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The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and City Awake’s 2021 Fierce Urgency of Now Opening Ceremony keynote was social policy and racial healing expert, Heather McGhee. Heather’s background is in economic policy. She spent two decades building a think tank to find solutions to economic inequality to rebuild pathways to the middle class. She is the author of the New York Times bestseller, “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together,” Chairman of the board “Color of Change,” and has testified in Congress and drafted legislation that’s improved millions of lives.
In her keynote, Heather emphasized how this powerful discussion comes while we are in the thick of an era of inequality. We are at a point where 1% of population owns as much wealth as the middle class and 40% of adults are paid too little to meet their basic needs (and this was even before COVID-19). We need to continue to work together and hold each other accountable for real change if we want to turn the lights back on for the basic engine of economic opportunity.
Heather spent some time during her keynote, and in her book, looking at the intersection of racism, and historical economic and policy decisions that have shaped where we are today. If we look at economic policy changes around worker pay, taxes, education affordability, mortgage accessibility, paid family leave and more, race is seen as a series of historical disadvantages that would accelerate inequity for people of color leading to worse outcomes. This is seen clearly in the fact that the average Black college graduate has less wealth than the average white high school dropout. This is due to the fact that the white student has a cushion of some kind of wealth to fall back on. The main driver of this is home ownership, particularly historical home ownership, and proves true the old adage that you must have money to get money. A Black student may have a good job and a paycheck, but without a 20% down payment on a home, home ownership may remain out of reach.
To figure out where the home ownership divide came from, we need to look no further than the Neal Deal in the 1930s and 1940s. The subsidizing of home mortgage products, and no down payment home ownership, led to mass home ownership in this country. The ability to pay off a home that could be passed down from generation to generation and the sum total of all the protections led to the largest middle-class the world has ever seen and the highest standard of living in the 1950s. By many accounts this was the American Dream come to life. But there was one major problem: almost all of this was racially exclusionary. The mass housing and ownership came with lots of red lining maps across the country to highlight neighborhoods with lots of Black residents. Given how it was historically illegal for black people to access mainstream mortgage products, and predatory financial product offerings like those not allowing for home equity until the final payment (which meant one late mortgage payment could cost someone, like Heather’s grandmother, her home), meant a lot of home ownership was stripped away from Black Americans during the housing crisis of the 1990s and 2000s. This all adds up to the fact that Black home ownership for many is a relatively new phenomenon and the basis for the saying, “history shows up in your wallet when talking about wealth.” While working-class white families have far more wealth, increasing Black home ownership to white home ownership decreases the wealth gap by 30%.
We also see in our history in the mid-1950s a time where public community swimming pools, paid for with contributions from Black tax dollars as well as those of white families, were drained when faced with the threat of desegregation. While wealthy families could put in swimming pools or join private swim clubs, anyone (Black or white) who couldn’t not afford to do so was suffering the loss of public swim spaces. This is a prime example of how racism has a cost for everyone. Another example that still permeates society is the reservation of funding from property tax for schools, which is tied to a racist history of exclusion. The first step to moving forward as a united humanity is to wake people up from the forced denial about racism and shift the most basic paradigm that there is nothing wrong with being Black. While writing her book, Heather uncovered that in a lot of ways racism wasn’t accelerating race-neutral economic policy but driving inequality and outcomes that were detrimental for everyone. The task now is to jettison old stereotypes and focus on the fact that we all contribute to the nation’s prosperity.
While wealthy families could put in swimming pools or join private swim clubs, anyone (Black or white) who couldn’t afford to do so was suffering the loss of public swimming spaces. This is a prime example of how racism has a cost for everyone.
When Heather left her job at a think tank and started traveling the country, she dove into research from sociologists on the “Zero-Sum Model.” This is the idea that progress for one group must come at the expense of another, that there is a fixed pie of well-being. This belief propagates the lie that we are not all on the same team and encourages some to root against the progress of others.
In reality, one dollar more in one’s pocket is not one less in another’s. We want everyone on the field scoring for the team (one economy) and for people to participate to the fullest. The trouble is in the mindset behind some of this, the thought process that a lot of white people have is that Black people take more than they give, and that causes us not to want to link arms with them. Progress for people of color doesn’t have to come at white people’s expense. Dismantling this paradigm doesn’t mean that Black people want white people to fear the police, not have well-funded schools, or trouble getting financing on homes. It means that we want everyone in society to have access to home loans, a good education and public safety. We all want a fair shot at having our most basic needs met.
Heather suggests that we replace the “Zero-Sum Model” with the Solidarity Dividend. The idea that there are gains to be unlocked when we come together, such as higher wages or cleaner air. It is the notion around there being more that unites us than divides us, and that we can work together to find common solutions for common problems because ultimately, we all want the same things.
Openings for this paradigm shift have come from rising support for government through the pandemic due to an amazing rollout of public health resources or making the child tax credit refundable and coming every month (which has led to a massive reduction in poverty and child poverty).
The pandemic has shown us the need to believe in ourselves, our government, and our capacity to do things together. We’ve seen more than ever a sense of interdependence as we work as one humanity to solve the global pandemic. May this be the first of many challenges we solve as one united community.