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Soaring Toward Justice Speaker Series

The Cost of Racism for Everyone: A Conversation with Heather McGhee

(January 14, 2021) — Holy Names University hosted the second event in the “Soaring Toward Justice” speaker series, “The Cost of Racism for Everyone: A Conversation with Heather McGhee.” 

Heather McGhee is a political commentator, economist, and author of The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. Throughout McGhee’s studies in the American economy, she found one common root problem that continues to fail the American public— racism. 

“Racism is what’s holding us back from truly being the nation that lives up to the highest ideals,” explained McGhee. “Why, in the country with the largest economy on earth, does it seem like we can’t provide some of the basic guarantees of a decent life? And why do we have nearly 50 million people in poverty?”  

When traveling around the country doing research for her book, McGhee came to the conclusion that racism leads to bad policy making. She found examples of how racism was making the economy worse, and not just for people of color, but for white people too. 

The central story of McGhee’s upcoming book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, is what happened after swimming pools were desegregated in the 1950s and 1960s.

“The experience of children of different races swimming together was one that was denied to millions of children across the country,” said McGhee. She explained that although public pools were funded with everyone’s tax dollars, they were segregated and were for whites only. During desegregation, local officials decided that instead of allowing children of all races to swim together they would rather drain the public pools. This meant that everyone lost out.

“Ever since the civil rights movement in the mid 1960s, there has been a withdrawal of commitment to the public good,” said McGhee. “There was this way in which racism, both explicit and unconscious, had an association with the union … The heart of the problem in this country over the past 30 years, is the weakening of collective bargaining. We simply haven’t figured out a better way to make sure that the people who spend all day baking the pie, get to come home with a decent slice of it.” 

Whether it’s health care, the cost of college, the environment, worker’s rights, McGhee found racism to be the thread that was making it even harder for working middle-class families–of every race–to get ahead. She also found evidence of a solidarity dividend, which is “the idea that when society is divided, we are less able to come together and create a collective action that is able to have working and middle-class people write the rules of the economy.” 

“I am hopeful that the time has come for us to recognize, because we simply can’t deny it anymore, that racism is not only still with us on an individual basis but there’s also systemic racism,” said McGhee. She emphasized that our economy is fundamentally held back by so many players being sidelined and being saddled with too much debt and not enough opportunity. 

Towards the end of the event, McGhee responded to questions from the audience. In response to the question, “What does an anti-racist campus look like?” McGhee responded, “I would define an anti-racist campus as one where the disparities by racial and ethnic groups are eliminated. In education, there is funding, resource, and access inequalities, but once you have a campus like Holy Names that is so diverse and has been able to gather students from all walks of life, you have an opportunity to create a place that recognizes what is challenging for different groups and truly listen to the students.” 

Support local businesses by ordering The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together from Oakland’s Marcus Books