In my research and writing on disparities, I learned to focus on how white people benefited from systemic racism: Their schools have more funding, they have less contact with the police, they have greater access to health care. These hallmarks of white privilege are not freedoms that racial justice activists want to take away from white people, however — they’re basic human rights and dignities that everyone should enjoy. And the right wing is eager to fill the gap when we don’t finish the sentence.
For an entire generation of American politics, racist stereotypes and dog whistles have strengthened the hand that beat progressives in the fight against rising inequality. But did white people win? No: Many of them lost good jobs, benefits and social mobility along with the rest of us not born into wealth.
The task ahead, then, is to unwind this idea of a fixed quantity of prosperity and replace it with what I’ve come to call Solidarity Dividends: gains available to everyone when they unite across racial lines, in the form of higher wages, cleaner air and better-funded schools.
I’ll never forget Bridget, a white woman I met in Kansas City who had worked in fast food for over a decade. When a co-worker at Wendy’s first approached her about joining a local Fight for $15 group pushing for a livable minimum wage, she was skeptical. “I didn’t think that things in my life would ever change,” she told me. “They weren’t going to give $15 to a fast food worker. That was just insane to me.”
But Bridget attended the first organizing meeting anyway. And when a Latina woman rose and described her life — three children in a two-bedroom apartment with bad plumbing, the feeling of being “trapped in a life where she didn’t have any opportunity to do anything better” — Bridget, also a mother of three, said she was struck by how “I was really able to see myself in her.”
“I had been fed this whole line of, ‘These immigrant workers are coming over here and stealing our jobs — not paying taxes, committing crimes and causing problems,’” Bridget admitted. “You know, us against them.”
Soon after she began organizing, the cross-racial movement had won a convert. “In order for all of us to come up, it’s not a matter of me coming up and them staying down,” she said. “It’s the matter of: In order for me to come up, they have to come up too. Because honestly, as long as we’re divided, we’re conquered.”
Ms. McGhee is the author of “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together,” from which this essay is adapted.
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