DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies in today for Terry Gross. Our guest today, Heather McGhee, has a new book about the importance of recognizing and fighting racism in America. But it isn’t just an argument that racial discrimination is morally wrong and unfair, even deadly to people of color. The heart of McGhee’s case is that racism is harmful to everyone, and thus we all have an interest in fighting it. Drawing on a wealth of economic data, she argues that when laws and practices have discriminated against African Americans, whites have also been harmed. When people unite across racial and ethnic lines, she argues, there’s a solidarity dividend that helps everyone.
Heather McGhee is the former president of the progressive think tank Demos, where she spent much of her career. She holds a BA in American Studies from Yale and a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley. She currently chairs the board of Color of Change, a nationwide online racial justice organization. Her new book is “The Sum Of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone And How We Can Prosper Together.” She joins me from her home in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Heather McGhee, welcome to FRESH AIR.
HEATHER MCGHEE: I’m so glad to be with you.
DAVIES: You worked at the think tank Demos for a long time. Then you went and got a law degree and came back to it. And you write in the introduction that you were in love with the idea that information in the right hands was power. And you would do research. You would craft legislation. You’d talk to members of Congress and their staffs hoping to make change. And you write that getting to some of the ideas that motivated this book came from your discovering the limits of research and facts. Just share with us that journey.
MCGHEE: Well, I have always been animated by core questions about our economic dysfunction in America, why it was that people so often struggled just to make ends meet. I was born on the South Side of Chicago. I saw what happened when the good factory jobs and the good public sector jobs started to leave. And it felt like we could do something about this. We could, in many ways, have nice things, right? Universal child care and health care and reliable infrastructure and well-funded schools in every neighborhood. And the data was saying it would be in our economic interest to do it.
So I did spend about 15 years in economic policy trying to make the case for better economic decisions. But ultimately – and I started having a hunch that I was sort of using the wrong tool. And I think the election of Donald Trump really, with a majority of white voters, to me was a wake-up call. And I decided that ultimately, the facts and figures and reliance on a sense of economic self-interest was not actually going to be enough. I had to get at some deeper questions in this country. It wasn’t that I had the wrong numbers. It was that I had the wrong deeper story about status and belonging, about competition, about deservingness, questions that in America have always turned on race.
DAVIES: Right. You write in here that when we ask people their opinions about, you know, racially neutral policy proposals or at least theoretically neutral proposals like raising the minimum wage or expanding public health care alternatives or even action to prevent climate change, people’s opinions were affected by whether they thought that the demographic changes in the United States threatened the status of white people. That seemed to change the way people viewed everything. This was sort of an important realization, wasn’t it?
MCGHEE: It was. I mean, it was – it’s a really astonishing set of data. The psychologists Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson did this study. And then there’s been a whole host of other ones to basically show that there is a predominant zero-sum mindset that’s predominant among white Americans, more than among Americans of color, that basically is threatened by the idea of demographic change, that on a gut level feels like that is not in their own interest and that makes them want to pull away from some kinds of policies that are actually, you would think, in their economic interest, right?
The majority of people making under $15 an hour are white. The majority of people without health care are white. We all live under the same sky and are all going to be vulnerable to climate change. And yet making race salient, as, of course, Donald Trump did and Trumpism does, makes people more – white…