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How racism ‘drained the pool’ for all Americans

David Wilson For The Boston Globe

In her work in economic policy at Demos, a think tank, Heather McGhee kept running up against the same question: Why, in a country that had once built a solid middle class, are we struggling with rampant inequality?

For McGhee, it was increasingly clear the problem had something to do with race. “People of color were supportive of the policies that had created a white middle class in the middle of the 20th century, but white people were now ambivalent about the same policies that had guaranteed their parents’ economic security,” McGhee said. It was a mystery she couldn’t answer with her usual charts and graphs, she said, “so I decided to go on a journey and travel across the country and talk to hundreds of people.”


In her new book, “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together,” McGhee writes about a variety of topics, including healthcare, education, and housing, but one perfect metaphor for the paradox she describes is public swimming pools. While once American cities built fabulous resort-style pools, the minute they were required to admit people of color, white resistance to integration led to many of them being drained forever, depriving everyone in the community.

The same pattern holds for an array of government programs. “There was some fundamental ambivalence among white people about collective action and about the kind of solutions that would help everyone,” McGhee said, “including white people, who are the majority of people in poverty, the majority of people without healthcare, and the list goes on and on.”

Writing the book was ultimately a hopeful experience, McGhee added, because she spoke with people who are working to “identify places where racism has drained the pool in their own community.” The goal, she added, is to “unlock what I began to call solidarity dividends, the kind of gains that can only be achieved when we work together and across lines of race, and when we reject the division that leaves us all poorer.”


Heather McGhee will read at 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 19, in a virtual event hosted by Harvard Book Store.

Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.