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In Search of the America Dream

The book is entitled, "The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone And How We Can Prosper Together", by Heather McGhee. What the book does is recount the author's three-year journey across the United States in search of something akin to the American Dream, and what has become of it.

Two of the concepts she explores are (1) the Zero-Sum Paradigm, and (2) the Solidarity Dividend. The Zero-Sum Paradigm is the belief that there is not enough to go around, that in order for one to succeed, someone must lose. It's a belief that has haunted America since its inception, beginning with slavery, and, in our time, racism, (a.k.a. "the fear of the other"). The Solidarity Dividend, on the other hand, are the benefits we reap when people come together across race to accomplish what we simply cannot do on our own. Quite simply, that is the point of Ms McGhee's book--that people truly do need each other, and when working together can achieve the peace and prosperity that is the American Dream.

The author illustrates how the fear of "the other" is not only irrational, but has led to a number of costly public policies; policies that ironically have hurt both black and white Americans alike, many of which she cites, beginning with the building of public pools in the early twentieth century, pools sometimes big enough to hold thousands of swimmers.


Rather than share the pool with the local black community, a number of towns instead chose to drain them, and in some cases backfill them with dirt, and pave them over with concrete (as examples, she cites Warren, Ohio, Montgomery, Alabama, and in West Virginia). Where did white people (who through their property taxes paid for the pool) take their children to swim? To private clubs, where they paid for the privilege with stiff membership fees. She also finds a corollary between Jim Crow laws in the South, and the redlining of neighborhoods in the North; the objective of both is the same: to enforce segregation.


Another example is public schools, where, in wealthy white communities (she sites Houston, Texas), white families refuse to send their children, choosing instead to send them to costly all-white private schools. The result is a generation of kids who feel superior and entitled, and ultimately unable to cope in a changing world. She writes, "Research reveals that racially diverse K--12 schools can provide better citizens--white students who feel a greater sense of civic engagement, who are more likely to consider friends and colleagues from different races as part of 'us' rather than 'them,' who will be more at ease in the multicolor future of America in which white people will no longer be the majority."

Another example, is government funding of higher education, such as the G.I. Bill, and publicly funded colleges (she cites City University of New York, and the University of California system of state colleges). The massive public investment wasn't considered charity; as individual states saw a return of three to four dollars back for every dollar it invested in public colleges. However, at some point law makers, from California to Washington D.C., yielded to short-sighted politics, and began cutting budgets, thereby shifting the cost of higher education onto students in the form of student loans. Such policies hurt black and white students equally, with high-interest loans that take several years--even decades--to pay off.


Remember the global financial crisis of 2008? The cause was blamed on poor-lending practices (in the form of subprime loans) encouraged by the federal government's push to make home ownership easier for African Americans. The author presents statistics that reveal this was not the case at all. In fact, most of these subprime loans were not intended for first-time home buyers, but rather were loans designed to refinance existing home loans at a lower interest rate. Indeed, many disproportionally Black homeowners were targeted by aggressive mortgage brokers and lenders. An analysis conducted by the Wall Street Journal in 2007, revealed that the majority of subprime loans were sold to Black homeowners who could have qualified for less expensive prime loans. So, why would homeowners switch to subprime loans in the first place, when it meant higher monthly payments, refinance fees, plus a higher debt burden? The short answer is they were never informed.

It turns out a number of these homeowners were making monthly payments and well on their way to paying off their home loan. However, when the economy went south, they could no longer make monthly payments and, as a result, lenders foreclosed and took their home.

Why did this happen? "Greed", says the author. "I'm sure most of the people in the industry (who made lots of money pushing subprime loans on unsuspecting Black homeowners) would claim not to have a racist bone in their body--in fact, I heard those exact words from representatives of lending companies in the aftermath of the crash. But history might counter: What is racism without greed? It operates on multiple levels. Individual racism, whether conscious or unconscious, gives greedy people the moral permission to exploit others in ways they never would with people whom they empathized with."


The author went to a Nissan Assembly plant in Canton, Mississippi, to find out why auto workers rejected collective bargaining. She writes: "The victories unions won reshaped work for us all: the forty-hour workweek, worker compensation, employee health insurance and retirement benefits"--all these components of a "good job" came from collective bargaining and union advocacy in the late 1930s and '40s. "And the power to win these benefits came from solidarity--Black, white, and brown men and women, immigrant and native-born. Indeed, unions made the American middle class." So, why was it rejected in Canton, Mississippi, and, for that matter, throughout the Old South? The antiunion forces won in part by turning the union into a sign of weakness, as a refuge for the "lazy". Writes the author: "The word 'union' itself seemed to be a dog-whistle in the South, code for undeserving people of color who needed a union to compensate for some flaw in their character."


On her journey, the author encountered two white Evangelical ministers: pastor Daniel Hill, of River City Church, in Chicago, and Reverend Jim Wallis (retired). Both lead (or have led) deliberately multicultural churches.

Explaining the mission of his church, Pastor Hill said, "Well, Revelations 7:9 is a vision of heaven that is every tongue and every tribe that God's ever created." Furthermore, Pastor Hill says, "It's impossible to have a meaningful relationship with Jesus and not care about evil in our day and age. The ideology of white supremacy is, if not the premier form of evil, it's at least one of the clearest forms of evil on a large scale in our day and age."

Reverend Wallis confided to the author of speaking to the heads of several major Christian denominations in America. "Now," he told them, "you all have been told or taught or learned how slavery was common, and slavery was all over the world. We Christians, in fact--British and American--were the ones who decided that we couldn't do to Indigenous people and kidnapped Africans what we were doing, if they were indeed people made in the image God.

"So, we said they weren't. They weren't humans made in the image of God. What we did, we threw away 'Image Dei'. We threw it away to justify what we were doing . . . white supremacy was America's original sin . . . At the heart of the sin was a lie," he said.


The author cites studies that show racially diverse juries deliberate longer and perform better in part because the white jurors upped their game in mixed company. "White people in the diverse teams 'cited more case facts, made fewer errors, and were more amenable to discussion of racism when in diverse versus all-white groups.'" The author concludes: "Our differences have the potential to make us stronger, smarter, more creative, and fairer. Exposure to multiple viewpoints leads to more flexible and creative thinking and greater ability to solve problems."


The author's search for the American Dream ended in Lewiston, Maine, where in the presence of shuttered businesses on Main Street, and closed manufacturing plants on the edge of town, it appeared the American Dream had come to an end. Lewiston was an example of a town where the nation's textile industry had once thrived, but as with so many towns in northeastern United States, the big manufacturing companies had moved to the American South for cheaper labor, and eventually to China and Southeast Asia.

However, a closer look on the next street revealed that many of the stores and shops had reopened for business, and one street over from there the public school had reopened its doors to teach children again. The secret of Lewiston's renewed success was something of an accident: in the early 1990s wherein the U.S. government accepted thousands of refugees from the Somali Civil War and resettled many of them in the now-empty towns in New England, such as Lewiston.

Writes the author: "Lewiston is not alone in this new wave of new people; for the past twenty years, Latinx, African, and Asian immigrants have been repopulating small towns across America. Pick a state, and you'll find this story in one corner or another." Further on, she writes: "Towns across the Texas Panhandle have been drying up and losing populations for years, but the potato farming stronghold of Dallart grew by 7 percent from 1990 to 2016 because of Latinx families. Low-paid farmland food-processing work is what draws foreign-born people to these small towns at first, for sure. But once there, immigrants have, as European immigrants did a century ago, started businesses, gained education, and participated in civic life . . . Today's immigrants of color are revitalizing rural America."


In summary, the author concludes: "This moment is challenging us to finally settle this question: Who is an American, and what are we one to another? We have to admit that the question is harder for us than in most other countries, because we are the world's most radical experiment in democracy, a nation of ancestral strangers that has to work to find connection even as we grow more diverse every day.

"Politics offers two visions of why all the peoples of the world have met here: one in which we are nothing more than competitors, and another in which perhaps the proximity of so much difference forces us to admit our common humanity. The choice between these two visions has never been starker. To a nation riven with anxiety about who belongs, many in power have made it their overarching goal to sow distrust about the goodness of the Other. They are holding on, white knuckled, to a tiny idea of 'We the People', denying the beauty of what we are becoming. They're warning that demographic changes are the unmaking of America. What I've seen on my journey is that they are the fulfillment of America. What they say is a threat is, in fact, our country's salvation--for when a nation founded on a belief in racial hierarchy truly rejects that belief, then and only then will we have discovered a New World."

- END -

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