The Movement Summit: Exploring the cost of racism and searching for equitable governing solutions
This article appears in the 2021-22 edition of Perspectives.
Four years ago, economist Heather McGhee embarked on a quest to explore the origins of racial discrimination and economic inequality in this country.
McGhee was seeking to understand how a nation that once enjoyed the largest middle class in human history had sunk into gross economic disparity, particularly for people of color, and sensed that there was an underlying cause that could not be explained by economics alone. Over the course of her three-year journey across America, McGhee found the culprit: a phenomenon that she calls “the big lie.”
That lie is a zero-sum worldview of economic advancement: the idea that progress for Black and Brown people must come at the expense of whites. In her book, The Sum of Us, McGhee explores the lie’s pervasiveness throughout the nation’s history, and explains that people of all races are paying an enormous price, including whites.
“It is a story that is sold by the elite in order to profit, and it is a story that ultimately is costing nearly everyone,” McGhee said during a virtual plenary address at the 2021 CSG East Annual Meeting in August.
In her book, McGhee explains that the idea of the zero sum was created by Southern colonial slaveholders in the late 1600s and sold to the poor, landless white majority in order to defuse class conflict. During Bacon’s rebellion, Black slaves and white indentured servants burned Jamestown to the ground, nearly overthrowing the elite colonial government. Afterwards, lawmakers doled out privileges to poor whites to create divisions from Blacks and earn their allegiance, to prevent the two groups from joining forces again. This tactic worked: poor whites began to identify with their elevated position in the new racial hierarchy and overlook their low status in the class hierarchy. “And so, the zero sum was born,” she said.
The big lie explained to McGhee why the majority of white America stopped supporting popular, robust social programs in the early 1960s. She recalled that during the 1963 March on Washington, two core demands drew Black activists’ support: a national job guarantee and a national living wage. That year, President John F. Kennedy firmly associated the party of the New Deal with civil rights.
“White support for the New Deal public goods crumbled once it became clear that they would have to share those public goods with all the people who had contributed to this nation’s prosperity, including those people of color whom they had been taught to degrade, disdain, and distrust,” said McGhee. President Lyndon Johnson, who signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, was the last Democratic presidential candidate to win the support of the majority of white voters.
The big lie could be seen in strategies like “redlining” to prevent Black families from obtaining mortgages to buy homes, and excluding agricultural and domestic workers — the two sectors in which Black and Brown workers dominated — from Social Security benefits. McGhee recounted how white residents of the Oak Park neighborhood of Montgomery, Alabama, chose to fill in their massive public pool and shutter their park system rather than integrate it. Afterwards, wealthy whites built their own pools or joined private clubs, but everyone else was left without a swimming pool.
McGhee sees “drained pool politics” in the lack of universal, affordable child care and health care, in crumbling infrastructure, in depressed wages, and in federal cuts to state university systems. The lack of public amenities affects everyone, including the majority of whites, she said.
Over the course of her journey, McGhee realized that she had erred in her original belief that inequality was created by economic factors and accelerated by racism. “I had actually gotten it wrong. In many ways, racism in our politics and our policymaking was driving inequality, with costs for everyone.”
McGhee’s talk was sponsored by CSG East’s Council on Communities of Color as part of its Movement Summit, an ongoing series of dialogues between state and local policymakers and thought leaders in search of equitable governing solutions. The discussions were moderated by CSG East Senior Fellow Charles Ellison, who hosts the “Reality Check” show on Philadelphia-based WURD Radio.
Throughout the course of 2021, the summit addressed topics including the effort to provide financial and institutional restitution for Black communities through reparations, the value of historically Black colleges and universities for the next generation, and strategies for achieving higher vaccination rates in marginalized communities.
The summit kicked off in April with a discussion about the flurry of recent state proposals to make changes to voting rights and their potential impact on the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 and on Black, Brown, and Indigenous voters in communities nationwide. Hundreds of bills were introduced in nearly every U.S. state — a 600 percent increase compared to last year.
Panelists noted that laws restricting access to voting have a long legacy in this country, dating back to the post-Reconstruction era. Following passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870, which gave Black men the right to vote and led to a wave of Black elected officials, white lawmakers, threatened by the shift in political power, tried to hinder the Black vote with new laws designed to restrict access to the polls through poll taxes, literacy tests, and other measures. White supremacist groups tried to restrict Blacks from voting through terror and violence.
While recent state proposals do not specifically target voters of color, critics say provisions such as tighter voter identification requirements, restrictions on early voting, and the shuttering of polling stations would have the effect of limiting participation among members of communities of color.
Congress has been considering two federal bills, known as HR 1 and HR 4, which would strengthen voting protections.
The decline of Black farmers
In May, the summit explored the legacy of racial bias inherent in state and federal policies that have deprived Black farmers of their land over the course of the last century.
During a relatively brief period of time in the decades following the Civil War, Blacks were able to acquire farmland, which served as a source of wealth creation, stability, and security. By the early 20th century, Black land ownership blossomed, peaking at 16 million acres in 1910, which represented 14 percent of total farmland. In the decades since then, the number of Black farmers has plummeted — from 1 million to about 38,000 today — owing to a history of racist federal, state, and local policies, said Lloyd Wright, who served as director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Civil Rights Division in the late 1990s.
“They’re struggling and holding on by their fingernails,” he said.
Cornelius Blanding, executive director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, a nonprofit that comprises Black farmers and landowners, said that at USDA, racism was “baked into the system.” There was rampant racial bias in locally elected county committees, whose role is to certify the eligibility of farmers for USDA’s farm loan program; the committees typically denied loans or credit to Black farmers. Another challenge: Black farmers often lacked access to the legal system. This meant that most farms were handed down through the generations without a formal will or clear title. This “heirs property” might be split among multiple members in an extended family, leading to ownership disputes and forced sales of all or a portion of a property.
Blanding said the good news is that some of these challenges can be resolved through state laws. For example, 13 states have enacted legislation that reforms the rules governing inheritance of heirs property to prevent a co-owner from selling their portion without notifying the other heirs, who have the option to buy them out.
In Pennsylvania, state Representative Chris Rabb introduced legislation enacted in 2019 that created a state-level grant program to encourage farming of high-priority crops, including hops, hemp, and hardwood, that are not eligible for federal grant programs. The law sets aside 10 percent of grant funds for applicants from rural and urban communities that have had at least 20 percent of residents living in poverty for at least 30 years.
“These are ways to infuse equity and access,” said Rabb, though he argued that government needs to go even further by providing reparations to Black farmers.
Rabb recounted how all of his great-grandparents were born into slavery. Some of his ancestors had been purchased as a wedding gift for the wealthy Livingston family, which bought a million acres of land in Dutchess County, New York, through the British Crown — land that had been stolen from Indigenous people, he said.
“I have a very interesting connection to the land and to our nation’s troubled history, but I also see hope,” said Rabb. “And part of that is talking to folks who understand this issue, and its complexity, and potential solutions.”
The power of cross-racial solidarity
Toward the end of her address to CSG East in August, McGhee said that her journey across America had given her hope as well. Virtually everywhere that she had visited, she met people who had rejected the zero sum and had forged “cross-racial coalitions” to fight for cleaner air, higher wages, and better-funded schools.
McGhee told the story of how longtime residents of the predominantly white, working-class community of Lewiston, Maine, have embraced African Muslim refugees who are revitalizing the town with small businesses. In Kansas City, she met a white, low-wage worker named Bridget who rejected her family’s anti-immigrant rhetoric to join forces with Black and Latino organizers to advocate to raise the minimum wage to $15 from the $7.25 that she was earning.
“She told me that one of the whole points of this movement is for white workers to realize that racism is bad for them too — because it keeps us divided from our Brown and Black brothers and sisters. As long as we’re divided, we’re conquered,” said McGhee.
“If Bridget, with all the challenges she faces, can see the power and strength in cross-racial solidarity, I think that our leaders can as well.”
For more information about CCC’s work, please contact CSG East Senior Policy Analyst Debbie-Ann Paige at firstname.lastname@example.org.