Too Many Americans See Economics as a Racial Zero-Sum Game

Right now I’m reading “The Sum of Us” by Heather McGhee. It’s a great book and McGhee gives clear but engaging examples of how racialized zero sum thinking has manifested itself throughout American history.

There’s a huge elephant in the room when talking about race or racism in America. We avoid it, but regardless of race, class, gender, political ideology, religion, citizenship status, etc., millions and millions of Americans believe in one incredibly powerful logical fallacy: that minority progress, particularly the progress of black people, is, by definition, achieved by taking things from white people.

We compartmentalize it differently, we reconcile it differently, we think it applies to varying degrees, we address or dismiss it differently, but it’s there. That base assumption is central to a vast variety of discourse — ”blacks are lazy,” “Mexicans take our jobs,” arguments against affirmative action, what people think of when they hear words such as “diversity,” which immigrants we demonize, etc.

That is the foundation we stand on anytime race and politics inhabit the same conversation. And to paraphrase James Baldwin, the longer you avoid talking about a thing, the sooner it becomes the only thing you talk about, even when you think you are talking about something else.

Since African Americans were emancipated, politicians and elites have fed white Americans the idea that all of their economic hardships is because political opponents redistribute wealth from people who look like them to people who look like me. It’s a base assumption we don’t want to pull out and look at, because if we did, we’d have to admit it is something a critical mass of us believe and accept without knowing, even as the majority of us are not consciously prejudiced. And frankly, you don’t have to be white to believe it either; there are many minorities who believe this more strongly than white people, and even more so when that redistribution is framed as “handouts” to black folk.

From housing to welfare to affirmative action to unions, etc., there is a pervasive idea that progress for minorities, especially black Americans, can only be achieved by taking things away from white people or other more “deserving” minorities.

The concept of “They win = We lose” is everywhere in our culture. So we can’t have a conversation about economic anxiety without understanding how that “anxiety” is racialized, why people with the same economic hardships as white Americans didn’t vote for Trump, and the divergent culturalist versus structuralist rationale about why poor white Americans are poor versus, let’s say, why poor black or Latino Americans are poor.

Imagine any politician, at any point in American history, telling poor white Americans that the reason they are poor is because they are lazy, lack ingenuity, entitled, disorganized, uneducated, refuse to move to places of better opportunity, refuse to adapt to shifting economies, complain too much, ask for handouts, rather cling to outdated jobs than learn how to code, and don’t have the desire to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps.

We know this would never happen and understand why — on logical, moral, and emotional levels. And yet, from the most virulent white supremacist who spreads these ideas to the most compassionate liberal who emphatically disagrees, both see these reasonings as “logical” when applied to black folk.

No one is asking anyone to not be empathetic to poor or economically struggling white people, their lives, or their concerns. But we need to understand the biases and base assumptions we internalized to make it not only easy, but reactionary, and even socially required to publically empathize with white Americans in ways we do not for any other group.

Voters across all races favor economic policies (healthcare, education funding, etc.) that make their life easier. When you look at stats, there aren’t much difference between races when you present these policies without party affiliation. But historically, both parties (though much more so the contemporary Republican Party) have lured the white vote (and votes from other non-black demographics) by successfully framing (explicitly or implicitly) these policies as redistribution from whites to minorities, specifically black people.

When you look at the way race is inseparable from American politics, anti-blackness is political soccer. Ironically, racial zero sum thinking hurts us all — making policies and public investments that would help us all (regardless of race) untenable.

“The Sum of Us” is a necessary intervention, and I hope folks read it.

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