Opinion | Nobody Wins in an Economy of White Resentment
Over a two-decade career in the white-collar think tank world, I’ve continually wondered: Why can’t we have nice things?
By “we,” I mean America at-large. As for “nice things,” I don’t picture self-driving cars, hovercraft backpacks or laundry that does itself. Instead, I mean the basic aspects of a high-functioning society: well-funded schools, reliable infrastructure, wages that keep workers out of poverty, or a comprehensive public health system equipped to handle pandemics — things that equally developed but less wealthy nations seem to have.
In 2010, eight years into my time as an economic policy wonk at Demos, a progressive policy research group, budget deficits were on the rise. The Great Recession had decimated tax revenue, requiring more public spending to restart the economy.
But both the Tea Party and many in President Barack Obama’s inner circle were calling for a “grand bargain” to shrink the size of government by capping future public outlays and slashing Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. Despite the still-fragile recovery and evidence that corporations were already paring back retirement benefits and ratcheting down real wages, the idea gained steam.
On a call with a group of all-white economist colleagues, we discussed how to advise leaders in Washington against this disastrous retrenchment. I cleared my throat and asked: “So where should we make the point that all these programs were created without concern for their cost when the goal was to build a white middle class, and they paid for themselves in economic growth? Now these guys are trying to fundamentally renege on the deal for a future middle class that would be majority people of color?”
Nobody answered. I checked to see if I was muted.
Finally, one of the economists breached the awkward silence. “Well, sure, Heather. We know that — and you know that — but let’s not lead with our chin here,” he said. “We are trying to be persuasive.”
The sad truth is that he was probably right. Soon, the Tea Party movement, harnessing the language of fiscal responsibility and the subtext of white grievance, would shut down the federal government, win across-the-board cuts to public programs and essentially halt the legislative function of the federal government for the next six years. The result: A jobless recovery followed by a slow, unequal economic expansion that hurt Americans of all backgrounds.
The anti-government stinginess of traditional conservatism, along with the fear of losing social status held by many white people, now broadly associated with Trumpism, have long been connected. Both have sapped American society’s strength for generations, causing a majority of white Americans to rally behind the draining of public resources and investments. Those very investments would provide white Americans — the largest group of the impoverished and uninsured — greater security, too: A new Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco study calculated that in 2019, the country’s output would have been $2.6 trillion greater if the gap between white men and everyone else were closed. And a 2020 report from analysts at Citigroup calculated that if America had adopted policies to close the Black-white economic gap 20 years ago, U.S. G.D.P would be an estimated $16 trillion higher.
To understand what stops us from uniting for our mutual benefit, I’ve spent the past three years traveling the country from California to Mississippi to Maine, visiting churches and worker centers and city halls, in search of on-the-ground answers.
In Montgomery, Ala., I walked the grounds of what was once a grand public pool, one of more than 2,000 such pools built in the early 20th century. However, much like the era’s government-backed suburban developments or G.I. Bill home loans, the pool was for whites only. Threatened with court action to integrate its pool in 1958, the town drained it instead, shuttering the entire parks and recreation department. Even after reopening the parks a decade later, they never rebuilt the pool. Towns from Ohio to Louisiana lashed out in similar ways.
The civil rights movement, which widened the circle of public beneficiaries and could have heralded a more moral, prosperous nation, wound up diminishing white people’s commitment to the very idea of public goods. In the late 1950s, over two-thirds of white Americans agreed with the now-radical idea that the government ought to guarantee a job for anyone who wants one and ensure a minimum standard of living for everyone in the country. White support for those ideas nose-dived from around 70 to 35 percent from 1960 to 1964, and has remained low ever since.
It’s no historical accident that this dip coincided with the 1963 March on Washington, when white Americans saw Black activists demanding the same economic guarantees, and when Democrats began to promise to extend government benefits across the color line. It’s also no accident that, to this day, no Democratic presidential candidate has won the white vote since the Democrat Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.
Racial integration portended the end of America’s high-tax, high-investment growth strategy: Tax revenue hit its peak as a percentage of the economy in 1965. Now, America’s per capita government spending is near the bottom among industrialized countries. Our roads, bridges and water systems get a D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Unlike our peers, we don’t have high-speed rail, universal broadband, mandatory paid family leave or universal child care.
And while growing corporate power and money in politics have certainly played a role, it’s now clear that racial resentment is the key uncredited actor in our economic backslide. White people who exhibit low racial resentment against Black people are 60 percentage points more likely to support increased government spending than are those with high racial resentment. At the base of this resentment is a zero-sum story: the default framework for conservative arguments, rife with references to “makers and takers,” “taxpayers and freeloaders.”
In my travels, I also realized that those seeking to repair America’s social divides can invoke this sort of zero-sum framing as well. Progressives often end up talking about race relations through a prism of competition — every advantage for whites, mirrored by a disadvantage for people of color.
In my research and writing on disparities, I learned 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 health care. These hallmarks of white privilege are not freedoms that racial justice activists want to take away from white people, however — they’re basic human rights and dignities that everyone should enjoy. And the right wing is eager to fill the gap when we don’t finish the sentence.
For an entire generation of American politics, racist stereotypes and dog whistles have strengthened the hand that beat progressives in the fight against rising inequality. But did white people win? No: Many of them lost good jobs, benefits and social mobility along with the rest of us not born into wealth.
The task ahead, then, is to unwind this idea of a fixed quantity of prosperity and replace it with what I’ve come to call Solidarity Dividends: gains available to everyone when they unite across racial lines, in the form of higher wages, cleaner air and better-funded schools.
I’ll never forget Bridget, a white woman I met in Kansas City who had worked in fast food for over a decade. When a co-worker at Wendy’s first approached her about joining a local Fight for $15 group pushing for a livable minimum wage, she was skeptical. “I didn’t think that things in my life would ever change,” she told me. “They weren’t going to give $15 to a fast food worker. That was just insane to me.”
But Bridget attended the first organizing meeting anyway. And when a Latina woman rose and described her life — three children in a two-bedroom apartment with bad plumbing, the feeling of being “trapped in a life where she didn’t have any opportunity to do anything better” — Bridget, also a mother of three, said she was struck by how “I was really able to see myself in her.”
“I had been fed this whole line of, ‘These immigrant workers are coming over here and stealing our jobs — not paying taxes, committing crimes and causing problems,’” Bridget admitted. “You know, us against them.”
Soon after she began organizing, the cross-racial movement had won a convert. “In order for all of us to come up, it’s not a matter of me coming up and them staying down,” she said. “It’s the matter of: In order for me to come up, they have to come up too. Because honestly, as long as we’re divided, we’re conquered.”
Ms. McGhee is the author of “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together,” from which this essay is adapted.
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