“Why can’t we have nice things?”
Perhaps there’s been a time when you’ve pondered exactly this question. And by nice things, you weren’t thinking about hovercraft or laundry that does itself. You were thinking about more basic aspects of a high-functioning society, like adequately funded schools or reliable infrastructure, wages that keep workers out of poverty or a public health system to handle pandemics. The “we” who can’t seem to have nice things is Americans, all Americans. This includes the white Americans who are the largest group of the uninsured and the impoverished as well as the Americans of color who are disproportionately so. “We” is all of us who have watched generations of American leadership struggle to solve big problems and reliably improve the quality of life for most people.
“Why can’t we have nice things?” was a question that struck me pretty early on in life—growing up as I did in an era of rising inequality, seeing the wealthy neighborhoods boom while the schools and parks where most of us lived fell into disrepair. My family and my neighbors were always hustling. I now know we were in what economists call “the fragile middle class,” all income from volatile earnings and no inherited wealth or assets to fall back on. We were the kind of middle class in the kind of community that kept us proximate to real poverty, and I think this shaped the way I see the world. My mother took us with her to work in Chicago’s notorious Robert Taylor public housing projects while she gave health lessons to young mothers, and some of my earliest playmates were kids with disabilities in a group home where she also worked. (It seemed she was always working.) We had cousins and neighbors who had more than we did, and some who had far less, but we never learned to peg that to their worth. It just wasn’t part of our story.
My father turned 18 the year the Voting Rights Act was signed; my mother did when the Fair Housing Act was signed three years later. That meant that my parents were in the first generation of Black Americans to live full adult lives with explicitly racist barriers lowered enough for them even to glimpse the so-called American Dream. And just as they did, the rules changed to dim the lights on it, for everyone. In the mid-1960s, the American Dream was as easy to achieve as it ever was or has been since, with good union jobs, subsidized home ownership, strong financial protections, a high minimum wage, and a high tax rate that funded American research, infrastructure, and education. But in the following decades, rapid changes to tax, labor, and trade laws meant that an economy that used to look like a football, fatter in the middle, was shaped like a bow tie by my own 18th birthday, with a narrow middle class and bulging ends of high- and low-income households.
Even in the supposedly good economic times before the COVID-19 pandemic, 40 percent of adults were not paid enough to reliably meet their needs for housing, food, healthcare, and utilities. Only about two out of three workers had jobs with basic benefits: health insurance, a retirement account (even one they had to fund themselves), or paid time off for illness or caregiving.
Upward mobility, the very essence of the American idea, has become stagnant. On the other end, money is still being made: the 350 biggest corporations pay their CEOs 278 times what they pay their average workers, up from a 58-to-1 ratio in 1989, and nearly two dozen companies have CEO-to-worker pay gaps of over 1,000 to 1. The richest 1 percent own as much wealth as the entire middle class.
Why? Why was there a constituency at all for policies that would make it harder for more people to have a decent life? And why did so many people seem to blame the last folks in line for the American Dream—Black and brown people and new immigrants who had just started to glimpse it when it became harder to reach—for economic decisions they had no power to influence? When I came across a study by two Boston-based scholars, titled “Whites See Racism as a Zero-Sum Game That They Are Now Losing,” something clicked. I decided to pay the study authors a visit.
It was a hot late-summer day when I walked into the inner courtyard at Harvard Business School to meet with Michael Norton and Samuel Sommers, professors of business and psychology, respectively. They had begun their research during the first Obama administration, when a white Tea Party movement drove a backlash against the first Black president’s policy agenda. They had been interested in why so many white Americans felt they were getting left behind, despite the reality of continued white dominance in US life, from corporations to government. What Norton and Sommers found in their research grabbed headlines: the white survey respondents rated anti-white bias as more prevalent in society than anti-Black bias. On a scale of 1 to 10, the average white scoring of anti-Black bias was 3.6, but whites rated anti-white bias as a 4.7, and opined that anti-white bias had accelerated sharply in the mid-1970s.
“We were shocked. It’s so contrary to the facts, of course, but here we are, getting calls and emails from white people who saw the headlines and thanked us for revealing the truth about racism in America!” said Norton with a dry laugh.
“It turns out that the average white person views racism as a zero-sum game,” added Sommers. “If things are getting better for Black people, it must be at the expense of white people.”
As to why white Americans, who have 13 times the median household wealth of Black Americans, feel threatened by diminished discrimination against Black people, neither Sommers nor Norton had an answer that was satisfying to any of us.
I needed to find out. I sensed that this core idea that’s so resonant with many white Americans—there’s an us and a them, and what’s good for them is bad for us—was at the root of our country’s dysfunction. To uproot this zero-sum idea, we’ll need first to understand when, and why, it was planted.
Our Zero-Sum Founding
The story of this country’s rise from a starving colony to a world superpower can’t be told without the central character of race—specifically, the creation of a “racial” hierarchy to justify the theft of Indigenous land and the enslavement of African and Indigenous people. In the 17th century, influential Europeans were starting to create taxonomies of human beings based on skin color, religion, culture, and geography, aiming not just to differentiate but to rank humanity in terms of inherent worth. This hierarchy—backed by pseudo-scientists, explorers, and even clergy—gave Europeans moral permission to exploit and enslave. So, from the United States’ colonial beginnings, progress for those considered white did come directly at the expense of people considered nonwhite. The US economy depended on systems of exploitation—on literally taking land and labor from racialized others to enrich white colonizers and slaveholders. This made it easy for the powerful to sell the idea that the inverse was also true: that liberation or justice for people of color would necessarily require taking something away from white people.
With each generation, the specter of this founding zero sum has found its way back into the American story. It has always optimally benefited only the few while limiting the potential of the rest of us, and therefore the whole. In decade after decade, threats of job competition—between men and women, immigrants and native born, Black and white—have perennially revived the fear of loss at another’s gain. The people setting up the competition and spreading these fears were never the needy job seekers, but the elite. (Consider the New York Herald’s publishing tycoon, James Gordon Bennett Sr., who warned the city’s white working classes during the 1860 election that “if Lincoln is elected, you will have to compete with the labor of four million emancipated negroes.”)
The narrative that white people should see the well-being of people of color as a threat to their own is one of the most powerful subterranean stories in America. Until we destroy the idea, opponents of progress can always unearth it and use it to block any collective action that benefits us all. Today, the racial zero-sum story is resurgent because there is a political movement invested in ginning up white resentment toward lateral scapegoats (similarly or worse-situated people of color) to escape accountability for a massive redistribution of wealth from the many to the few.
Racial, and Government, Resentment
As someone who’s spent a career in politics, where the specter of the typical white moderate has perennially trimmed the sails of policy ambition, I was surprised to learn that in the 1950s, the majority of white Americans believed in an activist government role in people’s economic lives—a more activist role, even, than contemplated by today’s average liberal. According to the authoritative American National Elections Studies (ANES) survey, 65 percent of white people in 1956 believed that the government ought to guarantee a job to anyone who wanted one and provide a minimum standard of living in the country. White support cratered for these ideas between 1960 and 1964, however—from nearly 70 percent to 35 percent—and has stayed low ever since. (The overwhelming majority of Black Americans have remained enthusiastic about this idea over 50 years of survey data.) What happened?
In August 1963, white Americans tuned in to the March on Washington (which was for “Jobs and Freedom”). They saw the nation’s capital overtaken by a group of mostly Black activists demanding not just an end to discrimination, but some of the same economic ideas that had been overwhelmingly popular with white people: a jobs guarantee for all workers and a higher minimum wage. When I saw that white support for these ideas crumbled in 1964, I guessed it might have been because Black people were pushing to expand the circle of beneficiaries across the color line. But then again, perhaps it was just a coincidence, the beginning of a new antigovernment ideology among white people that had nothing to do with race? After all, white support for these government commitments to economic security has stayed low for the rest of the years of ANES data, through a sea change in racial attitudes.
It turns out that the dominant story most white Americans believe about race adapted to the civil rights movement’s success, and a new form of racial disdain took over: racism based not on biology but on perceived culture and behavior. As professors Donald R. Kinder and Lynn M. Sanders put it in Divided by Color: Racial Politics and Democratic Ideals, “today, we say, prejudice is preoccupied less with inborn ability and more with effort and initiative.” Kinder and Sanders defined this more modern manifestation of anti-Black hostility among whites as “racial resentment.” They measured racial resentment using a combination of agree/disagree statements on the ANES that spoke to the Black work ethic, how much discrimination Black people had faced as compared to European immigrants, and whether the government was more generous to Black people than to white people. They found that “although whites’ support for the principles of racial equality and integration have increased majestically over the last four decades, their backing for policies designed to bring equality and integration about has scarcely increased at all. Indeed in some cases white support has actually declined.”
So how to explain the racial resentment and the correlated antigovernment sentiments by the 1980s? By then, white folks had seemed to acclimate themselves to a new reality of social equality under the law. The overt messages of racial inferiority had dissipated, and popular culture had advanced new norms of multiculturalism and tolerance. What stopped advancing, however, was the economic trajectory of most American families—and it was on this terrain that racial resentment dug in.
While racial barriers were coming down across society, new class hurdles were going up—and the Inequality Era was born. That era began in the 1970s, but the policies cohered into an agenda guided by antigovernment conservatism under the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Reagan, a Californian, was determined to take the Southern Strategy (launched by President Nixon) national. In southern politics, federally mandated school integration had revived for a new generation the Civil War idea of government as a boogeyman, threatening to upend the natural racial order at the cost of white status and property. The Reagan campaign’s insight was that northern white people could be sold the same explicitly antigovernment, implicitly pro-white story, with the protagonists as white taxpayers seeking defense from a government that wanted to give their money to undeserving and lazy people of color in the ghettos. (The fact that government policy created the ghettos and stripped the wealth and job opportunities from their residents was not part of the story. Nor was the fact that people of color pay taxes, too, often a larger share of their incomes due to regressive sales, property, and payroll taxes.)
My law professor Ian Haney López helped me connect the dots in his 2014 book Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class. “Plutocrats use dog-whistle politics to appeal to whites with a basic formula,” Haney López told me. “First, fear people of color. Then, hate the government (which coddles people of color). Finally, trust the market and the 1 percent.” He went on, “Dog-whistle politics is gaslighting on a massive scale: stoking racism through insidious stereotyping while denying that racism has anything to do with it.”
As Haney López points out, priming white voters with racist dog whistles was the means; the end was an economic agenda that was harmful to working- and middle-class voters of all races, including white people. In railing against welfare and the war on poverty, conservatives like Reagan told white voters that government was the enemy, because it favored Black and brown people over them—but their real agenda was to blunt government’s ability to challenge concentrated wealth and corporate power. The hurdle conservatives faced was that they needed the white majority to turn against society’s two strongest vessels for collective action: the government and labor unions. Racism was the ever-ready tool for the job, undermining white Americans’ faith in their fellow Americans. And it worked: Reagan cut taxes on the wealthy but raised them on the poor, waged war on the unions that were the backbone of the white middle class, and slashed domestic spending. And he did it with the overwhelming support of the white working and middle classes.
Political scientists Woojin Lee and John Roemer studied the rise of antigovernment politics in the late 1970s, ’80s, and early ’90s and found that the Republican Party’s adoption of policies that voters perceived as anti-Black (opposition to affirmative action and welfare, harsh policing and sentencing) won them millions more white voters than their unpopular economic agenda would have attracted. The result was a revolution in American economic policy: from high marginal tax rates and generous public investments in the middle class, such as the GI Bill, to a low-tax, low-investment regime that resulted in less than 1 percent annual income growth for 90 percent of American families for 30 years. When you cut government services, as Reagan strategist Lee Atwater said, “Blacks get hurt worse than whites.” What’s lost in that formulation is just how much white people get hurt, too.
Diversity Is Our Superpower
The mounting challenges we face in society are going to require strength and scale that none of us can achieve on their own. The crises of climate change, inequality, pandemics, and mass involuntary movements of people are already here, and in the United States, each has exposed the poverty of our public capacity to prevent and react. The refusal to share across race has created a society with nothing left for itself. With falling support for government over the past 50 years has come falling support for taxes, a brain drain from the public sector, and a failure to add to (or even steward) the infrastructure investments of the early 20th century.
Since this country’s founding, we have not allowed our diversity to be our superpower, and the result is that the United States is not more than the sum of its disparate parts. But it could be. And if it were, all of us would prosper. In short, we must emerge from this crisis in our republic with a new birth of freedom, rooted in the knowledge that we are so much more when the “We” in “We the People” is not some of us, but all of us. We are greater than, and greater for, the sum of us.
After 50 years of disinvestment that hurts all of us, we are finally, if tentatively and precariously, beginning to reinvest. America’s new, multiracial governing majority has demanded an ambitious agenda to use the power of the government to address the country’s urgent needs. Upon taking office, the Biden administration announced a set of plans that read like a list of the “nice things” we’ve so long gone without: a massive infrastructure upgrade, aggressive action to stop climate change, tuition-free community college, universal elder care and childcare, paid family leave, a $15 national minimum wage, more generous public healthcare benefits, and extra federal dollars to coax states to expand Medicaid.
Not every promise and intention has yet made it into law, but I have to admit that the Build Back Better agenda (the American Rescue Plan and the Jobs and Families plans) represents a new era in American policymaking, and a turn away from the austerity of the Inequality Era.
Our nation is beginning to tell a different story about who we are to one another. The well-funded, cynical backlash is only a desperate attempt to hold back the tide. And as more and more of us come together, across lines of race and origin, to demand and work toward the dividends of solidarity, our newfound power will shape our common future.
Heather McGhee, a public policy scholar, designs and promotes solutions to inequality in America. She is a visiting lecturer in urban studies at the City University of New York’s School of Labor and Urban Studies. A former president of the think tank Demos, McGhee is the chair of the board of Color of Change and serves on the boards of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Open Society Foundations’ US Programs, and Demos. This article is an excerpt from the book THE SUM OF US by Heather McGhee. Copyright © 2021 by Heather McGhee. Reprinted by arrangement with One World, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
For notes with sources, see The Sum of Us, by Heather McGhee, from which this article was excerpted with permission.
[Illustrations by Jing Jing Tsong]