Heather McGhee Talks About the Amazing Future that the Multiracial Governing Coalition Will Bring – Transcript


Kirk: Welcome to Let’s Hear It.

Eric: Let’s Hear It is a podcast for and about the field of foundation and nonprofit communications, produced by its two co-hosts, Eric Brown and Kirk Brown. No relation.

Kirk: Well said, Eric. And I’m Kirk.

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Eric: So let’s get onto the show.


Kirk: And we’re back. Welcome in.

Eric: Come on in.

Kirk: We’re glad you found us. We’re glad we found you.

Eric: You over there. Come in.

Kirk: It’s Let’s Hear It. We’re so happy to have you. So happy you found us. We’re so happy to be talking with and at you and about things we really care about, including the sum of us.

I’m gonna ask you to set this up, Eric, but I’m a little starstruck. This is real star power know. Wow. So set this up. This is really, wow, this is great.

Eric: Heather McGhee’s on television and she’s –

Kirk: Man alive.

Eric: She’s on Dax Shepherd and other things.

Kirk: Do you know what Heather McGhee was doing in February, 2024?

Eric: Please tell me.

Kirk: Interviewing Michelle Obama on Michelle Obama’s podcast about Michelle Obama’s book.

Eric: I have heard of both of those people. Very impressive.

Kirk: By the transitive property of podcast. We are, we have now been on Michelle Obama’s podcast, so this is great. It’s rare air. It’s rare air.

Eric: One degree of separation from Michelle Obama.

Kirk: Heather McGhee!

Eric: And no degrees from Heather McGhee, who is an extraordinary human being. So she’s the author of The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone, and How We Can Prosper Together. She’s the former CEO of Demos and we had Sabeel Rahman from Demos, the Think and Do Tank. So we have now had two Demos CEOs on the show, which I think says something.

And she’s just an extraordinary writer and person and she is cool and so much fun to talk to, and I learned from her and I deeply appreciate her for joining us on the show.

Kirk: So let’s talk about a couple of things Heather’s created. So of course there’s The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone, and How We Can Prosper Together.

That’s also been adapted for young readers, which I think is so cool. So there’s actually two pieces there, and then in addition. Heather has done a podcast, the Sum of Us podcast, breaking down, um, different aspects of the work as she sees it moving forward. And it’s super cool to see all that work. And then I do want to say one thing, ’cause there’s something very aggressive that said very early in this podcast, we just gotta clean it up.

Heather McGhee has said that tater tots are a hate crime. And, and I just, you know, I we’re just gonna leave it there. Leave it at that. But I do wanna say we leave, everyone makes their own opinions, makes their own assessments. But I do wanna, I do wanna make that statement right up front.

Eric: You know, tater tots are basically the head cheese of potatoes.

Kirk: You understand that I’m a native Iowan. Right?

Eric: I understand.

Kirk: So some of us, some of us grew up. You know, tater tots are their own food group for some of us. So, so I just, I just want to, I just, just think this isn’t really, let’s get that, let’s get some clarity there. All we, we won’t, we won’t address that.

Eric: We briefly referenced what’s the matter with Kansas. I think that we now have to add Iowa.

Kirk: Yeah. We do have to. That’s another, that’s another episode.

Eric: Fair enough.

Kirk: Let’s get into this. This is Heather McGhee on Let’s Hear It, talking about The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone, and How We Can Prosper Together. This is Heather McGhee. We will listen to the conversation and come back.


Eric: Welcome to Let’s Hear It. My guest today is Heather McGhee. Speaker, advocate, she’s the author of The Sum of Us, What Racism Costs Everyone, and How We Can Prosper Together. Heather is the former president of Demos. She’s chair of the Board of Color of Change, and she’s a regular contributor on NBC and oh boy. Oh boy. This is gonna be fun. Heather, thank you so much for joining us today.

Heather: My pleasure, Eric.

Eric: So I have to tell you, I have to confess to you that I’ve spent more time preparing for this interview than I have in the five years and a hundred episodes that we have, and it’s a million reasons. One is that I want to do you justice.

Two is that the work that you’re doing is speaking to so many of the conversations that we have had over these five years. And so my brain gets all mushy and I’m trying to now kind of disentangle and tangle all of the threads in it. And I think that this conversation is gonna have such, is gonna be such an important part of what we’ve been talking about.

So I spent an extra time and that’s probably why I’ll screw it up. But thank you so much, Heather. I just, I’m delighted to meet you and to have you. This is so cool. I’m glad to be here, Eric, and we’ll, we’ll have fun. I’m planning to have fun. I’m not gonna ask you tater tots or french fries. This is an inside joke.

You did this really fun conversation with Alicia Garza and Ai-jen Poo and that was like the first question they asked you.

Heather: What are you talking about? Tater tots are hate crime. I hate tater tots.

Eric: Because we’re not there in our relationship yet for me to ask you that question. Alright, so let’s, let’s dive in.

Now you’ve spent your career working for racial justice and you wrote this book The Sum of Us that helps people understand the high cost of racism to all Americans. So I wanna talk about this book and we’ll talk about a whole bunch of other things, but the book is a challenging book. I mean, you spend a fair amount of time talking about the painful, terrible legacies of racism in America. And you begin to suggest how we can undo these legacies and you claim to be an optimist, and so you’re like holding this book is kind of holding intention, the challenges that we’re dealing with on a daily basis and the potential for change and in coming up with a better solution. How do you hold both of these realities?

Heather: First of all, Eric, I should say I, I wanted to interrupt you when you said you spent your career working for racial justice, and that’s basically true, but I actually spent my whole career working for economic justice. That was really where I got my start. It was why I went into working in public policy and politics is because I wanted to fix the economy to make it better for most people who were being very ill served by the economic elite and the rules that they set and.

It wasn’t it, you know, I’m a black woman. I, I care about race and racial justice and communities of color, but that was not, I’m not like a civil rights lawyer, right? That is not what my career has been in, and my career has been in financial regulatory policy and taxation and wage and labor policy and industrial policy.

And so, but what I discovered, and really the sum of us is in so many ways. My kind of reflection on that discovery is that you can’t get to a world where everyone’s got a fair shot and has nice things like universal healthcare and paid family leave and childcare, and a great job without dealing with the racism in our politics and our policy making that’s holding us back.

So I did just want to kind of make that correction because it’s an important part of how I got there and an important part of the journey that I take readers on. Most of the people who read the sum of us are not. People who care first and foremost about racial justice. They’re people who are puzzled by the dysfunction in our society and wanna understand what gives and, and my answer is, is that it is so often the impact of racist, zero sum thinking on our society that is causing all these vexing public problems.

It’s almost because of that, Eric, that I’m able to be optimistic because I used to be a generalist who would wake up and work on all of these different public policy issues, rising student debt, low paid work, climate change, and you know, I think that is something that gets you overwhelmed and exhausted because it feels like, oh gosh, we are going in the wrong direction on so many different areas.

There’s just so many. Issues where the wealthy and the powerful have way too much sway and there’s so much self-sabotage going on of our society and. Once you realize that there’s sort of a, a common set of problems and sort of faulty thinking and political dynamics that have so much to do with race that are kind of a common thread underneath each and every one of these issues.

I actually became more optimistic because I felt like, well, if you could just pull at that common thread than progress on each of these issues will be closer at hand. And so, you know, fundamentally, Eric, I’m, I’m optimistic because I know that. Decisions by powerful people made the world we’re in today and better decisions can make a better world.

And and we’re not that far off from those better decisions. It tends to be, you know, a few tens of thousands of votes in any given state that can make big swings in our public policy happen. And usually what’s stopping us from having a kind of multiracial governing coalition that is oriented towards progress is just how much racism there is in our political election, that cycle.

Eric: Well let, let’s talk a little bit more. You talked about the zero sum game and much of what your book is about and what you’ve been talking about lately is, is the zero sum game. Can you just talk more about that? I, I won’t explain it. You, you do a better job.

Heather: What I discovered on the course of the journey that I took, which ended up being the sum of us, is that our collective economic progress is being held back by. Lie. And that lie is the lie of the zero sum game. It’s a story, a collective worldview that is a predominant one in the us, which on the rise in the US it’s one that says that there’s kind of a fixed pie of wellbeing.

And if I get a bigger slice, that must mean that you get a smaller slice. And according to the research, it’s actually a racialized worldview in that. One, the story goes, it’s racial and ethnic groups that are sort of competing with one another for dominance and status and belonging. And interestingly, it’s racialized because white Americans are far more likely to view the world through this zero sum prism than our Americans of color.

Generally speaking. Folks of color don’t think that our progress has to come at white folks expense. But the reverse isn’t true. And so when I learned about this kind of zero sum mindset that is increasingly predominant in our society, it really was a big aha for me. ’cause it helped explain some of the dynamics in our political conversation, our economic conversation, our policy discourse.

And that all goes really counter to the way economists see the world. We generally speaking, it’s not a zero sum game. It’s like a regular sports game, right? Where you want all the players on the field scoring points for your team. You don’t want anyone sidelined due to debt discrimination, disadvantage.

And you know, the economist at Citigroup, for example, calculated that because inequality is bad for growth. They actually put a number on it. They said that the black white economic divide costs the US economy $16 trillion over the last 20 years. And so that’s a really just one big killer fact about the ways in which it’s not a zero sum game.

We don’t want players that can’t gore as many points as their God-given potential. But the problem with the zero sum lie is it says we’re not all on the same team. This zero sum story, which you can hear echoes of in so much of our discourse, is really pernicious and it’s underlying a lot of the self-sabotage that we see in our society.

Eric: You talk about narrative a lot, and I. We talk about it on this show a lot. A lot. And everybody wants to shop in the narrative aisle if, you know, if you’re working a nonprofit or I don’t know if they, they click on the narrative button online. I don’t know if people shop in the aisle anymore. But the the idea is that we wanna control the narrative and that the narrative is, is this story.

So that feels like this is an important narrative. Important. With a, I don’t know. It’s an important narrative in American society that among some folks that think. That there is a zero sum aspect to our society. It feels to me like there is a almost parallel and equally pernicious narrative. Like the American Dream myth, the Horatio Alger myth, if you work hard and play by the rules, which was something that Bill Clinton talked a lot about.

Mm-Hmm. That you will get ahead. Mm-Hmm. So there are these, maybe these two narratives that are overarching our, either our economy or our politics. A, do you agree that these are these two very powerful narratives that seem to kind of crowd out many of the other countervailing narratives that folks would love to be able to promote?

Like. We all benefit when there is diversity, when we have the opportunity that when everybody gets a chance to, to be on the field or be on the team. Do you think that I have this largely right or are there other narratives that you think that are equally powerful that are just kind of vying for prominence?

Heather: I think that those are largely right, and I think the relationship between them is what’s the most interesting to me because the American dream is an individualistic narrative, right? It’s, it is one that says that I control my destiny. And that, you know, there’s something embedded in there around a meritocracy, right?

The idea that really you get wealthy by being amazing and by working really hard. And the flip side is that if you’re not wealthy, you’re not amazing, and you don’t work hard. But the other question that I think is really important that the right wing really make sure to poke, which is not just, you know, are you in control of your destiny and what does it take for you to succeed?

But how should you think about other people’s success? How should you think about other people making progress? And so that’s where the zero sum really kicks in, right? Because so much of what drives the grievance narrative of Trumpism. Isn’t about, you know, I mean in some ways like, I wish he was talking more about like, be rich like me enroll in Trump University.

I’ll make the country Trump University, you know, but instead he’s talking about like, you, you should vote for me because I will stop migrant children. It’s a very much about who are these other people who are encroaching on your American dream and I am going to beat them down with a stick so that you can flourish.

Eric: And you argue that this is so self-defeating, and you tell this story about how people would close public pools rather than let black people swim in them. Mm-Hmm. So white people would close public pools rather, so people would literally drain their own pool. To keep other people from being able to experience or join in the same public goods that taxpayers paid for.

And then we saw Robert Frank asking, what’s the matter with Kansas? And apparently he didn’t notice that there’s a race problem in America. But like, wondering out loud, why do people vote against their interests? Mm-Hmm. Can you just say more about that? I mean, you’re, you started talking about it, but. It seems kind of amazing to, to me and to others, that people would be so self-defeating in their actions, in their politics. You even say the people are more liberal than the people that they elect.

Heather: Yeah.

Eric: Yeah. And so I’d love to hear you say more about that.

Heather: Yeah. I mean, you know, first, like what are we really talking about here? Right? We’re talking about the fact that the majority of white Americans have rejected the Democratic candidate for president ever since a Democrat, Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act into law, right?

And there’s never again been a white majority support for the Party of the New Deal, which is the party that created the white middle class. And once that new deal, which was a set of economic public goods from Social Security to the GI Bill to massive investment in housing and the guarantee of mass home ownership, high labor standards, and collective bargaining, right?

That whole program that created the greatest middle class the world had ever seen, all of it was racially exclusionary in one way or another. I talk about that in the second chapter of the book. So I, I, I make the parallel that the New Deal was kind of like a whites only public pool, of which, you know, there were nearly 2000 in the country.

These big grand resort style public swimming pools that were also part of the New Deal, sort of real solid public, good, non-economic, public good. And once those public goods were integrated. The promise of our economy being offered to everyone who had contributed to it, not just white people in the seventies and eighties, in that sort of turbulent time of social change, that was when you really began to see the majority of white voters saying, I don’t, I don’t need to swim in this pool anymore.

I don’t need this new deal paradigm that says that government and business and workers are gonna, you know, work together to create a high standard of living. No, I’m, I’m gonna side with the rich white guys. I’m gonna side with the Republicans. I’m gonna side with the conservatives who are saying that it’s all about the market, and what do we really mean when we’re talking about the market?

Is it like a shopping plaza or a portal or a pound square? No, we mean rich people. We mean, you know, the market is big corporations and the people who are successful financially in this rigged. Economic system. And so that ideological shift away from communitarian politics, away from collectivism, away from the new deal is one that has brought, you know, major havoc over our economic life.

It’s brought us the inequality era. It’s brought us. The destruction of labor unions and deindustrialization and a stagnant minimum wage and policy that doesn’t keep up with the way families live. Right? And of course, who’s been impacted by that, just like a drained pool, everybody. And so that certainly is the big argument, is that white voters have paid an economic cost alongside the rest of us for turning their backs on the formula that created the middle class.

That it’s largely racial resentment and a sort of anti-government sentiment that is really inflected by anti-blackness and the Association of Government and Public goods with undeserving people of color that has really sort of fueled the right wing economic agenda to redistribute wealth upwards. Now, I don’t think, however, that white people have voted against their own interests.

So do, and so, you know, we need to define interest broadly. I say that there have been costs for the average white voter for sure. The average white voter pays too much for everything from healthcare to childcare, and you know, all of that. Right? Then they would, if, if, if we’d allowed the new deal to keep growing and expanding, but ultimately, a.

White folks are doing okay, relatively speaking, right, relative to black and brown families at every level of education, right? And in some ways, what you have is beyond a certain level of subsistence that is necessary, mainly important to you because it reveals kind of who you are and what your worth is.

And so if you’ve got other. Signifiers that are powerful in our society that are saying, you’re wor, you’re still at the top of this food chain, right? You’re still the default American. You are still the real American. You’re still on this, this team, this really powerful team that is winning. Then that’s communicating something that might be worth, you know, a few thousand more dollars in your pension.

  1. E. B. Du Bois called it the wages of whiteness. That the white workers in the South were willing to be paid in a psychological wage. Instead of linking arms with black workers to demand higher real material wages, they’d rather be separate and apart because that paid its own psychological wage. So I guess I just, I’m always a little bit reluctant to say that white people who are voting against a fair economy are voting against their own interests.

They may be voting against their own material interests. But there are other interests.

Eric: Yeah. Well, it’s a little early in the day for me to start drinking, but after this break we’re gonna talk about what to do about all of this. So we’re gonna take a quick break with Heather McGhee.


Eric: You are listening to Let’s Hear It, a podcast about foundation and nonprofit communications hosted by Eric Brown and Kirk Brown. If you’re enjoying this episode, you may just be a rule breaker. Tune in to Break Fake Rules, a new limited series podcast with Glen Galaich, CEO of the Stupski Foundation. Hear from leaders in philanthropy, nonprofits, government, media, and more to learn about challenges they’ve overcome by breaking fake rules and which rules we should commit to breaking together. We are also sponsored by the Conrad Prebys Foundation. Check out their amazingly good podcast, and we’re not just saying that, Stop and Talk, hosted by Prebys Foundation CEO, Grant Oliphant. You can find them at stopandtalkpodcast.com. And now back to the show.


Eric: We are back with Heather McGhee. I did a quick shot over the break, so I’m, you know, I feel girded. No, but let’s now talk about what you call the solidarity dividend.

I mean, this is really the, the flip side of the zero sum concept. What is this competing narrative? That we can work together to promote and come up with a solidarity dividend. Let’s talk about this a little bit.

Heather: It’s basically the idea that we have to acknowledge that we need each other and that the most important things in life I simply can’t do on my own.

Right. I, I can read to my son. I could hire him a private tutor. I can’t make his neighborhood school an excellent, well-funded one on my own. That takes all of us. It takes government. I can recycle all I want. I can’t put a dent in global climate change on my own. Right? That takes all of us. It takes collective action.

Collective problem solving is the idea that, of course, there are common solutions to our common problems. And in a multiracial society where racism has been used strategically to cleave the kinds of multiracial working and middle class coalitions that could solve our common problems together and use the power of government and labor unions, other forms of collectivism to fix the things that are broken.

Um, then what’s super powerful is multiracial collective action. And so. This idea, this term that I coined, the solidarity dividend is really about these actual gains, and I used the term dividend for a reason, right? This we’re talking about gains, wins, upsides in our financial lives that we can unlock, but only by coming together in cross racial solidarity.

I love the word solidarity. I think it’s one that we don’t use enough, but it’s something, it’s a very powerful concept that says that we are, we are interconnected, that we, that no one should fight alone. That an injury to one is an injury to all I. And in the back half of the book, I tell a number of stories that I then expand in the podcast to the sum of us, which is a narrative documentary podcast telling nine different stories of multiracial coalitions in overlooked places across the country.

People coming together across lines of race to do together what we simply can’t do on our own. They’re really winning against these problems that are caused in whole or in part by systemic racism. But these are coalitions of white, black, and brown, indigenous and immigrant people being willing to put away zero sum thinking and roll up their sleeves and link arms across race, and they win.

Eric: They’re, they’re really great. I, my favorite I think was Lewiston, Maine, but there was a, a bunch of them that were really fabulous. So the, your book came out, I think two weeks after Joe Biden was inaugurated, if I have that correct. Yeah. And a lot of folks are just trying to shake off the pain. It was four miserable years.

And I was like, okay, fine. Biden is here. And I knew nobody thought he was gonna save the day, but they were like, okay, things are gonna get better. And since then, the government has allocated over a trillion dollars in clean energy and infrastructure spending, which feels to me like a spectacular opportunity to make this case that the pie is getting bigger.

Whatever metaphor you wanna use. Mm-Hmm. Although I think a lot of folks are still seeing that there’s resistance. Through taking the money or they don’t trust or whatever the the right is trying to spin this. Into another, yet another zero sum narrative. A how do you feel this opportunity is going so far and where are the best ways to continue to talk about the solidarity dividend?

Because there is, there’s a lot more money. Mm-Hmm. On the table. The trick is, yeah. Do we use it to our advantage? And I’m, I’m gonna use the royal wes. You, me, and everybody who cares. And, and how’s that? How’s that go?

Heather: Yeah. Well, I mean. To be honest, much of the agenda that came out of the Democratic trifecta and the first two years of the Biden administration was a, a raft of solidarity dividends.

From the child tax credit, right? Which is just one of those like perfect kind of n deal things. That’s just like, listen, we’re just here to help. You know, we’re just here to say it’s expensive to raise a kid. This is not a complicated program. It’s just like, here’s a little help to every man, woman, and child in a family, right?

Based on how many children you have, and we’re not gonna do universal childcare or you know, paid family leave because. You know, some, for some reason Joe Manchin doesn’t like it, but we can at least do this like that. That is a great example of something that would not have happened. Were not for multiracial coalition and it’s a dividend for everyone, and there was not massive opposition to it.

It was a huge welfare program for everybody. So that’s an example. I also think that, you know, canceling student debt is another really great example of the kind of solidarity dividend where this is about a. Really messed up experiment. We’ve tried with the past couple of generations by saying, let’s drain the pool of public resources around college.

Let’s make it a private membership only thing where you have to pay to go and keep paying through the nose in a way that grows over time. And it’s a complete change from the kinds of financing for higher education that helped put the United States on the map in the 20th century. I. Back when 90 plus percent of the college going population was white.

And so when the administration took up a demand that really began in the black community saying, we need to cancel this debt. This is a racial equity issue. We’ve got generations of young people now who are deliberately locked out of wealth building in the 20th century because of the exclusion from the new deals.

Lars. Now their children and grandchildren are having to pay that same government for the privilege of having gone to college and, and played by the rules. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s a huge wealth drain on the future of the country, and it’s aggravating the already wide racial wealth gap. And then you saw Biden being willing to pick that up.

Then make it something that was for all borrowers, right? That’s a solidarity dividend. And yes, the right wing corporate court knocked it down with a really zero sum argument. I may add, Eric, you know, saying that physically unfair for some people, student borrowers, to get this benefit, you know, like. As if there should be this widespread resentment by the rest of society for our fellow Americans to have a little bit less of a boot on their neck.

I don’t know, but still the administration has canceled, you know, 200 plus billion dollars of, of debt, and that is good for everyone, right? It’s good for the borrowers, it’s good for the borrowers. Next creditors because we’re gonna go out and get other loans and better loans and more useful loans for the future.

We’ll get mortgages. It’s good for the housing industry, good for employers, right? It’s good for families. It’s good for seniors, right? And so all of these ways in which a well-designed answer to a widespread problem, we can only have it. Through a multiracial coalition that puts the right people in power and makes these demands to fix our problems together and rejects the idea that we can just do it on our own, and that there are these widespread benefits that are often really, really obvious ones that go beyond the people who are targeted to get those benefits.

It’s really easy argument to make in a consumer driven economy, right? When parents have more money to spend on their children, you know, you line up the beneficiaries of that.

Eric: So you, your book and this argument, this conversation really feels like a natural extension of the race class narrative work you did at demos.

Mm-Hmm. With Anat Shenker-Osorio and Ian Haney Lopez and I hear about it all the time. Whenever I talk to folks who are out doing their thing, like, oh, we’re using the race class narrative. Can you talk about that and in particular, the work that you did in Minnesota, which you, you talk about in the book. And I also hear from like, oh, the Minnesota thing.

The Minnesota race class thing. It was a way of, of taking this approach and putting it into, frankly, a political area or, Mm-Hmm. And I think it was 2018. Can you talk a little bit about that and how organizations who are listening right now, I mean our audiences foundation and nonprofit communications, people can, can learn from that to apply to their work tomorrow and they should.

Heather: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, so I. The idea for the race class narrative came about because there was a real need in our field when I was at demo os, when organizations, campaigns, candidates, foundations, people were trying to do anything in the world, kept running up against the roadblock of strategic racism, right?

Stopping us from having nice things and from winning on everything from anti-poverty measures to, you know, education, to housing, to climate, right? There was just a very tried and true playbook of strategic racism, looking to wedge voters apart by race in a way that only benefited the, you know, entrenched powerful interests, the polluters, the, the wealthy, et cetera.

And so, Ian Haney Lopez, who was my law professor, and the, and a friend and a kind of co-conspirator, and then a knot who actually knew how to do message development and research and testing. We got together and had dozens of organizations. Leaders, you know, leaders do input into this idea of like, can we have a set of messaging principles that.

Deal with race and class together and that are really focused on creating a multiracial coalition for collective action. And can we deal with our underlying competing narratives around the role of race, around the role of the government, and around the role of the economy. And, um, I know that you’ve had Anat on the show before, so I’m sure she’s gotten way into the weeds, but –

Eric: Mostly she just cursed. She’s very colorful, salty language. I believe I, I referred to, no, I’m sorry. Please go on.

Heather: You know, I think that the thing that makes me really warms my heart about the race class narrative is that it still lives, and more importantly, it’s not just a set of talking points. We knew from the beginning that it would have to live in people and that there would have to be a mechanism for organizations on the ground to be able to work through it for their applied context.

We’re doing a healthcare ballot initiative in Kansas. We’re doing a democracy reform campaign in Florida, whatever it is, right? And that it wasn’t just like, here, take this PowerPoint. It would be like actually. This is the specific Somali community we’re trying to get on board. And this is particularly the rural community.

We’re trying to get on board and here’s what the opposition is saying and how would you counter that? And so there’s this wonderful organization that exists now called We Make the Future. I’m on the advisory board of that is a handful of people who work every day with grassroots advocates and organizers and campaigners and community foundation folks, whoever’s trying to do something together on the ground and they need to sing from the same hymnal.

So the Minnesota example is a great example of a state that had a strong progressive. History, but one that was very challenged by demographic change and new immigrants. And specifically by the right ascendant, right wing kind of tea party right wing, it’s ability to use, uh, demographic change to wedge white voters against the kinds of progressive economic policies that they had supported in the past.

And so there was a campaign rubric that was called Greater Than Fear, and it was basically inviting people in Minnesota. To not be afraid of the future, to not be afraid of their new neighbors, and it in used a very Minnesota specific. Set of images and stories around how people always help each other out in the snow, right?

Minnesota snow, the snow hits and everybody has to help plow each other’s car out and help push their car out of the stuck in the snow. I was in Minnesota a couple years ago and it’s. Soon as I got to the place where I was going with some church or something, that thing was happening. There was literally a group of people trying to push a van out of the snow.

And it was honest to God, like a hijabi woman, an African man, a white, you know, guy with like curly kind of Norwegian hair. I mean, it was just kind of hilarious. And that was used. And of course this is very important that RCN framing was used by. Grassroots organizations on the doors by the teachers unions, by the elected officials and the candidates, right.

So that it was this, you know, ’cause one thing, it’s one thing to have the good words. It’s another thing entirely. It’s usually where we lose for people to actually hear them. We just don’t have the ubiquity. Right. And so in these state and local campaigns, if you. Foundations really help make sure that there is the communications capacity, and if organizations invest in aligning their communications staffs, then you can actually create a little bit of an echo chamber that lifts up and out of the nonprofit ecosystem and becomes something that people actually here.

And what we know is that. Every one of us, and this is not just about getting white people on board. Every single one of us as people in this society, we know the right wing narrative. It is part of us. It is wormed. Its way into our ear. There’s a part of us that will not along a. To the idea that everyone’s in control of their own destiny and you gotta pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

And you know, there are a lot of people who are just trying to game the system. And then we also have in our ears what we would think of as our better angels. The idea that we’ve gotta do it together. And so the question is just. Who’s loudest in our ears, who’s the most recent person we’ve heard be the most compelling about that story before we walk into the polls and before we make decisions? And so that’s really the work.

Eric: We’ll definitely link to that on, on the website as well as the book. There are two other things that are in my head and we’ll just take the time. We need to have, have this conversation ’cause they’re really important. One of them, uh, by the way, Rinku Sen calls it the song that you hear in your head.

Mm-Hmm. Is her shorthand for that narrative. It actually bypasses the brains, you know, front little cortex and it goes straight to your heart or your soul. It’s the, you know, the story and yeah. If you can connect with people at that level, obviously you’ve won in a sense. And it sounds like the Minnesotans were so proud of being Minnesotans who help each other out, that they forgot that someone was, you know, dressed differently or looked differently and, and you were able to appeal, appeal to that in a really effective way, and they felt good about it.

Mm-hmm. But that wasn’t the point that I was trying to make. What I’m hearing in many ways is that if you can shape the narrative, and that is the song that if you can ac help people access that song in, in a way that produces something that is powerful and meaningful and, and progressive in a kind of every sense.

Then you shape everything. Mm-Hmm. And you talk about how, how this other, this other, these other narratives have driven economic policy and social policy and housing policy and you know, he goes on and on and on. But if you shape the narrative, you shape everything. Is that an overstatement? I actually had this conversation this morning with a friend and he pushed back at me.

He’s like, oh, you com comms people think everything is about story, but that’s not what I’m saying. What do you think about that?

Heather: So I think that narrative is 80% of the battle. And given what change makers invest in narrative, it’s useful to just say it’s all the battle because we need to do so much more work on that than everything else.

But I also want to do two things. One, explain that narrative doesn’t just mean messaging, it means a common sense. It means the song you hear and a, and one of the most powerful ways for. A new narrative to take hold or for a, a neglected narrative to rise and become the dominant one is through organizing.

And, you know, most of the stories that I tell in the book and the podcast that some of us are stories about a different narrative, but they’re about a different narrative that people. Began to really see, feel, taste, touch, and hear, and most importantly believe because they saw people being willing to put their bodies on the line to fight for that different narrative and saw them express that different narrative through protest and through strikes, and through action and through organizing.

You know, you can hear a message and say, yeah, that makes sense. But if you see someone, a fast food worker being willing to risk their job for $15 an hour. That is much more powerful than hearing the message that we should raise the minimum wage, right? And so I think. Narrative is, is more than comms. It’s, it’s how we get our belief systems about what’s right and proper and fair.

And, and most often in our society it’s been organizing and protest that has actually moved the needle on that. But then I also think there is a limitation to all of that narrative building, even the ones that are embodied through struggle because we have a system of, um, governance that is rigged. So you can have 88% of the country reject the idea that we should censor what we teach our kids.

It might make white students feel bad, right? 88% of the country thinks we need to teach all of American history, the good and the bad. But then we have over a dozen states passing these laws to ban accurate history. Right? And that’s just because we have these gerrymandered state legislatures. We have a system where there’s very little.

Accountability for, you know, crazy, right-wing experimentation. And same thing with diversity, right? We have a country that supports is not anti diversity, right? And yet we have a six three Supreme Court that is saying that it’s illegal for us to try to create the America that most of us believe should be.

So narrative is more than just words. It’s also actions. And then also narrative. Narrative can be trounced. By raw power, right? And our system, you know, my chapter on democracy in the book is called Never a Real Democracy. ’cause I like to remind myself and others that the system was set up to create these ways in which minorities could rule.

And that’s what we’re seeing as the sort of last ditch effort by an elite minority that wants to stop this multiracial majority from ruling.

Eric: For the record. I totally agree with you. And oh, by the way, Anat was a great guest. I didn’t mean to suggest that she was not. She was one of the best guests we’ve ever had.

Okay. So in the, just the last couple of minutes that we have, you can’t turn around 400 years of history and narrative in an election cycle, but given where we are right now, what gives you the most hope?

Heather: You know, in so many ways? What gives me the most hope is two things. One, I spend most of my time still going around the country.

I need to count up, I think I gave like 19 different talks in different parts of the country in the month of March. And so I’m in Kansas City, I’m in Central Pennsylvania, I’m in Central Missouri. I’m in Ohio. Right. You know, like I’m really all over these places where, you know, most of the nonprofit industrial complexes not, I’m not mostly interacting with movement folks anymore, which I miss socially, but is very interesting politically for me.

I’m here to tell you to report back from the front lines that there is far more. Curiosity about our racial history. There is far more rejection of this newly empowered anti diversity movement. There’s far more of a desire to work together to solve our problems and to not be as divided, um, than the media would make you think.

And that absolutely gives me hope. And what also gives me hope is a related thing, which is that after the summer of 2020 and this massive consciousness raising. What the right winger did was they tried to attack what we read, what we know, what we say. What we think, right? And that’s because consciousness raising is the single most powerful force, right?

It was a absolute volcano eruption of empathy across race that happened in this country with the movement for black lives in 2020, and people woke up. And what the right has really consistently and increasingly feared is an awake, conscious, educated, curious electorate. And so these attacks that are increasingly brazen and ridiculous.

On what we think and, and what we read and, and our ability to just do basic things to try to make our institutions, our education systems, et cetera, more robust and expand the freedom to learn. They’re desperate and they’re desperate because they’re trying to sabotage something that’s been built. I really.

Don’t like using the word backlash to describe this anti diversity front, because backlash makes it seem like some, you know, equal and opposite natural reaction. But this is a sabotage from a very narrow self-interested elite. It’s a sabotage of something that was built, which is a, a multiracial, anti-racist consciousness that has continued to show itself in the polls.

As wanting to reject the politics of divide and Conquer, and I obviously hope that it continues to do so, uh, in 2024, but I’m here to tell you that the deeper consciousness raising that has happened in this country, you can’t undo it. People are not willingly going back to sleep. They’re not unlearning what they’ve learned or unseeing what they saw.

Eric: Heather McGhee, you give me hope. I really appreciate your time. I appreciate I, I just appreciate how you approach this work and the care and real just joy and coolness that you bring to it. Um, it’s above all you gotta be. Cool, I feel it. Thank you so much for talking with us, for your work and, um, I just, I really just can’t thank you enough.


Kirk: Heather McGhee. Wow. Heather McGhee. Tell me about the process. How, because, you know, honestly, I’m kind of surprised Heather made time for us. I’ll be, I’ll be honest, like Heather talks about doing 19 presentations in one month alone. I mean, this is a busy person. Now granted, Let’s Hear It as we’ve established.

Really good idea. Good. We’re doing this, but whatever. Congratulations, Eric, Heather McGhee.

Eric: Anyway, I wouldn’t make time for us, Kirk.

Kirk: We barely make time for us, right?

Eric: I, yes. I was introduced to Heather by a extremely good friend, Ruth Wooden, who was a board member at demos, and Ruth and I, we worked on a project together and she’s just a dear friend and a wonderful person.

And she used to run the ad council and she’s like old timey. She has been in advertising and communications and marketing and nonprofits and have sat on boards for many, many years, and she’s just an extraordinary person. And she just sent a note to Heather and Heather said, well, Ruth. Said, I should talk to you then.

I suppose I, I should. And so thank you to Ruth and to Heather for this great connection and this great opportunity to have such an important and meaningful conversation.

Well, the genius in the words, can we just talk about the title of what she’s done here? Just those four words, the sum of us. I just love that.

Right. And, and, and of course we’re, we’re addressing. The racism that’s at the heart of so many challenges that we see in America, but this framing around this that brings Heather to the work initially, how we can prosper together and. I loved Heather’s reflection. You know? Yes, Eric. This work is deep. It’s deeply looking at racism and how it’s the issues that have come out of these racial divides, but really what we’re talking about here is economic justice, and we cannot fix the economy.

We can’t make this work for all of us if we don’t address the underlying racism, but in that, there’s a way we can bring us together. It’s just, it’s, it’s genius work. It is so cool to hear about this work.

Well, yes, and I mean, I think, was it Goldman Sachs or somebody even put a number on it? Is that 19 trillion?

Kirk: 19 trillion, you can’t even comprehend the scale of the resources we’re talking about here.

Eric: Right. So, so there’s a financial component to it. And, and Heather says that she’s not a, she is not a, by kind of definition, a racial justice advocate. But her work has such implications, and the cost of racism is, it’s not just monetary, it’s.

It’s everything. It, it affects our soul. It affects who we are as humans, everybody. And the cost of it happens to everyone. And I think that point, I felt that really strongly in, in this book. And the book is, I mean, it’s a really, really good book for starters. It’s just a good history book.

Kirk: Well, evidenced based so much data and evidence too, right?

Eric: Yeah. She just goes into the history of, of racism and. Looks at these implications. The, probably the most stark example is when they literally drained the pools, the public pools. Unbelievable story. Once they were desegregated, we also had this conversation about the why. People in Kansas or white people vote against their interest and she says it’s not really their interest.

’cause there are other countervailing interests. Like white supremacy is an interest even if it doesn’t have a financial benefit. Mm-Hmm. And if, even if it has a huge financial cost and, and that the pool thing is a, a perfect example kind of of both, which is by draining the pool white people get to exert their supremacy.

Even if it means that they don’t get to swim anymore. Yeah. And it just shows the, the sickness. We, we, you know, we, you can’t turn on a television. You certainly can’t turn on cable news without seeing how that sickness is manifested in our society, January 6th and this coming election. So what Heather also does is she presents us with the flip side of that.

Which is, you know, the, the dividend that solidarity can produce. That’s the especially exciting part of her work is building this case for how, for for the solidarity dividend, which, you know, you heard in the conversation, I won’t, like, I won’t repeat it, but that’s the point.

Kirk: It’s such a genius idea though.

And you know, I was thinking in other places, Heather has talked about one of the things that drew her to this work is this notion that information in the right hand says power. And of course that’s the. Almost the premise of our podcast, right? Like thinking about how we’re working to make this information more readily available to power communications, to create great progress, great support, great positive change, but that notion of the solidarity dividend and what happens when we’re interconnected.

We recognize that an injury to one is an injury to all. And actually this is the heart of the podcast that Heather’s been doing, is actually lifting up stories and, and she talks about this notion of a multiracial coalition supporting change. And it made me think. You know, we think about the different issues.

What are the main issues that we need to work on? What do we have to sort out? Is division potentially the main issue? Because it seems like whenever it’s possible, the language of division, the framing of division, the, the fear and the uncertainty, the the doubt. This is why trust becomes so important, like eroding that notion of.

There’s actually a real solidarity between people and the work we’re trained to do together to create these, these outsized gains for everybody. And $16 trillion sounds pretty good to me. Like, you know, that sounds like a pretty good starting point in terms of like the progress we could make. I just think this notion of solidarity and the dividend that comes from solidarity, that’s the real heart of what Heather’s driving towards and, and it feels like it’s some of the most transformative stuff we’ve talked about on this podcast.

Eric: Well, you know, it’s funny ’cause I was thinking back to the marriage equality. Debate called a debate fight of 10 years ago. And when, when people said, well, if gay people get married, same sex, uh, couples can marry that, that that weakens the sanctity of marriage. The institution of marriage is, is weakened.

I mean, that is a zero sum Yeah. Argument about marriage. And that is a play, it’s a, it’s a play that the right has been running for a long time and Mm-hmm. With the marriage equality question. That lie was, was, was exposed and uh, there clearly is no, you know, like there is a solidarity dividend that, that the, this zero sum game argument around marriage failed.

  1. Clearly failed and it fails. It doesn’t work for these other issues. But in that, that’s where I think we’re starting to see the cracks in the zero sum argument. So, you know, that’s a, that’s a good start. It’s a good understanding that there are ways to begin to build coalitions across race across. And class, and this is where the race class narrative is so interesting.

Kirk: I love that you brought that in. I believe you talked about that. Yeah.

Eric: Yeah. And so the, you heard about the work that, that she did with demos and with Anat Shenker-Osorio, all these, all the roads lead somewhere, but they all come together, they converge. And how, how they were able to connect to this deeper conversation, a deeper narrative about who people are.

Frankly, this even gives us a short, throwback, throwback to Robert Perez of two of two weeks ago. When he talked about the, uh, upstairs brain and the downstairs brain. And so people were trying to connect or diffuse the downstairs brain and find solidarity and connection in this upstairs brain where you can have empathy and caring.

And I think that these, these pieces, the way they are coming together and the way people are using. These narratives to forge political connections. And I, I agree. Message is not narrative. Narrative is, is deeper, is extraordinary, and it’s something that we all need to just continue to do. We need to pay attention and we need to see how these folks are doing it well and learn from them.

Kirk: I thought your back and forth about narrative was awesome. And you know Heather talking about, yeah, narrative is not just messaging. It’s what you see, feel, taste, touch here, believe so. You can see narrative expressed in organizing this notion that it’s, you talked about it, you know that the song you hear in your head is what narrative is, but.

I was thinking one, one of the things I’d love to publish on some time is this, this, this notion of language versus experience. You know, and I feel like, I feel like one of the great projects of humanity has been how to master the technology of language. Like we’ve struggled with it ever since it was created, is like, you know, what does language mean?

How do, how do we use language to create, uh, commonality instead of create division, et cetera. But, but that, that link then between what we do with language and how we express that. And I would, I would say that visual language, I would say that. In every form, you know, it’s really language. How do we link that to experience so that those two things work together to give people a lived sense, that they have a place in this world that you’ve pointed out before.

It’s like one of our challenges today is we’re describing a world that doesn’t exist yet, saying it’s gonna be better. Trust us, we can come, we can build that world together.

Eric: And so, you know, as we, as we wrap up, I wanna just, however, the, so the counterpoint to that is what Anat said, which is we did, we can, we will.

Yes, that’s right. And it’s the inevitability. Yes. Yeah. It’s this notion of inevitability. It is not, we’re going to a place that you’ve never been before. We did these things, and here’s where we can do them now, and we will do them in the future and join us to a better world. And I think that is the companion piece to this conversation.

Kirk: Yeah. Well, I loved Heather’s reflection at the end of your conversation about consciousness raising and what happened in 2020 around consciousness raising and, and I, so I was thinking about this. And I was thinking, so have any of us encountered the word woke? The public dialogue.

Right, of course. And it, and it seems like such a powerful, like that that is in theory, the antidote to this consciousness racing that was created out of 2020. And then I think about multiracial coalition and how often do we encounter that word in public consciousness. Right. But, but it’s like, this is kind of the, the, the, the.

The challenge, I guess, of the moment, right, is how we take this consciousness raising, continue supporting it so it continues growing. We have to find our way through this language that’s being pointed at that whole notion that’s around woke. You know, no, this is all woke this, woke that, and that’s actually the real monster to the corner.

But getting into this actual multiracial coalition that can cause good things to happen, it feels like that’s the grand arc of the narrative we’re in right now.

Eric: Sure. And your opponents are gonna take your language and attempt to twist it and turn it into a dirty word. And manipulate it. And the trick is to find the thing that connects people.

You don’t have to coin a phrase in order to make deep emotional connections with people to connect with them and their downstairs brain and their upstairs brain to understand how this concept of the sum of us, the value of the sum of us that isn’t indivisible. It is certainly not a zero sum. And so those, those are ways to get around and through all of the crap that the other side will throw at you.

And they will attempt to distract you and put you on your heels by making you defend your terms and that sort of thing. And the trick is to not get sucked into that stupidity. And the trick is, instead to continue to find these bonds. That make us human, that give us hope. It’s the reason that we get up in the morning and find a way through the craziness.

And again, Robert Perez said that you can’t message to somebody that you have contempt for. And that’s hard. ’cause you know, we all feel this frustration and this anger, and yet. It’s not like we want them to necessarily carry, well, I don’t know the flag, let’s call it, or some, some other metaphor. But what we need to do is, is to connect on some different level and find the way through. ’cause that is going to benefit everybody. That is the solidarity dividend.

Kirk: Yeah. Incredible work. Heather McGhee, starstruck. A star among us on Let’s Hear It. Heather, thank you. The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone, and How We Can Prosper Together. Check that out. Check out the adapted version for younger readers and please check out the Sum of Us podcast.

It’s really awesome and that really takes the story forward. It’s all the kind of multiracial coalition work that has been done, that is happening, that’s creating real gains on the ground in a lot of different and interesting places. And the one comment Heather made that I completely agree from my own experience that the perspectives we’re getting around a divided America showing up in front of us in the mainstream media.

Don’t get born out when you actually get into the field. And I, and I would, I would encourage all of us to actually take that time. Chris DeCardy talked about this when he was talking about the work that Heinz Endowment is doing. Take the time to get into these communities. Don’t trust what other people are saying about them.

There’s much more commonality out there than the way I think we give ourselves credit for these days.

Eric: Go to Iowa. Try the tater tots. See for yourself.

Kirk: We will see you next time on Let’s Hear It. Heather McGhee, thank you so much, Mr. Brown. Thank you so much. That was awesome.

Eric: Thanks, Kirk. See you next time.


Kirk: Okay, everybody. That’s it for this episode. Please let us know if you have any thoughts about what you heard today or people we should have on this show, and that definitely includes yourself. And we’d like to thank…

Eric: Our indefatigable producer, Harper Brown.

Kirk: John Allee, the tuneful and inspiring composer of our theme music.

Eric: Our sponsor, the Lumina Foundation.

Kirk: And please check out Lumina’s terrific podcast, Today’s Students, Tomorrow’s Talent, and you can find that at luminafoundation.org.

Eric: We certainly thank today’s guest, and of course, all of you.

Kirk: And most importantly, thank you, Mr. Brown.

Eric: Oh, no, no, no, no. Thank you, Mr. Brown.

Kirk: Okay, everybody, till next time.