By Roxanne Fequiere
Public policy expert Heather McGhee has spent her professional life designing and promoting solutions for inequality in America. The former President of think tank Demos is the newly published author of The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, a New York Times bestseller. Heather joined Chief Member Diana Cruz Solash to talk about racism and the ways it drives inequality in economics, education, infrastructure, and more to the detriment of society overall.
On why she pivoted from leading Demos to writing a book on race and inequality:
My job was basically to bring the data and the research about big economic problems to the decision-makers and ask them to make better economic policy decisions on behalf of the people. And I realized that it was in many ways falling on deaf ears — no matter how much we said that investing in this or that would be great for the economy and great for families, there was just the sort of other logic that was prevailing in the minds of so many politicians and many voters.
I had been wrong to think that we could just bring a sense of enlightened self-interest to these core questions around politics and policymaking in our society. Often what is really going on is a more subterranean narrative of status and worth and belonging that in the United States always turn on race. The title is a play on the idea of the zero sum, the fallacious and yet long-held idea that our society is trapped in a zero-sum racial hierarchy, where progress for people of color has to come at white folks’ expense.
This is a mental framework that is much more prevalent among white Americans than it is among other Americans, and it's something that I felt like I needed to unpack, because what it meant in policy-making terms was that the majority of white voters could be easily manipulated into being opposed to things that would benefit all people.
On the ways in which zero-sum thinking shows up in the boardroom:
Think about the way the tyranny of the single bottom line and short-term shareholder value has incentivized leaders to not invest in the long-term. That kind of short-term thinking, it's often not thought of as anything racialized. But when you think about who the shareholders in this country are, half of Americans own no stock whatsoever. Stock ownership is vastly racially unequal.
If you keep privileging the short-term interests of the already wealthy white men who are vastly overrepresented among shareholders, as opposed to the workers, customers, and community members who are impacted by your corporate decisions, this subtly and unconsciously privileges the lives of people who tend to be older, whiter, and more male.
How leaders can shift the narrative away from the zero-sum fallacy:
The first thing is to call it out. Subterranean stories operate best in the darkness, as an underpinning that is then activated all the time by rhetoric.
For example: A congresswoman saying she wasn't going to vote for the American Rescue Plan (which is massively popular), because President Biden is reopening the border instead of reopening schools. That's how you'll hear the zero-sum in today's rhetoric. What it's trying to say is there's an us and them, and those people — particularly people in government — care about those other people and not you.
So we can call that out, in the context of our own workplaces, in the context of the community conversations we're having. Something we could do is even talk about it with each other. How are you responding to these things you're hearing? What does it sound like for you? So that we can all get stronger together at dispelling the myth.
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