1:39 AM / Tuesday March 28, 2023

10 Feb 2023

A conversation with New York Times best-selling author Heather McGhee

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February 10, 2023 Category: Suburban News Posted by:

ABOVE PHOTO: Heather McGee speaking at Citizen University in 2016. (Photo: Citizen University)

By Mac Johnson

From the racial wealth gap and lack of resources in Black communities to police violence, Black people have every reason to exist in a space between eternal pessimism and existential dread. We saw another example as recently as the violent killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis. Yet some scholars, advocates, and authors, like Heather McGhee, find optimism even in the face of problems that seem insurmountable.

“I know that police decisions made the world we are in today and better ones can make a better world,” McGhee said. “I have talked to a ton of people across the country and there are fundamental values we hold in common.”

McGhee believes those fundamental values like freedom, providing for your family, protecting your loved ones and community bridge the gap that divides us. And on the eve of the beginning of Black History Month, Delaware County Community College hosted the New York Times best-selling author to share her hopes of togetherness, but also her warning that racism has a cost for everyone.

McGhee grew up on the southside of Chicago at a time of economic relocation. Her eyes quickly opened to the sight of jobs leaving, poverty increasing and wage inequality creeping into her own neighborhood. Her early understanding of watching her home decay has long inspired her to find solutions to make the world around her a better place. She believes that the strongest proponents of community and empathy are finding common ground, listening to people who are different from you and understanding the history of their condition.

“In the absence of history, negative stereotypes fill the void,” McGhee said. “We have self interest in seeing our history clearly and making sure that things work better, especially since our youth are the most diverse generation ever.”

In 2023, we are much more likely to interact with someone of a different race on a daily basis than our parents or their parents before them. However, much like a pamphlet promoting campus diversity at a predominantly white institution, the images of a blended society do not always tell the story of equality. 

Statistically, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that 77% of the U.S. workforce is white, while only making up just over half of the U.S. population. Those workplaces often present hostile environments for people of color, with about 24% of Black and Hispanic employees reporting an instance of racial 

discrimination in the workplace, according to one 2020 Gallup Poll.

“It often seems like the American dream with an asterisk,” McGhee said. “Not everyone who was contributing to our nation’s success was benefiting from it because of the moral shortcomings of our nation.”

McGhee speaks of these moral shortcomings in her groundbreaking book “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together.” McGhee believes Americans should focus their energy on solidarity instead of “zero sum thinking.” She defines “zero sum thinking” as white people seeing politics as a competition between themselves and people of color. She believes many white people believe that, in order for themselves to win, people of color must lose.

Culturally, society appears to be making steps toward racial progress. The Association of National Advertisers named “diversity” its Marketing Word of the Year in 2021 and followed that up with “inclusion” in 2022. Even chose “allyship” for its word of the year in 2021.But through raised awareness and actions that often simply appear performative, there is still very little movement toward racial equality when it comes to wealth and power in the country. 

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, the wealth gap has narrowed to about 6 to 1. That means the average per capita wealth of white Americans was $338,093 in 2019 but only $60,126 for Black Americans. The gap does not simply exist in dollar figures. 

McGhee believes that “zero sum thinking” has led to gaps in education, reduced opportunities to find safe and affordable housing, healthy food and opportunities to advance in the workforce.

“Half of adult workers are paid too little to pay for basic needs like housing and food,” McGhee said. “Today a Black college grad has less wealth than a white college drop out. The income is higher, but the grad can’t change history. They can’t make sure their ancestors had property instead of being treated as capital.”

Yet, in the face of adversity and divisiveness, Heather McGhee still carries the torch for togetherness, saying it is the key to success for all. Like the way Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”, McGhee believes that “the sum of us can accomplish far more than some of us”. She calls this act the “solidarity dividend”.

 McGhee says it shows what we all can accomplish when we all work together to have our best interest at heart. She tests her theory constantly through continued research she shares with the masses through literature and her recently launched “The Sum of Us” podcast.

McGhee is encouraging others to take on the same optimism that she does. She also believes people must work to be informed and become active participants in the world around them.

“You have to organize,” McGhee said. “You have to ladder up across race, gender and socioeconomic status to make a difference. That’s how it happens. It can’t just be up to people whose job it is to govern. The task has to be taken up by everyone passionate about change.”

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