Saturday, October 16, 2021
Oct. 16, 2021

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Jayne: Poor white voters pick wrong team

By , Columbian Opinion Editor
Published:

I saw an interview a while back in which the speaker said, “There’s not much difference between poor Blacks and poor whites. It’s just that poor whites have been convinced to vote against their own best interests.”

I don’t remember the speaker or where I saw it; I would give them credit if I could. But that quote encapsulates one of the great mysteries of American politics.

Namely, why do so many people vote against policies that would help them? Why do so many struggling people vote for the party that opposes a higher minimum wage and access to health care and increased education spending and investments in infrastructure and a robust social safety net?

Explaining why people vote how they do is a complex task with no simple answers. But the questions above are at the core of “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone.”

The book, published this year, was written by Heather McGhee, and it provides a damning item-by-item inventory of how systemic racism has held back this nation over the past several decades. But there is more to it. The gist, if it is possible to summarize a 300-page book in one sentence, is that many white Americans vote against their own self-interest because policies that might help them would also help minorities.

Which doesn’t make sense. White Americans, after all, make up the largest cohort of the uninsured and impoverished and minimum-wage workers — even if people of color are more likely to fall into those categories. Yet whites, including poor whites, comprised the bulk of Donald Trump supporters.

The reason, as McGhee explains it, is “zero-sum” thinking. Many voters have been convinced they would be harmed by policies that help minorities, ignoring the fact the “sides” are drawn along economic lines rather than racial. “This zero-sum paradigm was the default framework for conservative media,” McGhee writes. “ ‘Makers and takers,’ ‘taxpayers and freeloaders,’ ‘handouts,’ and ‘special favors.’ … Is it any wonder that many white people saw race relations through the lens of competition?”

In the process, they have made losers of us all.

To illustrate this, McGhee writes about swimming pools. In the mid-1900s, American cities commonly had grand community swimming pools, developed as a testament to civic funding and civic pride. When pools were desegregated, countless communities chose to close those facilities; it would be better for everybody to have nothing rather than provide a service that includes Black people.

“When the people with power in a society see a portion of the populace as inferior and undeserving,” McGhee writes, “their definition of ‘the public’ becomes conditional.”

Later, she adds, “Perhaps it makes sense, if you’ve spent a lifetime seeing yourself as the winner of a zero-sum competition for status, that you would have learned along the way to accept inequality as normal; that you’d come to attribute society’s wins and losses solely to the players’ skill and merit.”

That paradigm, bastardized over the past four decades by government policies promoting inequity, has become dominant in our politics. And it is built on the fallacy that society is a zero-sum game.

Because it’s not just about swimming pools. It is about a system in which 20 million Americans have insurance because of the Affordable Care Act while one party keeps trying to repeal it. It is about a system in which college tuition has increased more than twice as much as inflation over the past 30 years because of public disinvestment. It is about a system in which the federal minimum wage has been unchanged since 2009.

Each of those policy decisions impacts poor people of all colors, yet poor whites have been convinced that we are in a zero-sum game where sticking it to the liberals is in their best interest.

Such thinking has diminished our society and fractured our sense of community. And it answers the overriding question posed by McGhee’s book: Why can’t we have nice things?

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