“This big old lie:” Heather McGhee on the real cost of racism

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Hey, y’all, it’s Brittany. So as a country, we just commemorated what would have been Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 93rd birthday and I know about y’all, but I spent the day thinking about how everybody—and I do mean everybody—who stands in the way of voting rights, civil rights, and human rights should keep all four of his names out they mouth. But I’m also thinking about the fact that I’ve lived a lifetime of King holidays and have had to watch us reclaim his legacy each and every year. My parents were both state commissioners for the holiday in Missouri. And while most of my white, wealthy classmates took a vacation on the third Monday of January, I always remember being active in some kind of way. We protested, we marched. We’d be in somebody’s church house, reflecting on King the moral leader, and our personal responsibility to never, ever rest. My most memorable MLK Day protest, though, was probably my most personal one. So back in high school, my well-meaning but clearly misinformed white dance coach insisted we have a full day of rehearsals on the holiday because we quote ’had the time.’ No, we did not. I told her that I wouldn’t come until my King Day work was done, or frankly, not at all. And soon, other students followed. I mean, is literally the most basic principle of MLK Day. It’s a day on, not a day off. At 37, I am just two years younger than King was when he was assassinated. He fit so many lifetimes into his all-too-brief one. So in whatever time we have left, we got plenty of work to do. We are UNDISTRACTED. 

On the show today, public policy genius Heather McGhee, I’ll be talking to the author of The Some of Us about the way racism costs everyone in society. 

Heather McGhee What I’m saying is that you have skin in the game. This is not just something you should do out of the kindness of your heart for the little Brown children. This is something that is affecting our entire society. This is something that is affecting your bottom line. This is something that is affecting your neighborhood, your schools, the air you breathe. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That’s coming up. But first, it’s your UNtrending news. So back to Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Nikole Hannah-Jones, the creator of the 1619 project and friend of the pod, gave quite the birthday tribute and a little history lesson. On Monday, she posted a Twitter thread recounting how she was invited to give a speech in honor of the holiday. She explained how some members of the group wrote and then leaked emails opposing her giving the speech. They called her quote a “discredited activist” and said she was “unworthy of such association with King.” So what did Nikole do? Get this—she scrapped her original speech and instead read excerpts of a bunch of King’s speeches from the 50s and 60s, but did so without telling the audience. She echoed MLK’s calls for radical change to American society, the problems of capitalism and racial injustice, and the need for the redistribution of political power. 

Martin Luther King Jr.: The fact is, there has never been a single, solid, determined commitment on the part of the vast majority of white Americans on the whole question of racial equality. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Finally, she revealed to the crowd that these were King’s words, not her own. Needless to say, they were shook. I mean, this is nothing new. Since the beginning of MLK Day, folks have been sanitizing his legacy and using the holiday for political gain, all while working against the very things King stood for. I’m looking at you, Ronald Reagan. As Nikole reminded her audience, white Americans called King a charlatan, a demagogue, a communist, a traitor. She also brought out the polling that showed that three quarters of Americans opposed King at his death, while 94 percent of y’all approve of him now. Nikole left the audience with these final words.”The real Dr. King cannot be commodified, homogenized and whitewashed, and whatever side you stand on today is the side you would have stood on back then. Look, Nikole, they’re going to learn to stop trying you and Dr. King, because that was a word.” 

Next up, a new program in Georgia will provide Black women $850 a month to fight the racial wealth gap. The program, called In Her Hands, will give 650 Black women these funds for two years and what’s being called one of the biggest guaranteed income experiments in the country. Black residents in Atlanta are more than 4 times as likely to be living under the federal poverty line than their white neighbors, with 38 percent of Black women living in poverty, compared to 8 percent of white women. Hope Wollensack is the executive director of the Georgia Resilience and Opportunity Fund, which is running the new program. 

Hope Wollensack: Black women have some of the deepest wealth gaps. This initiative really does seek to capture the ways in which economic security is experienced in different areas so that we can do something about it and so that we can change it. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: According to researchers at Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy, cash assistance and guaranteed income have been repeatedly proven to be a major force against poverty, and poverty is violence. And without the federal government taking the serious urgent steps we need to end it, like protecting the child tax credit for the long term, the creative forces like In Her Hands and groups like Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, they’ll have to continue to lead the way. Look for a link to donate to the program in our show notes. 

And finally, Naomi Osaka is back, y’all. After taking some time off for genuine self-care, the 24-year-old Black and Japanese tennis star returned to the Australian Open this week and won in the first round over Colombian Camila Osorio. 

Australian Open announcer: Oh, that’s brilliant from Osaka. Absolutely brilliant. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham:Earlier this month, Naomi played her first match in four months after taking a break. As you may recall, last year she withdrew from the French Open, citing her mental health needs and chose not to play at Wimbledon. Naomi, who is the reigning Australian Open women’s champion, said she is prioritizing her enjoyment on the court during her time in Melbourne. 

Naomi Osaka: I feel like the goal for me is just to have fun. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: During a Q&A session on Instagram, Naomi said she doesn’t care anymore about what her critics say. She said, “Respectfully, I don’t have anything to prove,” adding, IDGAF. Ya’ll know what that stands for. You certainly don’t have to give a (laughs). Nobody talking and has four grand slam titles like you anyway. If folks want to sleep on you, just let them get their rest. Naomi will face American Madison Brengle in the second round on the 21st and sis, we wish you all the best. 

Naomi Osaka I’m just trying to, you know, like, take it one day at a time. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Coming up, I’ll be talking to Heather McGhee about why she believes “zero-sum racism” is the biggest threat to US democracy right after this short break. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham And we are back. It’s been one year to the day that President Joe Biden was sworn into office after the hellscape of the Trump years. Y’all remember that day. Madam Vice President Kamala Harris made history. Amanda Gorman became the star she was born to be. Bernie and his mittens. Michelle the stallion Obama. Inauguration Day was a treat in the midst of a storm, but for certain, Mr. Biden has had an uphill climb. And how he and the Democratic Party have done thus far is a burning question for lots of commentators, writers, and most definitely we midterm voters. Hell, even betting houses are in on the action. But beyond the politics of it all, how are we really doing? If you ask me, there is still a long, long way to go, especially on popular progressive policies that have material benefit for all of us. Affordable universal health care, reliable modern infrastructure, well-funded schools and canceled student loan debt. How about a representative functioning democracy? You know, basic stuff. The nice things in life. Well, my guest today argues that the lie of racism is the reason why we can’t have those nice things, or at least why we don’t have them yet. Heather McGhee is a self-described policy wonk and the author of The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone, and How We Can Prosper Together. A new paperback version with a new afterword is out February 8th. But first, I sat down with Heather to talk about our long history of zero-sum racism and what actually motivated these January 6th insurrectionists. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Heather McGhee, you are like the smartest person I know, and I’m so grateful to be talking to you today. 

Heather McGhee Oh, thank you, Brittany. It’s wonderful to be in conversation with you. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Well, Happy New Year to you. You’ve got a lot of exciting things coming. Earlier this year, you shared a new afterword for your book. You finished writing of course, before the events of January the 6th right. So in this new afterword you write that since the attacks on January 6th, it’s become even clearer that racism is threatening the very foundation of American democracy. Spell it out. What have you been reflecting on in that? 

Heather McGhee Well, I wrote the book The Sum of Us after nearly two decades of being a frustrated wonk, having some victories, you know, in public policy on addressing inequality in our economy and our democracy, but also feeling like there were these invisible headwinds that things that should have been really simple, like let’s rebuild our infrastructure. Let’s have a well-funded public school in every neighborhood. Let’s have paid family leave and universal child care and-. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Simple stuff. 

Heather McGhee -universal affordable health care. You know, the nice things that every peer economy of ours somehow manages to give to its people and still thrive and yet has been so elusive. And it just felt like we, those of us who are trying to solve big problems in the economy, were kind of missing something. And so I went out on this journey. And what I found was that it was really racism in our politics and our policymaking that was holding back our collective progress. And because it’s so pervasive and in The Sum of Us I talk about how racism has hurt workers rights, and collective bargaining; has led to the decline of unions and the stagnation of the minimum wage. I talk about how racism undercuts the public funding for things that we all share in common, how it destroys our democracy and always has been the Achilles heel of our democracy. I talk about how it undergirds so much of the resistance that many people have to addressing climate. All of these things make the kind of, for me, it was sort of unexpected case that racism, because it’s so pervasive, actually has costs for everybody. It’s not a zero sum. It’s not like racism is just a wholly unalloyed good for white people and bad for people of color. It’s bad for everyone in so many ways that we can actually count and all of that, that whole three year journey writing the book, I ended it in November of 2020. And, you know, so we had the possibility that the end of the Trump presidency could mean the end of the Trump era. That the racial justice uprisings and consciousness raisings on a mass scale in the summer of 2020 could mean a paradigm shift, like we had all this sort of possibility. And then January 6th happened, then the coordinated right wing attacks on education and the very idea of talking about racism and sexism in our schools and in our workplaces. And The Big Lie, right? All of these things that I write about was just a reflection that, on the one hand, this old evil of the lie of a zero-sum racial hierarchy, the idea that we have to compete with one another for scraps and that white people should fear the presence of and progress for people of color because it sort of necessarily should come at their expense, which is not something we believe as folks of color. That old lie, which has been sold, you know, from the beginning of our society by the plantation class down to the descendants of the plantation class today, sometimes literally and sometimes just ideologically. You know, when you have millionaires and billionaires using the airwaves that they purchased to sell us lies about each other, you got to ask who’s, who’s benefiting, right? How are they profiting from it? And they profit because this big old lie, the big one, the lie that we are not all part of the same human race and that some groups of people are better than others, is one that ultimately ends up holding up and propping up an unjust economic system. Because as long as Republicans continue to be able to win seats while losing the majority of voters in this country, they will pay back their donors with big tax handouts and deregulation. And that’s the ultimate goal. Racism has always been a way to pursue greed. Ever since, you know, the creation of slavery? Right? 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham You know, you mention this zero-sum racial hierarchy, and I want to double click on that for just a moment because you make a critical point that we’ve been calling what inspired January the 6th The Big Lie, the idea that Trump actually won the presidency. We’ve been calling that The Big Lie. But you’re saying there is actually an OG big lie. 

Heather McGhee Yeah. Yeah. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That we’ve been telling since the formation of the United States of America, so-called. You say that the lie of a stolen election is not just a wild fantasy, it is anchored in our long history of zero-sum racial hierarchy. Connect the dots for us. How do we get from there to here? 

Heather McGhee So what is the zero sum? It’s the idea that there’s sort of a fixed pie of well-being, and if I get a bigger slice, you must get a smaller slice. And it was originally a story that was concocted by the colonial plantation elite at the beginning of what would become American society. When you had, honestly, masses of Europeans who came here with very little as indentured servants, they lived short, brutal lives. They were often working side-by-side with enslaved Africans and Indigenous people. And in the end of the 17th century, you began to see all of these cross racial servant uprisings who were saying basically This this game where we work all day and you, this handful of colonial plantation elite, get all the spoils. It doesn’t add up, right? There are way more of us, particularly if we combine together than there are of you. And that, of course, terrified the elite. And it was after a very successful one of those rebellions that burned the capital of colonial Virginia to the ground, The Bacon’s Rebellion, that the Virginia elite passed a new set of laws that created what we sort of now know as the skin-color-based racial hierarchy. That said, really for the first time, OK, if you are a European Christian, you can have property. If you are an African, you will always be property. If you are a European Christian, you are given a gun to, you know, enforce law and order. And if you are an African, you’re never allowed to own a gun. 

It literally created this new ranking, and the goal was to break the bonds of solidarity that had almost overthrown the elite to have white-skinned people choose their color over their class to lure them into thinking, you know, side with us and you’ll always have that privilege. You may not ever be rich. You may still be an indentured servant, right? But you’re going to have this certain something. And it’s been that racial bargain that has been re-sold generation after generation to have working and middle class white people side with rich white people in exchange for a little bit of white privilege, as opposed to joining up with Black and Brown people and saying, You know what? There is more that we have in common. There are more common solutions to our problems. And it’s really the rich people who are rigging the rules for their own benefit. 

Now the piece that was missing for me until a bunch of researchers zeroed in on it was what story are we telling about January 6th, about the insurrection, what brought them to the Capitol, right? Obviously, it was Trump and his lies. But what what held those thousands of people together? What did they have in common? And it turns out, according to research from the University of Chicago, they tracked hundreds of insurrectionists who have been arrested over the past year, and concluded that more than any other factor, the insurrectionists primary motive was fear of what is known as The Great Replacement. The belief that the rights of minorities will overtake that of whites, right? They weren’t economically anxious. In fact, one in four were business owners, right? These were like CEOs of logistics companies. People literally flew private jets to come storm-. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Right, economic anxiety for what? 

Heather McGhee Right, storm the Capitol. These were people who were more than any other sort of geographic indicator, they came from counties where the share of the population that was white was declining and where there was a lot more diversity. It’s this old story, and all you have to do is turn on Fox News and listen to Tucker Carlson, who’s decided to rebrand himself as a white nationalist. And you hear the rhetoric, which is basically saying, as our country is becoming more racially diverse, that is necessarily going to mean that as a white person, you are going to be shoved down to the bottom of the totem pole. It’s this fear of loss, a loss of supremacy, a loss of privilege, and it can, and it has across the generations inspired political violence. It really is the the spark that can light a conflagration that could destroy our democracy. It’s this very old story that says that white people have something to fear from the presence of people of color. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I mean, it’s such an old story that it happened in 1873, right in Colfax, Louisiana. You tell that story in the book when a white mob attacked their courthouse in an effort to throw what was now growing into an interracial government. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That’s right. This event in Colfax, Louisiana, in 1873 was the bloodiest racial massacre of of a bloody time. And literally, this white mob surrounded a courthouse where election results were to be certified of a white gubernatorial candidate, but who’d been backed by Black and white voters and Black people surrounded the courthouse to protect it. And the mob slaughtered over a hundred Black people, men, women and children, and burned the courthouse to the ground. And for me, that was like they were willing to destroy the very symbol of their own government so that they wouldn’t have to share that government with Black people. And that, to me, was eerily echoed in the threats on the lives of lawmakers, including a Republican vice president. The willingness to overturn an election and to ransack the Capitol, the seat of U.S. government, just because the person who had won the majority of white voters had actually lost. And that’s that existential fear. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham My God. So I mean, you come at this, like you said, as a wonk. Your background is in economic policy. 

Heather McGhee Yeah. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham You’re board chair of color of change, you used to be the president of Demos, the think tank. So you’ve really spent years researching the history of the zero zero-sum perspective. So really help just make it plain. How does racism hurt everyone irrespective of their race? 

Heather McGhee You know, first of all, this is not my original idea, people much more brilliant than I have have have talked about this. Dr. King talked about this Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, W.E.B. Dubois, who coined the term the wages of whiteness, that psychological wage, that white people were willing to be paid and forgo a material wage that would actually pay their bills. You know, Dr. King talked about, you can’t eat Jim Crow, right? There are so many other examples of this. What I wanted to do was really, as I said, out of frustration with growing economic inequality, with the fact that the majority of white people in this country have ever since the civil rights movement voted for a Republican Party. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yeah. 

Heather McGhee  That all it wants to do is redistribute wealth upwards. All it wants to do is destroy the manufacturing base and unions and stagnate the minimum wage and let big corporate polluters destroy our planet and cost us trillions of dollars. The economic agenda is being carried by a majority of white people who are voting for Republicans, largely because of racial and cultural marketing, because the Republican Party decided in the wake of the civil rights movement to become, as one strategist said, the white man’s party in all but name. And that was really the shift. And I think about all of the things that we could have in this society if we had a multiracial working and middle class sense of solidarity that said, Hey, you know what? No matter what our color, like, we all need help with child care and paid family leave and universal health care and well-funded schools. 

And some of our people need slightly different things, right? If you are the descendant of enslaved people, you are coming in with less wealth, right? Because that’s where history shows up in your wallet. That’s how it is that a Black college graduate can have less wealth than a white high school dropout. On average, that’s because of history. And so, yeah, like a high functioning society free of systemic racism would say, of course, we’ve got to deal with that. Of course, we’ve got to do for Black families what was done for white families when white people still loved government and believed in public goods before the civil rights movement, which has helped to build wealth, use the power of the government to give families a real foundation through homeownership and through the other kinds of public goods. 

And so the central metaphor really at the heart of my book is the story of what happened to public swimming pools in America, of which we used to have nearly two thousand that were built in a building boom of public goods in the 30s and 40s. It was part of this sort of new deal ethos that said, government should make sure that we have a decent standard of living and invest in things that give people a high quality of life. And so there were these grand resort style pools that used to hold thousands of swimmers, and that was just one symbol of the public goods spirit of the 1930s and 40s. And there was also the massive investment in housing, the G.I. Bill, Social Security, everything that created the great middle class. And yet all of that was whites only, either explicitly or in practice. And here’s the thing that’s so crazy. 

And here’s where this image of what happened to the public pools to me just drives home how racism has a cost for everyone. Is that in the wake of pool integration during the civil rights movement, white leadership in towns often decided to drain their public swimming pools rather than integrate them. They literally drained out the water. And so, of course, that meant the whole community lost out on this beautiful public good. It meant that if you were rich, you could build a backyard pool, which was what began to happen. But if you were working and middle class, you just lost this free public good. 

And so the drained pool politics of white elites destroying what government can do for everybody if it needs to also do for people of color is really the story of our lifetimes, Brittany, it explains the Reagan era, it explains the politics of inequality. It explains how white people are consistently 20, 30, sometimes 40 points more resistant to the idea of government once they get primed with the threat that government could help people of color. And I always come back to who’s selling the story, because who benefits when we have an anemic government, right? When taxes are low and spending is low, who really benefits? Is it a white, middle class family? No, it’s the wealthy, it’s overwhelmingly white and male. And so the discovery of the drained pool politics and going back into the history of being able to pull the thread through how it was we went from free college on the government dime to a debt for diploma system and a trillion and a half dollars in student loan debt that’s drained pool politics. Like how did we get to never having universal health care the way our peer economies do, right? That’s drained pool politics. That’s anti-Obama racial resentment. How did we get to not having well-funded public schools and letting our public infrastructure decline when it used to be the envy of the world? That’s drained pool politics. And January 6th, where the research shows that the people who came in wanted to destroy the very idea of free and fair election who were willing to ransack the Capitol, were motivated by fear of sharing democracy with people of color. That’s drained pool politics, too. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham You know, I found that metaphor drained pool politics fascinating. It is so crystal clear. Obviously, the pandemic is another very tangible example of what happens when we can’t have nice things for any of us. And so it affects brown, Black, Indigenous communities first. But it comes for white folks, too, because they’ve rejected a lot of the things that all of us could be using in this moment. 

Heather McGhee Yeah. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham So I guess my real question is if this zero-sum racial hierarchy, this OG big lie is really not good for nearly all of us, then why does this perspective continue to be so damn pervasive? Why can we not get rid of this thing? 

Heather McGhee Well, Brittany, everything we believe comes from a story that we’ve been told. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Hmm. 

Heather McGhee And right now, the zero-sum story that says to white folks and some, we going to keep it a hundred right now, some folks who are not White. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham  Yup. Tell the truth. 

Heather McGhee Right? 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Shame the devil. 

Heather McGhee Who are saying, you know, this American way of life is being threatened by newcomers, by foreigners, by, you know, Black people who want to destroy it, by women who want to topple the patriarchy, who want to you know this, you’re being threatened by your neighbors. That story is as loud, amplified, well-funded, technologically sophisticated as I’d say it’s ever been. When you have the man in the White House for four years with the largest megaphone on the planet, and that was his breakfast, lunch and dinner. Is that story, right? He dined out on that story. He found a way to make that the story in everything. You have the often top rated cable news network, that is their story. Morning, noon and night. You have Facebook, which we used to think was for baby pictures and cat photos and is actually now [Brittany laughs], right, Eight out of 10 of the leading posts every day are right wing racial scapegoating stories, right? And you have a political party that has completely given up on having a policy agenda, completely given up on anything but the culture war. So if you add all of that up, that is why we are being marketed, we are being sold, and at a time of great fear of falling, right? You have this insecurity every minute, you know, dozens of people across the country are being evicted and the risk of losing their homes, you have a society where there’s been for so long no bottom, no safety net, no security. You have this fear of inequality and technological change and the robots are coming and the planet is melting. That fear, when the big bullhorn says, here’s how you make sense of that fear. Here’s who to blame. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Hmm. 

Heather McGhee And it’s not the people you want to be, which is Donald Trump.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yeah.

Heather McGhee Right? It’s your neighbor. It’s the person who’s not your neighbor because you’ve never lived in an integrated place, but it’s the people that you see on cable news. Right? That’s why that zero-sum story persists, because it’s very profitable to the wealthy Republican elite for it to persist. Now, I don’t. I want to be clear, racism is bad for everybody. It’s bad for clean air and clean water. It’s bad for the planet. It is worst for people of color like that, that is clear. Like, let me be very clear. You know, for those who have not read my book, I do not pull any punches. In fact, I sort of present like the maximalist case for how the fingerprints of racism are everywhere. And you know, I am for reparations. I think reparations are seed capital for the nation that we’re becoming. I think reparations are the least that we could do to have a functioning, multiracial economy that unleashes the talents of everybody in it. I am very clear that white folks believing the okey doke of the zero sum lie has cost Black and Indigenous and brown people our lives right? We are the ones who who suffer the greatest costs. Always. But my point to bring into the conversation to sort of widen the aperture is ultimately those little white privileges, they’re not enough, it’s not enough of a benefit to justify all of the costs. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yeah, 

Heather McGhee Right? All of the costs, the economic costs, the social costs, the environmental costs, the costs to our democracy, the costs to our health. Where you start, you’re starting to see people are starting to collect data that the higher your level of sort of anti-Black racism as a white person or a white Hispanic person, the more resistant you are to vaccines and masks. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Mmm hmm.You talked a little bit about the the cost economically that racism is exacting on all of us. Do you think that making a simple dollars and cents argument will change the mind of the white folks who are addicted to this zero-sum story? Like, will that get them to to keep going with this metaphor? Will that get them to invest in refilling the pool? 

Heather McGhee So here’s who I think here’s who I’m targeting with the book, right? There have been a couple of people who have said I gave ’The Sum of Us’ to my racist uncle and we had the best conversation we’ve had in a long time. I love that, right? Like, I really love that. I hope that that can be the case. But that’s not my real target. My target is not the white person who is deeply invested in the zero sum and whose whole media ecosystem is is Trump world. The economic argument has been able to make some light bulbs go on and some more kind of deep alignment that, yes, this is my fight with some white middle of the road executives, leaders at schools and institutions, right? The sort of, you know, frankly, the part of the power elite that wants to be a good person, definitely, you know, doesn’t consider themselves a Trumpist, doesn’t consider themselves reactionary or ignorant, right? You know, like likes to be well-informed, wants to be on the right side of history. And I think the economic argument has been salient for those kinds of folks who are looking for a way to A, feel like they have something, some role, right? A lot of times white folks who are not in deep relationship with the Black community will feel like, well, I want to do the right thing. I’m not sure if it’s my space to do something on racial justice, like in the theater of this drama, what role am I supposed to play? And what I’m saying is that you have skin in the game. This is not just something you should do out of the kindness of your heart for the little brown children. This is something that is affecting our entire society. This is something that is affecting your bottom line. This is something that is affecting your neighborhood, your schools, the air you breathe, the productivity of the economy, right? Citigroup calculated that over the last 20 years, the Black-white economic divide has cost the US GDP 16 trillion dollars, right? This is actually for people who care about those things, this is your fight too. By being very clear about the way in which racism has led to a massive wealth imbalance. It’s also saying you are implicated in this, both a world with racial equity is going to be good for you and the world. The status quo is a racist one. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yeah. 

Heather McGhee And the myths that we have been taught about how people succeed are not wholly true because they usually deny the role that racist policies had in creating intergenerational wealth among white people, the role that discrimination still plays in banking and lending and hiring. Right? So honestly, Brittany, the weird audience for this book that has really picked it up is oddly the white, moderate business person. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Hmm. 

Heather McGhee Like, it was named the best business book of the year by this company called Porchlight that that sells like sort of in bulk to corporations. And I was like now that’s interesting, because honestly, corporations show up in each of the chapters as the villain, right? Like I’m naming villains, I am naming villains in each chapter, and it’s usually a big corporation like there’s Chevron in the environment chapter. There’s Nissan in the union chapter. There’s McDonalds and Wal-Mart in the worker chapter. Like, honestly, there’s there are big corporations who are villains. And yet, I think, that’s a long way to answer your question about sort of what does the economic argument give us that the moral argument on its own does not. I think it gives us another 10 % of white folks who, let’s be clear now, Democracy is a math game, right? Black folks at 13 %. 13 %. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yeah. 

Heather McGhee You know, like, we’re gonna need to add up, you know, to get to 51. And so I think it it gives us people who would otherwise be compelled by a right wing argument that says racial justice is going to cost too much. That, you know, you should be socially liberal, but fiscally conservative. I take that on head on in the book and say that that is immoral. You cannot be socially liberal and fiscally conservative.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Those do not go together. It’s an oxymoron. Ultimately, how optimistic are you that white Americans in particular, will actually embrace the benefits of of a truly multiracial democracy and finally reject this racist delusion about, you know, the idea that sharing power somehow means that they’ll lose out? What do you really think will get us to this place of all of us being able to have these nice things? 

Heather McGhee So on the one hand, January 6th. A dozen states banning, you know, books about Rosa Parks, you know,

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Poor Sister Parks.

Heather McGhee 50 million people believing the big lie. You know, a real backlash. And, you know, Black Lives Matter never having majority support among white people but it declining so quickly after this brief moment in June of 2020, right? So all of this tells me that the racial story of this country has been hypnotic for generations and generations of white people, and it continues to be. On the other hand, I think about the fact that there have always been real racial radicals in the white community who have stood shoulder to shoulder. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yeah. 

Heather McGhee And we would not have achieved any of those big, beautiful moments in Black history alone. We couldn’t have. There just weren’t enough of us, right? I mean, I think young people like us kind of tend to overestimate the Black presence in this country because we’re so much of Black, of American culture, so much of American media, right? So much of Black Twitter, like, don’t confuse, as my brother Rashad Robinson says, don’t confuse presence for power, right? And so I think about people like this woman named Cecile that I met in May. I’m going back to see her in a couple of weeks, so she’s on my mind. And she was sort of a quintessential white, retired, lonely, right? Lived alone. One of those people who are perfect targets for the Trump message, right? And for the whole social media ecosystem that would say, you know, your life is worse because of demographic change. She lives in an entirely white community that has become more diverse because of refugees, mostly from Africa. Right? So she’s she’s the target right, to say… and yet she was able to find fellowship with the Black and mostly African Muslim refugee community in her small mill town in Maine, the whitest state in the country, because they could meet on the level of language because it was mostly Francophone West Africans who were there. And she actually, today she’s white. But a generation ago, her family were Franco’s, were French Canadians who came to work the terrible jobs in the mills and were discriminated against. And were haunted by the KKK because they were Catholic, right? And they created this bond where the Black francophone Africans were teaching the language they had to these elderly white Mainers who had long ago traded away the French of their childhood to assimilate, because they used to get picked on for speaking French. And that became the backbone of a thriving community in Lewiston of new Mainers, as they’re called, these immigrants and refugees. Right? And and these old Mainers. And when I think about people like Cecile, who ultimately saw the humanity in people who came from another part of the world and who, all it took was just one piece of connection. And sometimes that connection is we work at McDonald’s together. Sometimes that connection is we’re both on a nursing home shift together. Sometimes that connection is our kids go to the same school and those people give me hope because truly, like, what is this country, which is soon going to be a country with no racial majority, what are we going to be, right? What are we going to do with all that diversity? Are we going to make it our superpower? Is it going to be the source of our great strength? Is it going to be the proof, the city on the hill, as they used to say, where we say, you know what? Because of so much proximity to so much difference, we can reveal our common humanity like, is that what we can do with this? I think we can. And I think we will. And I think the louder the hit dog hollers, I think the more that’s because of what is coming and that’s the real destiny that we have in this country. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I think that’s the perfect note for us to end on and reflect on. Thank you both for calling us young because this pandemic got me feeling real old child. But thank you also for unearthing these stories that give us so much to hope for. To model ourselves after. And thank you for being so, so committed to always increasing our aperture. We really appreciate you, Heather. 

Heather McGhee Thank you, Brittany. Thank you for your voice. 

Heather McGhee is the author of The Some of US What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. The new paperback edition will be available February 8th. OK, so look, I’m gon’ keep it a buck with y’all. I’m generally an optimistic person, but some days it feels like the last 5 years have squeezed all the sunshine out of me. Between an unyielding global pandemic and what constantly feels like the imminent collapse of society, the fight has been hard and the bargains have been heavy. But living in hopelessness, it’s unhealthy. It keeps us stuck, and it does nothing to get us toward those nice things we all deserve. Heather asks The only question that matters: What are we going to be? As far as I can tell, that all depends on who we’re going to be. And if we choose to be connected, morally centered, and conscious of community. we can be that multiracial democracy we all need for us to be. Abundance is our destiny. So it’s high time we act like it. 

That’s it for today, but never for tomorrow. 


UNDISTRACTED is a production of The Meteor and Pineapple Street Studios. 

Our lead producer is Rachel Matlow. 

Our associate producer is Alexis Moore. 

Thanks always to Treasure Brooks, Grace Chen, and Hannis Brown. 

Our executive producers at The Meteor are Cindi Leive and myself, and our executive producers at Pineapple are Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky. 

You can follow me at @MsPackyetti on all social media and our team @TheMeteor. 

Subscribe to UNDISTRACTED and rate us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you check out your favorite podcasts. Thanks for listening. Thanks for being and thanks for doing. I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham. Let’s go get free.