Annual Meeting Speaker Highlight: Heather McGhee

Heather McGhee will be a familiar face to many when she takes the stage to close SECF’s 52nd Annual Meeting – and not only because she’s been a frequent presence on news programs as one of the country’s leading voices on racial and economic inequality.

Last October, hundreds of SECF members attended a virtual town hall that featured McGhee, who offered a preview of what she learned in the course of writing her bestselling book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together.

While the effects of racism are usually discussed in terms of education, housing, health care and other bedrock issues, McGhee brings people into her argument with something a bit easier to grasp: public swimming pools.

McGhee opened her SECF town hall appearance by noting that when local communities across the country were ordered to desegregate their public swimming pools, officials decided they’d rather not have a pool at all than allow Black and white children to swim together.

“This fight to just have this core piece of infrastructure together, to just play together, ended up revealing that many of the massive public investments that helped shape American prosperity in the 20th century… were furnished at the first instance on a whites-only basis,” McGhee said in October. “So the question that we have right now is are we still in the bottom of a drained pool?”

The problem, of course, extends far beyond swimming pools. McGhee notes that overall public investment in economic security and social infrastructure peaked in 1965, only to decline once it was no longer legal to make such investments on a racialized basis.

This long-term disinvestment, McGhee writes in The Sum of Us, has its origins in the South.

“To a large degree,” she writes, “the story of the hollowing out of the American working class is a story of the Southern economy, with its deep legacy of exploitative labor and divide-and-conquer tactics, going national.”

The cost of such tactics falls disproportionately on Black people, McGhee notes, but not entirely. That cost continues to be paid today – in McGhee’s words, there are many areas of the law “where racism is still holding the pen.”

“There are still places where in the rules about how we fund schools, the rules about how we test, about how we invest, are still showing the stain of racism and the stain of the unequal distribution of wealth that came from a racialized wealth-building policy in this country,” she said. “If we were to just rewrite those rules, there would be gains for all of us.”


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