It was a dramatic finding, but it still wasn’t clear to me why white people would view the presence of more people of color as a threat to their status, as if racial groups were in a direct competition, where progress for one group was an automatic threat to another. And it was even more baffling to me how that threat could feel so menacing that these white people would resist policies that could benefit them, just because they might also benefit people of color. Why would they allow a false sense of group competition to become a self-defeating trap?
But then again, they weren’t getting that idea out of nowhere. This zero-sum paradigm was the default framework for conservative media – “makers and takers,” “taxpayers and freeloaders,” “handouts,” and “special favors”: “they’re coming after your job, your safety, your way of life.” Without the hostile intent, of course, aren’t we all talking about race relations through a prism of competition, every advantage for one group mirrored by a disadvantage for another? When researching and writing about disparities, I was taught to focus on how white people benefited from systemic racism: their schools have more funding, they have less contact with the police, they have greater access to healthcare. Those of us seeking unity told that version of the zero-sum story; the politicians seeking division told the other version – is it any wonder that many white people saw race relations through the lens of competition?
But was that the real story? Black people and other people of color certainly lost out when we weren’t able to invest more in the aftermath of the Great Recession, or tackle climate change more forcefully under President Obama, or address the household debt crisis before it spiraled out of control – in each case, at least partly because of racist stereotypes and dog whistles used by our opposition. But did white people win? No, for the most part they lost right along with the rest of us. Racism got in the way of all of us having nice things.
If I looked back at all the vexing problems I’d worked on in my career (student debt, workers’ rights, money in politics, unfair taxes, predatory lending, low voter turnout), would I find the fingerprints of racism on all our setbacks and defeats? It is progressive economic conventional wisdom that racism accelerates inequality for communities of color, but what if racism is actually driving inequality for everyone?
From ”The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone And How We Can Prosper Together” by Heather McGhee