Race and the Cost of Public Goods

Children at Kosciusko Swimming Pool, Brooklyn, New York, 1970 (Wikimedia Commons)


In The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, Heather McGhee asks the simple question “why can’t we have nice things?” The nice things include good public schools, safe and functioning infrastructure, public health, a clean environment, ample parks and playgrounds, and good union jobs that pay decent wages—in short, the public goods and the benefits of solidarity that none of us can provide on our own. The answer she gives is: racism. She marshals an imposing body of evidence to suggest that although white people suffer from the absence of these nice things, too many white people would rather go without than share them with people of color.

One striking example concerns the public swimming pools that cities and towns outdid themselves building in the 1920s and 1930s. By 1945, two thousand public pools provided much celebrated “social melting pots” (23), Americanizing European immigrants and easing social tensions. But Black people were excluded, as they were from many purportedly public spaces. In the 1950s, however, Black activists successfully challenged the legality of this segregation. But whites simply stopped going to integrated pools and violently patrolled pools in white neighborhoods to keep Black people out. Other responses included putting public pools into private hands, creating private corporations to run them, or establishing members-only pools and then voting in only whites. When such exclusionary tactics led to court orders to cease, towns shut down their pools outright, sometimes even abolishing their parks departments and filling pools with concrete.

McGhee uses the drained pool analogy to tell several other stories, including the resistance to universal health care, the underfunding of public schools, and the disappearance of public aid to college students. Universal health care depends upon a large enough risk pool so that healthy people’s premiums can cover the cost of treatment for the sick. But too many whites refuse to enter that pool with Black people. Nor can the cost of public schools be met when too many people opt out of the funding pool in favor of private education. As the proportion of people of color in college ranks rose from 1 in 6 in 1980 to 4 in 10 today, white legislators lost interest in subsidizing college.

McGhee links the draining of these literal and metaphorical pools to the growing opposition to civil rights, fair housing, progressive taxes, and liberal immigration laws in the second half of the twentieth century. One persuasive, if circumstantial, piece of evidence she provides for this connection involves public opinion. In the 1950s, the respected American National Elections Studies (ANES) survey showed that sixty-five percent of whites believed the government ought to guarantee all Americans a job that provided a minimum standard of living. That percentage declined to thirty-five percent in the early 1960s, just as the civil rights movement peaked.

Opposition to activist government remained high for the rest of the twentieth century, even as arguments about biological inferiority became less common. Racial disdain shifted, however, to culture and behavior, focused less on supposed inborn ability than on effort and initiative. In this cultural form, racial resentment meant that even whites who supported the principles of equality and integration might not support policies aimed at such principles. The opposition did not just focus on affirmative action or college quotas, but on government spending generally. A 2016 ANES survey showed as much as a sixty-point swing in support for government spending depending based on the level of racial resentment an individual expressed. Government action became racialized; public things became suspect.

The crucial, and mistaken, assumption that drives this perverse spite is that one group’s gains must come at the expense of some other group. McGhee calls this the zero-sum game and the major purpose of her book is to undermine it. She does so by repeatedly showing how our fates are bound up with one another. One of McGhee’s most compelling examples involves environmental harms. Black people are more likely to breathe polluted air and drink polluted water and to live near landfills or incinerators. But McGhee shows that the idea that pollution can be isolated in low-income and minority communities supports a system that creates more toxicity for all.

Another example of how our fates are bound together is public schooling. Housing in the relatively rare districts with good public schools costs as much as seventy-seven percent more than housing elsewhere. As CNN put it, “You probably can’t afford to live near good schools” (180). This dynamic is driven by the assumption that white schools are better. Yet McGhee cites research documenting how students in integrated schools not only have greater cultural competence (crucial in a multicultural world) but develop better critical thinking and problem-solving skills and exhibit greater civic engagement.

McGhee’s argument helps us make sense of many perplexing things in American life. One is the failure to see the oncoming mortgage crisis as predatory lending to black homeowners ramped up. So, too, the blaming of victims when the crisis exploded; “they gave your mortgage to a less qualified minority,” crowed conservative pundits (89). Or consider the petulant refusal of many states to take federal money for an expansion of Medicaid. Even though a million white Texans, many with incomes over $100,000, lacked health insurance, the predominantly white legislature (in a state where non-whites are the majority) opposed expansion. Although other factors may be involved (such as generational differences), racial resentment also helps to explain anti-unionism. Associating unions (and federal assistance) with “lazy blacks” also helps explain the charges of socialism hurled at even the mildest of social democratic initiatives.

Ultimately, McGhee’s goal is to secure the solidarity dividend that getting beyond racial resentment would bring. To see things as a zero-sum game, she argues, is not human nature. She points out that African Americans do not believe in a zero-sum game and that the civil rights movement improved the South’s economy and infrastructure. More and more Americans, she argues, are recognizing the cleaner air and higher wages that might come from working together. She points to interracial coalitions for such things as the $15 minimum wage, the prosecution of polluting industries, and recent immigrants’ role in filling vacant apartments, opening abandoned store fronts, and paying hundreds of millions of dollars in state and local taxes annually.

At the end of her valuable and important book, McGhee argues that we must refill the pool of public goods that once encouraged a thriving middle class. Rejecting color-blind approaches, she recommends a policy of “targeted universalism,” a pursuit of universal goals that begins with the most disadvantaged. Getting white support for that, she acknowledges, will be difficult. In support of targeted universalism, McGhee emphasizes the unique harm racism has inflicted on people of color. She traces racism to the subordination of African, African-descended, and Indigenous peoples in our early history, arguing that white advance often came at the expense of exploiting those considered nonwhite.

McGhee also argues that there has always been an asterisk on the public realm in the United States: whites only. This includes citizenship and the long history of disenfranchisement and voter suppression. More recent examples include the notorious practice of red-lining, whereby black neighborhoods were deemed bad risks and denied eligibility for federally insured mortgages. Social Security excluded black occupations while legal protection of collective bargaining benefitted many whites-only unions. Taken together, these measures created an expanded white middle class in the postwar period. But when the civil rights movement challenged the exclusion of Black people from these benefits, too many white people treated their own advantages as natural and opposed government largess. Clearly, redress is in order.

In terms of political strategy, however, there is a tension between telling white readers that racism hurts them and lumping all white people together as long-term beneficiaries of racism. At times, McGhee minimizes the reality of class and, in doing so, she may undercut her political persuasiveness. In one of her more telling discussions, McGhee examines the assumption among affluent whites that since wealth protected them from one kind of suffering, it will probably save them from another (climate change). Such people are probably beyond reach.

But as McGhee points out, racial resentment is fueled by the declining economic fortunes of most white Americans since the civil rights era. Racism played a role in the decay of the New Deal social contract, but the consequences of that decay fell hard, if not hardest, on lower class whites. In contrast to the complacency of affluent whites, the contrasting examples McGhee cites of white people overcoming zero sum thinking often come from those in desperate situations where they had little choice other than to trust one another. These stories involve white people without health care, mired in minimum wage jobs, stricken from the voter rolls, trapped in polluted neighborhoods, homeless, or victims of foreclosure.

McGhee ends by asking who is an American and what do we owe one other. We are not the sum of all of us, but we could be. The conflicts we face do not threaten the end of the American experiment but do provide an opportunity for its fulfillment. We must refill the pool of public goods that once encouraged a thriving middle class. That makes it all the more imperative that we replace the zero-sum narrative with one that emphasizes our need for each other. McGhee makes a major contribution to that effort. But, as she concludes, activists cannot do it alone. The whole nation must engage in rethinking our story.

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John D. Fairfield

John D. Fairfield is Professor of History at Xavier University. Dr. Fairfield has written the books The Mysteries of the Great City: The Politics of Urban Design (1993) and The Public and its Possibilities: Triumphs and Tragedies in the American City (2010). Dr. Fairfield is currently at work on the book Green Populism: From Urban Sustainability to Regional Resilience.

Comments on “Race and the Cost of Public Goods

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    Great article. Very informative. I was born in 1951, so I have lived and experienced a lot of this article. I have not heard or seen anyone weave the history and story of this nation so eloquently and passionately. We are still living in the era of the late Dr ML King’s Dream, but the only problem is: We still don’t have enough of our younger people taking advantage of all of the opportunities that are available to them to go forward and prepare themselves for a better future.

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