Examples from Maine underscore importance of building multiracial coalitions, author says

Why doesn’t the U.S. have nice things? 

That’s the question Heather McGhee, author of the book “The Sum of Us” and former president of the think tank Demos, discussed Thursday during a keynote address at Policy Insights, a semi-annual conference held by the Maine Center for Economic Policy. 

In her address, McGhee noted the dearth of a strong safety net system in the U.S compared to other, less wealthy countries. But she also expressed optimism that models of multiracial power building, including strategies that have been employed in Maine, can provide a path forward toward creating a society where no one is left behind. 

The main obstacle to achieving that goal is what McGhee refers to in “The Sum of Us” as a “zero-sum” politics — the idea that progress for one group comes at the expense of another group. 

Specifically, McGhee said white people often view policies that help people of color as coming at the expense of progress for them. That view, which McGhee said isn’t borne out by reality, isn’t an accident. Instead, McGhee said zero-sum politics has long been sold to white people by elites who have an interest in keeping struggling people divided along racial lines. 

“It’s that self-interested elite that uses this zero-sum story to make white Americans more distrustful and disdainful of their neighbors and their fellow Americans and therefore more resentful of the idea of any kind of benefits that could go to the people they see as competitive to them, even if those same benefits could actually help them themselves,” McGhee said. 

McGhee explained that this dynamic has been at play in the U.S. for a long time. She used the example of Montgomery, Alabama, which at one point had swimming pools that were publicly funded. However, the pools excluded people of color and when civil rights advocates requested that the facilities be integrated, the city government instead decided to drain the pools. While doing research for “The Sum of Us,” McGhee traveled to the park where the pools used to be, calling it “desolate.” 

“It stood for me as a sobering and terrible reminder of the cost of racism and the extent of the disdain for Black and brown people held by a white population and then legislated by a white-dominated government,” she said. “But it also seemed to stand in for the idea that racism can have a cost for everyone.” 

In her research, McGhee found many examples across the country of what she called “drained pool politics” — instances when racialized resentment led to an absence of public services, disproportionately harming people of color but also negatively impacting white people. 

McGhee argued that in order to successfully create a society that puts the needs of the public first, zero-sum politics must be left behind. The best way to do that, she said, is making investments in “solidarity dividends” — mulitracial coalitions of people united around the common goal of creating a world that works for everyone.

The good news, McGhee said, is that even though she saw a litany of examples of “drained pool politics” across the country, she also identified myriad instances of the significant progress that can be made when the “solidarity dividend” model is used. 

One example is Maine, she said. While the state saw obvious instances of zero-sum politics designed to divide Mainers along racial lines during former Gov. Paul LePage’s time in office, McGhee said there have also been a number of victories that were only possible because of multiracial organizing. 

On the policy side, McGhee pointed to a ballot initiative passed in 2017 over the objections of LePage that expanded Medicaid in Maine. That measure was helped to victory by a multiracial organizing effort, McGhee said, noting how immigrant communities organized Somali taxi drivers to help older, homebound Mainers get the polls. 

McGhee also used Maine as an example of the interpersonal progress that multiracial organizing can lead to. She said during her travels in the state, she met two white residents of Lewiston who were close to succumbing to diseases of despair, such as isolation and addiction, that have become increasingly prevalent among middle-aged white people in the U.S. However, she said both of the people she spoke with found new leases on life by becoming involved with Lewiston’s New Mainer community. 

“For Cecile, it was through the Franco cultural center, relearning the language of her childhood by being taught it by francophone Africans and then creating more connections between the white francophone Mainers and the New Mainers from African, francophone countries,” McGhee said. “And for Bruce it was leaving a life of addiction and finding a new purpose organizing with Maine People’s Alliance.” (Beacon is a project of MPA.) 

Those examples from Maine, and the numerous other instances she witnessed across the country, have given her hope for the future, McGhee said, and a belief in the power and necessity of building multiracial coalitions.

“These solidarity dividends are fully within reach,” she said.

Photo: Heather McGhee at Thursday’s event | Photo via screenshot 

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