On the heels of her bestselling book, Heather McGhee embarks on a road trip across Covid-era America, unearthing stories of American solidarity and hope in a time of great division and peril.
( Higher Ground
Melissa Harris-Perry: It was August 16th, 2016, less than a month after Donald Trump accepted the Republican Party's nomination for president and Heather McGhee was a guest on C-SPAN's Washington Journal. Now, in tone production and point of view, Washington Journal is a pretty far cry from the talking points fueled punditry of cable news, in part because the show takes calls from viewers live on air. On that Tuesday morning, Heather McGhee, an African American woman who was then serving as president of the progressive think tank, Demos, took a call from Gary in North Carolina.
Gary: I'm a white male and I am prejudiced. It is something I wasn't taught, but it's something that I learned. What can I do to change to be a better American?
Heather McGhee: Gary described his fear of Black men and the things he saw on the news about crime and drugs and gangs, and there, live on national television, he asked me how he could change his racist thoughts. I took a breath and told him.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Five years later, Heather McGhee is the best-selling author of the book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper. Now, she's the host of a new podcast by the same name. I caught up with Heather earlier this week. Now, you've stayed in touch with Gary?
Heather McGhee: Oh wow, I have. Gary is someone who's a white man, pretty isolated in Exurban, North Carolina. As I got to know him, he began to really articulate that it's true he didn't know that many people of color. The people of color he ran into on his way to the VA were fine and were just like him. It was really all through the filter of social media and the media that he got all of these toxic views. As he first dove into the recommendations I gave him at the end of that call about reading, about Black history, about changing what he consumed in terms of the media, he really became more aware, more critical of a thinker.
I'll be honest that as the pandemic shoved everyone into their bubbles and isolated him like all of us and the disinformation machines really ramped up, he really began to be pretty radicalized around some ideas that I think he wouldn't have if he was still out in the world connecting with people. That's why I, frankly, myself wanted to hit the road again to go deeper with a lot of different people to tell stories of people coming together, finding solidarity, letting go of their preconceptions and rolling up their sleeves, and working together to win.
Melissa Harris-Perry: For those who haven't read the book, talk about The Sum of Us as a podcast and what you're up to, again, especially for folks who maybe don't know the big framework of the book.
Heather McGhee: The podcast is focusing on just one of the three big ideas in the book, The Sum of Us, that we can win nice things and there can be real gains that we can achieve in society through collective action. In our multiracial society where we've borne the cost of racism so much, it's actually going to take multiracial coalitions to unlock what I call these solidarity dividends, like clean air and water and better-funded schools and higher wages, that in this country we can cut together across lines of race and build the collective power we need to take on powerful interests and win.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm all for hope, but I guess, let's just be really critical and cranky about it. Sure, we can have these cross-racial collaborative work that builds something greater than the individual parts, but don't we typically simply drain the swimming pool?
Heather McGhee: The story, the main metaphor at the heart of the book, The Sum of Us, is the drained pool, the social contract of the new deal that created the American dream. Our swimming pools were so often segregated. When the segregation orders came from the courts, many towns and cities drained their public swimming pools rather than integrate them. Frankly, the majority of white voters have gone along with an economic agenda that has drained the pool of public resources, and they do it for this sense that white identity politics is worth preserving even at a cost.
That is a recurring theme in American politics. Everything we believe comes from a story we've been told because there are too many people with two big megaphones who are selling that story. People who want to see a more united, more prosperous, fair, more just country need to have loud megaphones too. We do in some ways what we're told to do. To be honest, that's why I felt like it was important to really just show these everyday heroes doing extraordinary things despite all the reasons that they could be divided.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's go to two places that I think are typically thought of as evidence of how divisive our politics are right now. When you find some stories of hope, who do you meet in Texas?
Heather McGhee: One of our first stops was at a church parking lot in Dallas. About 14 women were coming to travel from Texas to New Mexico for abortion care who were mostly deeply religious people. They unfurled for me a story that I can't believe I didn't know. The movement that brought us abortion rights, that made an underground network of clergy getting people to address a network of doctors were religious people. If you think about it, if you are faced with this tremendous choice, who do you call?
Your most trusted person in our very religious society that has traditionally been the clergy member. Then it's also a story of a multiracial coalition led by an indigenous and Black pair of organizers in New Mexico that won the reproductive rights law about a year and a half ago that allowed New Mexico to be the safe haven that it has now become.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Tell us about Florida.
Heather McGhee: The first person I met there was a middle-aged white Republican named Neil. He's a person with a felony conviction. His life changed when he, by accident, was across the hallway from a meeting where Desmond Meade, who's an African American civil rights and voting rights leader, formerly incarcerated, formerly homeless, and recovering, they decided to team up to overturn the Jim Crow era lifetime ban on people with felony convictions voting. They spoke to a deeper human value around second chances.
For me, it was such a beautiful story. It was a successful one in the sense that they won. Just like no person should be defined by their greatest mistakes, our country doesn't need to be defined by its greatest mistakes. We've never been a truly multiracial representative democracy but we can keep fighting for it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I also worry that the spaces where we're telling these hopeful progressive stories have trouble penetrating maybe the darker corners of where our storytelling is happening.
Heather McGhee: I think it's really important to make our storytelling as if we are talking to people who don't already agree with us. This is a game about persuasion, and there's a bunch of stories in the podcast of people changing their minds, having their consciousness raised. I'm always hoping to think about the Garys of the world, the people who are skeptical of my message, who didn't grow up the way I did, who didn't have my life experience, and think, "What would they need to hear to have that sense of humanity and awe and wonder activated and dialed up?" We can't always be in control with who hears it or what channels it travels in, but you are in control of how you craft the story.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Of the stories that you go out and tell, just in your own head, when you need a little hope, is there one that is a touchstone for you?
Heather McGhee: There is. It's a story where I'm in Kansas City talking to two fast food workers who actually have a ton in common except one's a Black man and one's a white woman who grew up conservative believing a lot of anti-Black, anti-immigrant stereotypes. She went through a radical transformation where she began to see, as she said to me, "I used to think it was us versus them, but now I know that for us to come up they've got to come up too because as long as we're divided," she told me, "we're conquered. Racism is bad for white workers too because it keeps us divided from our Black and brown brothers and sisters."
Melissa Harris-Perry: Heather McGhee hosts the new podcast, The Sum of Us. It's a production by Higher Ground which was founded in 2018 by former President and First Lady Obama, and it's available now wherever you get your podcast.
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