Review: White Workers Who Buy into Racism Are Shooting Themselves (and Everyone Else) in the Foot
From liberals to democratic socialists, many people on the left agree that the key to addressing racial inequity in the U.S. is winning “universal demands,” such as Medicare for All and free tuition at public schools and universities.
This was a bedrock idea of the Great Society programs of the 1960s. It regained currency with the Bernie Sanders campaign for president in 2016; it forms part of the basis for a Green New Deal; and it is reflected in President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan.
The argument goes like this: Since everyone can benefit from such programs, they will win broad support. At the same time, Black people will benefit disproportionately, since they are more likely to lack medical insurance, be unemployed, have student debt, work at low-paying jobs, less likely to own their own homes, etc., than white people—so these programs will begin to address deeply rooted racial inequality.
Some advocates for this position even seem to think that white workers’ support for these demands is a sure sign that racism is weakening. For example, after Andrew Gillum lost the 2018 Florida governor’s race to Ron DeSantis, one commentator wrote, “Defeats like Gillum’s in Florida can’t be written off as the product of widespread racism and sexism… It’d be a peculiar white supremacist majority in Florida who could simultaneously vote against Gillum out of deep-seated prejudice and also vote to bring suffrage back to more than a million people formerly convicted of felonies.”
Heather McGhee, a former president of the progressive think tank Demos, agrees that universal demands are important. In her new book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, she argues for them. But she also provides some valuable historical context regarding the connection between universal demands and the fight for racial justice and equity. And she adds in some cautionary notes concerning the limits of universal demands.
An outline of McGhee’s argument looks something like this:
- The cost of racism for Black people and other people of color has been high.
- Racism has also cost white people, although not as much.
- Many white people see equality as a zero-sum proposition—that is, advances for Black people and other people of color come at the expense of white people.
- In order to preserve the advantages they believe they have as white people, many white people have—perversely—been willing to give up benefits they could provide to all.
- Working-class and middle-class people of all races—the sum of us—would be better off if we worked together to make society more just and equal.
- All of us would gain what McGhee terms “The Solidarity Dividend” by working together for equity.
- But winning universal demands, by themselves, will not be enough to meaningfully reduce racial inequality. More targeted demands and implementation will also be necessary.
DRAINING THE POOLS
To illustrate the cost to everyone, including white people, McGhee tells the story of towns and cities that literally drained (or filled in, or rented to white-only private clubs) their public swimming pools in the 1950s and 1960s rather than integrate them.
In order to deny Black families access to public swimming pools, white people also denied the pools to themselves and their families. This becomes a metaphor that McGhee returns to throughout the book.
The determination to deny public goods to Black people provided the foundation for white people to support smaller government and less public spending—with the exception of spending on the police and military.
Across the country, white people denied themselves and their children—and the Black community, Native Americans, Latinos, Asians and immigrants—good public schools, strong unions, affordable housing and, ultimately, a truly representative democracy.
UNIONS AND THE SUM OF US
What does this mean for unions? In a chapter titled “No One Fights Alone,” McGhee looks at the Auto workers’ union drive at Nissan’s assembly plant in Canton, Mississippi.
When the UAW filed for an election to represent the workers there in 2017, it was the final step in a 12-year campaign. Like this year’s high-profile union drive at Amazon in Alabama, it was seen as a major test of whether unions could organize in the South.
The UAW lost, receiving less than 40 percent of the vote. As with Amazon, much was written in an effort to understand and explain the union’s defeat. One close observer of the Nissan campaign was Labor Notes’ Chris Brooks, who wrote:
The August 4 loss can be laid to three factors: Nissan’s fierce anti-union campaign, the union’s failure to build a strong organizing committee that acted like a union on the shop floor, and Nissan workers’ reluctance to rock the boat and risk losing a job that pays far higher than they could expect to make almost anywhere else.
The possible role of racism is mentioned only in passing, in a quote from Kate Bronfenbrenner of Cornell University.
McGhee, like Brooks, notes the company’s fierce anti-union campaign and the reluctance of some workers to rock the boat. Unlike Brooks, though, she puts racism front and center.
She describes a racial hierarchy in the plant: “Everyone I spoke to—white, Black, management, and production—admitted that the positions got whiter as the jobs got easier and better paid.” She points out that the so-called “temp” workers, who were unable to vote in the representation election, were disproportionately Black. They made up roughly 40 percent of the workforce and, arguably, had the most to gain from unionization. And she examines how management played to white workers’ prejudices by pushing an identification of “union” with Black and lazy.
The chapter also discusses the fast-food Fight for $15, contrasting its strategy with that of the Nissan campaign. “By inviting white workers to see how the powerful profited from selling them a racist story that cost everybody,” she concludes, “Fight for $15 had managed to win the support of whites as well.”
It’s hard imagine, though, that the pro-union activists at Nissan didn’t realize that they needed to win support from white workers, or that they needed to confront racism in the company’s campaign and among their co-workers.
Does McGhee think the UAW failed to challenge “a racist story that cost everybody”? Did the threat of losing their jobs—some of the best-paid in the area—carry more weight for auto workers than it does for fast food workers? Was the zero-sum thinking among the white workers simply too intractable? Unfortunately, although she shows us how racism was structured at Nissan, she doesn’t offer any thoughts on what the union campaign could or should have done differently.
FROM POST-CIVIL WAR TO POST-CIVIL RIGHTS
McGhee’s analysis follows in the tradition of W.E.B. DuBois and his book Black Reconstruction in America, published almost 90 years ago.
DuBois argued that, following the Civil War, white workers in the South had a choice: either to ally with the formerly enslaved Black population against the planter class and fight for material gains such as public schools, higher wages, and access to land, or to side with the planter class to maintain their privileged social status over Black people. Far too many chose to ally with the planters.
McGhee includes this famous quote from DuBois:
It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent on their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness. Their vote selected public officials, and while this had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown them. White schoolhouses were the best in the community, and conspicuously placed, and they cost anywhere from twice to ten times as much per capita as the colored schools. The newspapers specialized on news that flattered the poor whites and almost utterly ignored the Negro except in crime and ridicule.
McGhee does not believe that racism is a condition that is innate to white people. She recognizes that it has roots, both as personal ideology and in its structural form, in a system of economic exploitation. But she makes plain that the problem of racism is not “simply” structural. Those structures are supported by the actions of individuals.
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Large numbers of white voters have repeatedly voted for politicians who promote a zero-sum view of the world. These politicians refuse to expand Medicare eligibility. They cut taxes on the wealthy and corporations, and then use the reduced tax revenues as a justification to cut funding for public goods and services—cuts that harm large numbers of white workers, as well as the intended targets among immigrants, Black people, and people of color more generally.
Let’s take another look at the 2018 Florida governor’s race. I don’t know whether a “white supremacist majority” voted for restoration of suffrage and against Gillum. But I do know that a large number of conservative white people did. And I do look to “widespread racism and sexism” to help explain how that happened.
First, there are large numbers of white evangelicals in Florida. Anti-abortion politics are important to them. They might support stronger unions, raising the minimum wage, and restoring voting rights, but they wouldn’t vote for someone who defended the right to abortion—as Gillum did.
Second, more white people who had been formerly convicted of a felony stood to regain their voting rights than Black people—so voting for the universal demand to restore voting rights, which would benefit a large number of white people, was not inconsistent with voting against Gillum because he is Black.
This is especially true for a universal demand that did not cost anything. The right-wing media machine wasn’t able to crank up warnings about higher taxes as a price of restoring voting rights.
So, what we saw in Florida in 2018 was conservative white voters voting for a progressive universal demand (as we would hope) but also voting against a Black gubernatorial candidate—and for politicians who immediately canceled the voters’ decision by imposing onerous financial obligations that effectively prevented most of the former felons from having their voting rights restored.
In other words, even when voting for a progressive universal demand, they also voted for the people who would continue to drain the pool.
THE CASE FOR WELCOMING IMMIGRANTS
In addition to unions, McGhee draws examples from mortgage policies, college tuitions, voting rights, climate change, and Lewiston, Maine, to illustrate both the solidarity dividend to be gained by rejecting zero-sum thinking and the obstacles that remain.
After suffering a decline owing to the decimation of its textile industry, Lewiston—Maine’s second-largest city—rebuilt its population and regained a measure of economic vitality and well-being by welcoming immigrants from Africa and the Middle East. McGhee tells the stories of both longtime Lewiston residents and “New Mainers” who have benefited from the welcome mat extended to immigrants. However, the voters in Lewiston continue to elect (although by smaller and smaller margins) mayors who run on anti-immigrant, zero-sum platforms.
In the chapter on representative democracy, McGhee argues that gerrymandering, voter suppression, and the undermining of campaign finance laws have been done in the service of “property supremacy,” a phrase she borrows from Democracy in Chains author Nancy MacLean. Those who seek to defend “property supremacy”—whether they be corporate execs fighting unionization, billionaire donors like the Koch Brothers and the late Sheldon Adelson, or politicians like Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Kevin McCarthy—use white supremacy as one of their primary tools.
UNIVERSAL DEMANDS… AND THEN SOME
McGhee is clearly in a discussion with those on the left who recognize the existence of systemic racism and inequality and argue that the best way to respond is with universal programs such as Medicare for All, raising the minimum wage, or free college tuition. McGhee supports these policies. She knows that Black people will benefit greatly if they are put into effect, and that more white people than Black people will benefit.
She wonders, though: Does raising the floor for everyone reduce the staggering racial disparities in wealth, housing, health, or education? Do these programs, while benefiting Black people, immigrants, Native Americans and other people of color “disproportionately,” undermine either systemic or individual racism?
McGhee has a “yes, and” response to those who call for a focus on universal programs—we need to fight for such universal programs and we need “targeted universalism,” a phrase she attributes to UC Berkeley professor john a. powell. She writes, “With targeted universalism, you set a universal policy goal and then develop strategies to achieve the goal that take into account the varied situations of the groups involved.”
Take homeownership, for example. McGhee describes homeownership as “the center of financial security and wealth-building for most families.” But, she writes, “people of color and Black people in particular have been disproportionately and intentionally excluded from this linchpin of economic freedom, so any program designed to boost homeownership that does not specifically address the barriers facing African Americans can only succeed in increasing the racial homeownership and wealth gap.”
Since “maps have already been drawn, through racist redlining,” she writes, “instead of ignoring them and the damage they wrought, we can target down payment assistance to longtime redlined residents.”
UNION ETHOS AT THE CORE
With the exception of the one chapter discussed above, The Sum of Us is not a book about unions. Nonetheless, it is a deeply pro-union book.
McGhee describes jobs in industries such as auto, meatpacking, textiles, and steel—jobs that “used to be terrible jobs, with low pay and dangerous conditions, until the people who needed those jobs to survive banded together, often overcoming violent oppression, to demand wholesale change…
“What remade American work in the industrial era was the fact that companies didn’t face individual pleas for improvement,” she writes. “They faced mass work stoppages, slowdowns, armed protests, and strikes that forced employers to the bargaining table.”
She writes about seeing her “Uncle Jimmy,” who was Black and a union member, “standing on the street, joking and backslapping with a group of Polish- and Italian-accented men.” How could this be? “Uncle Jimmy was in a union, the only place where men like that would know and trust one another in segregated Chicago.”
What McGhee calls “targeted universalism” has been practiced by many unions for years. Whenever a union fights to eliminate a two-tier wage or bargains for something extra for its lowest-paid or lowest-skill members, it is practicing targeted universalism.
And clearly her notion of a “solidarity dividend,” the benefit that all would gain by working together against oppression and inequality, is at the core of unionism. As McGhee writes in the final chapter,
The plutocrats have always known that solidarity is the answer, that the sum of us can accomplish far more than just some of us. That’s why the forces seeking to keep the economic rules exactly as they are aim to cut off any sense of empathy white people who are struggling might develop for also-struggling people of color.
The Sum of Us shows us how these plutocrats have been so successful. It also reminds us how they can be beaten.
Steve Downs is a retired subway train operator and former officer of Transport Workers Union Local 100.