Racism costs everyone; refuse to play the zero sum game (#89)

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Jean Latting
May 23, 2023
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This discussion covers the roots of racism, who suffers from it, and what can be done about it. Spoiler: it’s not just people of color.

Highlights from this week’s interview

In this vlog, Jean moderates a discussion about The Sum of Us: What racism costs everyone and how we can prosper together, by Heather McGhee. It was produced by Unity of Houston’s Healing the Heart of America Book Club: Mary Bearden, Zelda Benson, Pam Bregenzer, Alyce Coffey, Jean Latting, and Linda Patterson.

Below are the highlights. For the full discussion, download the transcript.

Download Transcript

Moderator: Jean Latting 0:04

The premise of the book is that racism has hurt not only people of color, but White people as well. McGhee explains how we can all benefit from finding ways to live, learn, and work together.

The zero-sum game is considered by many to provide the foundation of what it means to enjoy the benefits of America, but it doesn't have to be.

What is a zero sum? 01:12

Presenter: Zelda Benson, Unity of Tustin (California)

Basically, the zero sum is this false theory that there's only so much of a pie to go around. Meaning that if they win, we lose. Or if we win, they lose. What we want to seek is your interest, my interest, and how can we come together in our common interest to both achieve more?

Zero Sum Paradigm: Racial Resentment — At What Price? 4:08

Presenter: Pam Bregenzer

The zero-sum story of racial hierarchy was born along with the country. It was, created to justify our original economic policies which were stolen people, land, and labor.

American citizenship became aligned with freedom and Whiteness, shutting out and dehumanizing people of color. Black men were depicted as ferocious animals, while Native Americans were called savages and wolves.

A nation's well-being depends upon a sense of cooperation, informed by the knowledge that no individual can accomplish alone what the nation can achieve collectively. However, throughout American history, socioeconomic benefits have often been available to Whites only, thereby creating generational wealth.

The Homestead Acts of the 1800s left Blacks without land. Loans during the Great Depression were redlined to exclude Black neighborhoods. Social Security left out Black occupations such as domestic and agricultural workers. Benefits provided through the GI Bill after WW II were denied to most Black veterans. Racial covenants excluded Blacks from the new suburbs. Unions were closed to people of color. The accumulation of government exclusion and neglect led to Black poverty, slums, and lack of access to education.

Racism has literally drained the pool and cost us all. By World War II, 2,000 public pools had been built across the nation. When public pool use was integrated in the ‘50s closings happened across the country. Others were allowed to fall into disrepair. Millions of White Americans who once swam for free now had to pay for members only swim clubs. A once public resort became a luxury amenity and entire communities lost out on the many benefits they previously enjoyed.

Even college financial support, which had been no-interest grants to White students, became crushing financial loans, which hurt poorer Whites as well as Blacks. Healthcare has been closed off to poor communities, Black and White. By labeling any government support as socialism, poor Whites have been induced to renounce such support, lest they share the stigma.

More Costs to Us All 22:43

Presenter: Linda Patterson

The subprime mortgage crisis of 2008 was the most traumatic event in the life of the nation since the Great Depression; 5.6 million homeowners lost their homes to foreclosure during this crisis. Associated losses included $19.2 trillion in household wealth and 8 million jobs. The precursor to this event was the marketing of subprime loans primarily to Black and Brown families during the ‘90s and early 2000s. These loans started to be aggressively and deceptively marketed to people who could have qualified for less expensive prime loans, and then to existing homeowners as refinancing loans. Lenders, brokers, and investors targeted people of color because they thought they could get away with it — because of racism, they could.

Heather McGhee maintains that our democracy is even less equal than our economy. And the two inequalities are mutually reinforcing.

McGhee reminds us that the anti-democratic concept of minority rule and rule by only the wealthiest of White men, in fact, was the original design of American government. One way to secure slave states’ ratification of the Constitution was the institution of the Electoral College, which was designed to give slave states an advantage in electing the president.

With voter suppression, efforts to diminish Black and Brown political participation has also limited the choices and voices of poor White Americans and thwarted the working-class coalitions that could have made economic and social life richer for all.

In one of the final chapters of the book called The Hidden Wound, Heather McGhee outlines the moral, psychological and spiritual costs of racism for White people: these costs include religious confusion, moral conflict, and self-delusion.

Religious confusion in White Christians, for example, arises from the disconnect between the teachings of Jesus and the lack of attention paid by our churches to the evil of racism. Moral conflict arises from the fact that no one wants to feel that they benefit from a system that hurts others. Denial is a seemingly easy way to avoid this discomfort. Two of the most pernicious examples of self-delusion are the myth of meritocracy by asserting that individual merit, not systemic factors, determine who gets ahead. In that way, White people with inherited advantages or wealth are absolved from any responsibility for the disparities we see all around us. The myth of meritocracy is supported by the notion that colorblindness is either possible or to be desired.

Contrary to our collective memory, segregation in America didn't originate in the South, nor was it ever confined to the Jim Crow states. Jim Crow laws and their precursors to the North were instituted by the White power structure as a reaction to the threat of class solidarity. Few people today understand the extent to which governments at every level forced Americans to live apart throughout our history and the extent to which that legacy is still with us. No governments in modern history, save apartheid South Africa and Nazi Germany, have segregated as well as the United States has. While segregation is typically thought of as something done to people of color, today’s segregation isolates White people most of all.

McGhee mentions the unknown part of Brown v Board of Education, that of an appendix filed by 32 social science experts. The appendix explained the harm of segregation to White children: “White children who learn the prejudices of our society… were being taught to gain personal status in an unrealistic and non-adaptive way. They were not required to evaluate themselves in terms of the more basic standards of actual personal ability and achievement. What's more, they often develop patterns of guilt feelings and rationalizations to protect themselves, recognizing the essential injustice of their unrealistic fears and hatreds of the minority groups.”

Wrote McGhee: “The now-lost rationale for why segregation must fall — the rationale that included the cost to us all — might have actually uprooted segregation in America.”

We Found the Enemy and It’s Not Each Other 42:22

Presenter: Alyce Coffey

The current rules of the game allow a small minority of participants to capture most of the gains. It is hard for anybody — especially Blacks — to climb the hierarchy to success.


  • Pandemic relief was unevenly distributed nationally and internationally in the last two years.
  • A brain drain on people choosing to work in the public sector or education due to low wages is not good. This deprives all communities from benefiting from some of our brightest minds
  • High student loans cause many young people to delay marriage, buy homes, and have families.
  • Crime and education are inversely correlated.
  • Air pollution affects everyone. Neighborhoods near the Houston Ship Channel and in the Baytown area suffer the emissions from the ships and oil refineries. These neighborhoods are treated as sacrifice zones.
  • Growing anti-government sentiment and pushback on government proposals and programs leave many neighborhoods without adequate police protection, school building improvements, and timely trash collection.

John Louis said, “Start a good fight.” Are we willing to live our Unity principles? Do we believe that Blacks deserve to live with less? What are we blind to? What inconvenience are we willing to undertake to bridge the racial divide? What have we done that's contributing to the problem? Are we strong enough to work on this problem?

Let diversity be our superpower.

Thank you 53:59

Moderator: Jean Latting

On behalf of this amazing, hardworking, dedicated planning team, we thank you all for being here. We have enjoyed just your presence. We enjoy planning. And we hope you will share the wealth.

Each one, teach one. Find somebody in your life who doesn't know anything that we've covered today and share it.


The views and opinions expressed in this or other blog posts at www.leadingconsciously.com are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Leading Consciously. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion, and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, organization, company, individual, or anyone or anything.

Questions to ask yourself

  1. What did you learn from this discussion?
  2. Now that you've learned it, how will you teach it?
  3. Are you ready to start a good fight?

Leading Consciously skills
covered in this blog post

  • Commit to personal change
  • Emphasize changing systems, not just individuals
  • Set direction, not fixed outcomes
  • Acknowledge small wins

#BetheChange    #StartaGoodFight   #EachOneTeachOne

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