Program Coordinator, Kaufman Interfaith Institute
Is it win-lose, or can we all grow together?
Is it right to assume our children will have even more success than we did? After all, they have so many privileges that we didn’t have.
As a first-time mother of a senior, I have just traversed the college application process with my daughter. I am ashamed to say that I fell into this mindset in all the ways that showed deep-seated indoctrination from the greater American society and from my own Pakistani immigrant background. Growing up, my brother and I saw our parents’ hard work and knew that nothing less than our best would be good enough. We worked hard and went to good colleges leading to wonderful opportunities to serve our communities in our own unique ways. When I had my own kids, I thought they would have more opportunities than we had growing up. With hard work they would go to even better colleges than we did because of the privilege, access, and support they had received growing up.
This year, the college application process, like everything in the world with COVID, was very different. Many institutions made entrance exams optional, leading to the highest application rates ever seen, and thus acceptance rates dropped significantly. For our family this resulted in rejections from schools for which our daughter was very confident. I found myself bewildered and insulted. Why was I taking it personally? Because, I had bought into this idea that one school was good and the other wasn’t.
But then I remembered the advice of a dear friend and a Muslim sister as both of our kids were applying to colleges during COVID. She said, what is meant to be for them will be theirs. They won’t get something that was meant for someone else, and others will not receive what was meant for them. The reminder of this Islamic teaching was comforting and it shook me out of that zero-sum mentality I was wallowing in. I began to question 18 years of thinking that had tainted my outlook for so many years.
This personal example demonstrates the trap of the zero-sum mentality that Heather McGhee talks about in her book “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together.” In diversity, equity and inclusion work I often hear it said that “we need to make the pie bigger,” when helping people see the advantages we all get from engaging in efforts of equity. The notion that equity is a zero-sum proposition -- that for one person to gain another must lose – stands in opposition to what the research and data tell us. People fear that a dollar in someone else’s pocket is a dollar less in my pocket. Or, in my example, admission for their kid means rejection for mine.
McGhee addresses the notion of equity, and true social and economic inclusion, which our country has resisted since its founding. Our country was founded on a toxic narrative that, McGhee in a recent interview said, “was invented to justify stolen land, people, and labor.” In modern days this narrative has transformed into one which now designates certain people as makers and others as takers, taxpayers versus freeloaders, rather than as neighbors or fellow citizens. She argues that the elite require this narrative to perpetuate inequality that only benefits them. The zero-sum narrative does not benefit the poor or working-class white person, the Black, Indigenous or other person of color, nor does it benefit women, LGBTQ+ folks, or those with disabilities.
However, this successfully established implicit narrative in our minds has justified the polarization in our society, resulting in people working against their own best interests just to achieve gains over “the other.” What McGhee argues is that racism and inequality impact everyone, and that policies that seem to only harm one group have more far-reaching repercussions.
A poignant example in the book is of the beautiful public recreational complexes with pools in the South, where only white families enjoyed comfort and relief from the heat prior to widespread air conditioning. When the civil rights movement and legal rulings required that all be admitted access to these pools since they were funded by tax dollars, the cities made the choice to drain the pools and fill them with dirt rather than integrate. They eliminated these complexes as well as the park service departments, resulting in loss of employment and loss of an important community resource. Racism impacted everyone. This example of “drained pool politics” is not uncommon in our U.S. policies and politics.
Heather McGee is an economist and social policy expert. After years of tackling problems of inequality from the economic angle where disparities are compared across groups, she came to realize the missing root cause — racism. Rather than a variable that influenced inequality, McGhee discovered it as the root cause of holding back progress for all Americans. For example, 40% of white workers are not making enough money to support their basic needs. Poverty wages impact all people across the board, not just minorities. The narrative that justice for people of color will come at the expense of white people has historically kept workers from unifying for collective action. However, McGhee documents how recent unified efforts have shown the power people have if they work together.
As interfaith communities work together to seek justice, we must critically examine these polarizing zero-sum narratives. Centering race and racism in our conversations is a necessary paradigm shift that aligns with many aspects of what we value or hold sacred. In my own personal world example, I am reminded of where our pride comes into play when we examine equity, access, and privilege in our society. Are we missing the costs of racism permeating our society?
Through the stories of our American neighbors and with economic analysis, McGhee guides us in her book to better understand how we are stronger together. She calls us as a nation to get on the same page about the truth of our past so that we can move forward into a future together. This united movement will result in what McGhee calls “solidarity dividends.” What if instead of looking at distribution of goods, access, or privilege as a fixed, finite resource, we instead imagine it as the sunshine?
Let us hold this image of the sunshine, something in plentiful supply, even here in Michigan, that we can all appreciate, value, and enjoy together, side-by-side, as serving “the sum of us.”