove economic inequality that led to the 2008 housing crisis which, yet again, hit hardest in Black communities. 

Function of White Supremacy

“One of the functions of White Supremacy is to keep white people satisfied with a little superiority,” she notes, while not actually creating any positive growth for anyone. The change in the social contract means that the government no longer feels responsibility for caring for its citizens, leaving individuals to organize and support each other. One particularly glaring issue for Ms. McGhee is the current for-profit healthcare system. It persists while rural hospitals are closing due to states’ refusal to expand Medicare. 

Heather McGhee also noted the pushback she received from her ideas is often based on technicalities or assumptions. Yet she stands proudly by her words, that economic inequality and inequity always revolve around racism. She noted that poor white people voted for Trump, a man who repudiated financial support for anyone but rich white men — when the majority of Trump’s supporters were not rich, and therefore did not benefit from Trump’s economic policies.  

The final questions the audience gave the author included, “how do you convince white men to read this book?” Her answer went back to the pool story. “Everyone resonates to a story,” Ms. McGhee noted. “Everyone wants to know ‘what happens next?’” Stories that harken back to the days of yore when it was easier for white people to get ahead are appealing to older white men. “It was because the elites used the mere appearance of black people to pick your pockets while you weren’t looking. The characters are the same throughout time. Only the heroes and the villains change.”

Erika Stone is a graduate student in the Master of Social Work program at the University of Oklahoma, and a graduate assistant at Schusterman Library. A Chess Memorial Scholar, she has a B.A. in Psychology...