Sometimes it takes a shock, like a quick kick to the head or the gut, to get our attention, and we certainly have had our share in the last year. The tsunami of the COVID-19 pandemic swept over the …
Sometimes it takes a shock, like a quick kick to the head or the gut, to get our attention, and we certainly have had our share in the last year. The tsunami of the COVID-19 pandemic swept over the planet, knocking down self-indulgent attitudes of those who thought they could out-stubborn a viral plague. That denial often meant that many lost their health or their lives, including people close to the deniers.
The Earth has been repeatedly battered by ever more severe storms, earthquakes, droughts and fires, due to human practices and climate change, causing loss of property, lives and well-being.
Thanks to cell phone video technology, George Floyd’s murder did not remain a dirty secret hidden on the streets of the Central neighborhood in Minneapolis. The visual evidence of a law enforcement officer torturing a man to death while other officers did not intervene and while frightened bystanders shouted ineffectively for him to stop, triggered outrage that echoed around the world. The reverberations continue, sparking action where there was none and strengthening resolve and support where there was.
Eyes and minds have been opened that were closed before. I have heard several white, middle-class women say, “I grew up in a small town with only white people and just had no idea what it was like for people of color.” I also grew up in a small town of 5,000, and the only black person I remember seeing was the man who drove the Zimmerman liquor store truck out of Chicago, making home deliveries. He seemed exotic to me, but friendly.
A friend’s father introduced me to racist attitudes with degrading remarks about Black people. I thought less of him for it, and it puzzled me. Why did he sound so angry and threatened? He owned a car dealership, his family was comfortable, if not wealthy, and there were no Negroes in sight. What was he afraid of? Even as a teenager, I recognized it as fear.
The question lingers decades later in our country and world torn apart by clashing attitudes of fear and territoriality, fanned to a raging fire by those in power or seeking power who benefit from the discord. I have begun reading a book that delves into the questions: The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. Author Heather McGhee, an expert in economic and social justice, who headed up the think tank Demos, has drafted legislation and testified before Congress, and currently heads up Color of Change, the nation’s largest online racial justice organization.
She asks the questions that have been plaguing me as I watch the current drama unfold: why would people support candidates who do not have their interests at heart? Why do they support actions that not only don’t help them but actually hurt them? I call that shooting themselves in the foot. McGhee calls it zero-sum thinking. Simply put, it means that progress for some of us must come at the expense of others. If you gain, I lose…or, I will profit at your expense.
Many of us white people are now coming to understand more clearly the story that underlies our American history. People of color have always understood it. The American economy was built on slave labor, lands stolen from and genocide of indigenous people, and undercompensated labor of immigrants. Laws were structured to protect the white population and limit the rights of people of color, keeping them in their place, literally, through segregation and redlining.
As our country becomes more color-homogeneous with multi-racial and multi-ethnic families, it is predicted that white people will be in the minority by 2042, which apparently drives the irrational behavior of zero-sum thinkers. Since white people have benefitted from racism, the zero-sum paradigm means that they will lose when they can’t implement racist actions for their own benefit. They are afraid of a dog-eat-dog war with changing demographics where they no longer have the advantage, and they fear the backlash of angry people of color, much as plantation owners feared the possible backlash of freed slaves seeking retribution and revenge.
McGhee says that, “Black people do not see the world though a zero-sum prism. African-Americans just don’t buy that our gain has to come at the expense of white people.” She said history has proven them right with the civil rights victories, bitterly opposed by some, that resulted in stronger economies and more investment in infrastructure and education.
The author gives many examples of how racist, zero-sum thinking caused white people to lose as well when they opposed expanding rights, privilege, and access to people of color. One striking example was the opposition to integrating public swimming pools, a whole history lesson in itself. Although segregation of public-owned property was illegal under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, cities chose to close pools or even fill them with cement rather than integrate, and the courts upheld them at the time. As a result, the white population also lost their access to swimming pools unless they could afford to build one or belong to a private club. Imagine the deprivation for kids growing up in the hot Southern weather, losing not only the recreational outlet to have fun with friends, but the opportunity to learn to swim.
In McGhee’s interviews and research, she found people all over the country, empowered by cross-racial solidarity, recognizing what she calls the Solidarity Dividend, the benefits made possible through collective action. This is what Paul Wellstone recognized: that we should work together for change, for improvement; that when we all do better, we all do better.
Through history those interested only in wielding power have benefitted from an uneducated, uninformed, easily manipulated citizenry. They induce fear and distrust by promoting zero-sum thinking, encouraging dissension and competitiveness between people who actually have mutual interests and would benefit much more by working together. We have seen textbook examples in the rhetoric spewed by Donald Trump, right-wing radio and cable personalities, and those who follow blindly, believing the lies of zero-sum thinking.
No doubt I will be gleaning more as I delve into the depths of The Sum of Us, and will bring further reflections to future columns. I invite you to read it, too.
We are the poorer for the crushing of one man, since the dimming of the Light anywhere darkens us all. Michael Sorensen, British Faith and Practice.