In the United States of America, the wealth gap between white males and African American women is immense. According to a McKinsey Global Institute report, the median wealth of a single black woman is USD$200 compared to a median wealth of USD $28,900 for a white man. One could attempt to justify the gap on the level of generational wealth, meritocracy, and education, but I wish this were as simple as an economic rationale. By increasing black wealth, the USA could strengthen their economy almost instantly. Despite this fact, in the USA, most whites push back against government equity initiatives.
A vast array of studies like this one indicate how an actual diverse economy would increase productivity by trillions of dollars. The loss in revenue and in human life because of segregation is incommensurable. The Sum of Us, a book written by political commentator Heather McGhee, is just the latest attempt to bring reason to white people in the USA.
Humans may be complex beings, but we are still animals, often making decisions on instinct rather than reason. I am far from pointing the finger at white people—It would be disingenuous to allege that this is ontologically a white problem. It is not. It is a learned behaviour, and with any learned activity, it can be altered with enough effort.
I am a father of young children. One of the things I often repeat to them is this: ‘there is no such thing as bad or good people.’
We are all capable of doing the best and the worst things we see in others. Many white writers have done an incredible job raising awareness around racial inequalities; people like Joseph Stiglitz, Guy Standing, Rebecca Cokley and Thomas Piketty have tirelessly pointed out solutions for better law-making and policy.
Dying of whiteness
White males are the biggest group of self-assigned ‘conservatives’— a word which has morphed in connotation over time. Yet, according to Jonathan Metzl, the biggest victims of gun violence in the USA are white men. Tennessee, a state with a high proportional number of African Americans (16.34% compared to 13% nationwide) and a large white working-class population, consistently loses thousands of white Tennesseans every year because they can’t afford health insurance. Republican legislators from Tennessee unwaveringly vote against ‘Obama Care’.
Many things discussed in the book are clear examples of white people shooting themselves in the foot. For example, racism increases the likelihood of someone opposing climate action.
Racism guarantees power to a few and ensures that we all suffer, future generations suffer, and the entire planet suffers. As McGhee puts it: ‘Ultimately, we are all paying for the moral conflicts of white Americans.’
Why would whites (or anyone) choose to die instead of sharing resources? This is the question McGhee attempts to answer in her book.
Race is a dangerous myth
The rise of insurgencies in the early days of the USA, the most famous being Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, marked the solidarity between white European indentured servants and enslaved black Africans.
Observing this trend, Colonial Slavocrats colluded with Virginia’s lawmakers. Soon laws were making legal distinctions between Virginias’s ‘white’ and ‘black’ inhabitants. In a few years, there was an economic incentive for lower-class whites to defend white supremacy in the colonial USA. The narrative of aristocrats was that it was about race when clearly it was about class. To this day, research indicates that whites see racism as a zero-sum game—one that they are now losing.
When one member of society advances, we all do
The civil rights movement, fought mainly by African Americans, led to the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s. Decades later, the signing of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) was a huge step in reducing inequalities for citizens with disabilities. The legislators utilised many of the language and concepts first used by African American activists.
One of the effects of the signing of the ADA was the exponential increase in street ramps. The ADA requires sidewalk ramps to be installed along any accessible route in a public area. The law, which was designed to be inclusive for people with disabilities, ended up also helping the entire society. Non-disabled parents with prams, trade workers with heavy loads, and people riding bikes and scooters benefited directly from those ramps. Closer to home, recently, during the pandemic, many workers in Australia benefited from Centrelink and the infrastructure already built to support low-income citizens. When vulnerable or marginalised members of our society are supported, all of us are.
Unlikely many would believe; white Americans in the South were amongst the most beneficiaries of the civil rights movement. In the decade after President Johnson signed those laws; more infrastructure was built in those states than the one hundred years before. Whites are the most significant group utilising that infrastructure simply by being the majority of people living in those states.
How to become a better American?
McGhee grew up in the segregated by redline South of Chicago. As an Afro Brazilian who struggled with poverty and racism growing up, I can only begin to imagine how it was for her. I will never know.
Surviving is hard for our people all over the Americas. For the lucky ones that endure, we are PhD’s in race and race relations by the time we are in our early twenties.
Whites, however, often reach adulthood without ever discussing race. This leads to what Robin DiAngelo calls white fragility, the inability of whites to deal with racism and ethnicity.
‘For all the ways segregation is aimed at limiting the choices of people of colour, it’s white people who are ultimately isolated’, McGhee writes.
Her journey to write this book started in 2016 when she encountered Gary Civitello on a C-Span television show. Gary, a white American from Asheville, North Carolina, rang the station and admitted to her that he held prejudice towards black people. She was particularly touched by what he said next: that he wanted to ‘change his ways so as to become a better American’. He knew that to become American, or a better American, he needed to include black people in his life.
He admitted being impaired by racism. She says that was a moment of clarity, ‘like removing dust from a dirty window’. Later on, she met Gary in person and one thing he said struck a chord with her: ‘When you get to know people, usually you realise your fears are unjustified.’
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as waves of white-skinned Europeans of all nationalities arrived as immigrants in the USA, one thing was demanded of them if they wanted to benefit from the privileges offered in their new adopted country: they needed to abandon their culture to become white. This also happened to non-white immigrants. Hence immigrants from oppressed minorities often do not work in solidarity with African Americans.
South Asians, East Asians, Latin Americans, and even continental Africans that arrived in the twentieth century constantly try to distance themselves from African Americans. Whiteness is a powerful drug and Negrophobia is too real.
This erasure has cost many new immigrants their histories. Many have completely lost connection with the homeland of their ancestors. They hide behind the Star Spangled Banner, leaving themselves and their future descendants disorientated about who they really are.
Dog whistle politics
Union support has been steadily declining in western nations. Racism and classism keep powerful interests in rule, further dividing the proletariat or, as Guy Standing coined, ‘the precariat’. That division works just fine for neoliberal interests. Today in the USA, even the world union itself is a dog whistle for ‘undeserving people of colour’.
It was clear to African American thinker W.E.B. Du Bois that white and black workers have shared interests. He spoke about those shared interests as early as the 1880’s: ‘there are not today in the world two groups of workers with practically identical interests who hate and fear each other so deeply and persistently….’ he wrote.
Systemic Oppression Theory
In systemic oppression theory, all individuals in society take on the role of either the privileged or the oppressed. Therefore, we can float from oppressed to oppressor, depending on specific characteristics sanctioned by the dominant group. Things like skin colour, religion, ability, or gender play a role in those imposed structured levels.
As Paulo Freire once said: ‘When education is not liberating, the dream of the oppressed is to become the oppressor.’
As a diasporic African, my local paradigm in Australia is to understand I am part of two distinctive realities. Although I am oppressed in the Americas, I am part of a systemic oppression machine that incarcerates and kills First Nations people at one of the highest rates in the world.
I need to be frank and admit I can see the mechanisms that allow the human brain to rationalise the us versus them mentality. I have experienced it before. I know several non-white migrants here in this colony who side with the ‘conservatives’ because they are not Aboriginal or Sudanese, so they don’t care about those people’s oppressions.
Meanwhile, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and, more recently, African Australians have the highest incarceration rates of any developed (read: wealthy) nation.
McGhee hopes that the USA and white Americans can be fixed. She believes that they will suddenly open their eyes by providing data, information, and logic. She expects that they will change their path by showing that they have as much to gain as we do.
The Dehumanisation of some will backfire
Closer to home in Australia, we are losing rights at an expeditious rate. The rise of education costs, the cuts to Centrelink, and the increase in inequality are proofs that show how the ones on the bottom of the economic pyramid, despite their race, will lose too. When the most vulnerable members of our society are unsupported, we are all unsupported.
McGhee puts it perfectly: ‘The truth is, we never had a real democracy in America [or anywhere]…In the interest of racial subjugation, America has repeatedly attacked its own foundations… From voter suppression to the return of virtual property requirements. A segment of our society has fought against democracy to keep power in the hands of a narrow white elite, often with the support of most white Americans.’
Racism leads to lousy policymaking, and policy and equity laws are the only way out. Ibram Kendi argues that we ought to write progressive policies, and the population will follow. Progress will come from lawmaking and not the other way around.
Is it possible that our society’s racism backfires on the same people who were set up to benefit from racial privilege?
The answer is yes. Just look at Ukraine.
Watching the scenes unfolding in Ukraine where civilians are getting murdered, and where people of African appearance aren’t allowed to board the trains or cross boarders to escape for safety reminds me of two things:
1) This could happen in any majority white country (Australia inclusive)
2) The opening of the neoliberal pandora box, the lack of climate policy and the rise of white supremacy led by Trump is going to cost lives. White lives included.
Some white people reading this piece may accuse me of Drapetomania—a pseudo-scientific white delirium. Felwine Sarr imagines an Afrotopian future where communal afro-centric views are leading humanity.
Since Isabel of Castile led Spain’s independence from the North African Moors kingdom, Europe had six centuries to drive humanity in sustainable ways.
Instead, the so-called enlightenment brought us racism, imperialism, eugenics, colonialism and more recently, Necropolitics and climate change.
When saving a drowning person, one needs to put themselves in a position of complete control, not allowing the person being saved grab onto you under any circumstances. If you do, they can drag both of you underwater. The world is drowning. Perhaps Europeans need to take a back seat, if not for the global south and for black people’s sake, then for their own.
Can we prosper together?
The entire future of humanity depends on: The Sum of Us.
Guido Melo is an Afro-Brazilian-Latinx multilingual author, poet and Literary Workshop Facilitator based in Naarm (Melbourne). Currently undertaking a Bachelor of Arts in Writing & Digital Media at Victoria University, his words can be found in Meanjin Quarterly, Overland, Kill Your Darlings, Peril Magazine, Colournary Magazine, Mantissa Poetry, Ascension Magazine, SBS Voices, SBS Portuguese, Cordite Poetry Review, Voz Limpia, Alma Preta Jornalismo and Guia Negro News. Guido is a member of the Sweatshop Literacy Movement, a columnist for Negrê and a contributor to Growing Up African in Australia (Black Inc., 2019) and Racism: Stories on Fear, Hate & Bigotry (Sweatshop, 2021).