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Why Is This Happening? Calculating the cost of division with Heather McGhee: podcast and transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with author and political commentator Heather McGhee about how this public health crisis is shining a light on the ramifications of policies and politics rooted in the legacy of racism.

Why are African Americans getting hit the hardest by the coronavirus? In part, this public health crisis is shining a light on the ramifications of policies and politics rooted in the legacy of racism. And what’s interesting, and what Heather McGhee is writing about for her upcoming book, is the way these racially motivated politics end up creating bad economic policy overall, producing a government that makes everyone worse off.

So while we watch scenes of people lining up for miles to get groceries from food banks and hear about unemployed Americans struggling within a broken system to receive some kind of financial relief, Heather McGhee joins to discuss the true cost of a racially divided nation.

Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.

HEATHER MCGHEE: Societies that have a public health system that is highly functioning, well coordinated and well resourced are obviously going to do better in a public health crisis. And we have resisted that in the richest country on the planet, in large part for the past 100 years because of racism.

CHRIS HAYES: Hello and welcome to "Why Is This Happening?" with me, your host, Chris Hayes. Well, here I am, back in the closet for yet another week of quarantine podcasting out there in the world and I've been thinking about, there's sort of an interesting thing I think that's happened in terms of the socioeconomic and racial lines of division in the country with respect to coronavirus. Two things at once. So at one level, as the data has come in, we are seeing that there are massively disproportionate effects, particularly for African Americans, but for black and brown Americans versus white Americans.

We've seen this in the fatality numbers, particularly in places like New York, Louisiana, and Detroit, and there's a bunch of reasons that contribute to that. Some of which I think were probably discussed in today's conversation. There's two stacked on top of each other. The fact that African Americans in the U.S. because of the long legacy of white supremacy and racism are more susceptible to a bunch of preexisting conditions that essentially compound the danger of coronavirus and also the medical care they get now, even in the hospital. There's study after study that shows the ways in which racism and racial lenses negatively affect their treatment. So that's one fact, right? It's not the great equalizer, the coronavirus.

But then the other fact is that the virus doesn't give a s--- what color you are and will come for you. And if you're sitting somewhere in America being like, well that's just happening in New Orleans, that's just happening to black folks in Detroit. That's just getting the people in the Bronx like no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. It's not the way it works. If you think that, if you get lulled into thinking that, you are going to have an outbreak where you live. And the tension between those two is to me almost one of the most fundamental tensions at the heart of American politics, sociology and political economy, which is we are all in this together and yet, we are all in this together A, B, we're not all equal, and C, the belief that some have that they can wall themselves off from those other people over there in America makes everyone worse.

So if you think, "You know what, we're going to get back to work in my county because we're not like those gross big cities that have all that density and transportation. We're going to go back, I'm going to go to my nail salon, I'm going to go to my massage studio." You are inviting an outbreak where you live based on your dumb---, probably racist beliefs about the evil infections of your dumb---, probably racist beliefs, about the susceptibility to infection of the big cities. And that is just a constant theme throughout, I mean it is bright as day right now, but it's a constant theme throughout the whole history of the country.

And my good friend, someone who I truly admire and look up to and respect, Heather McGhee just released this Ted Talk she gave, which is basically about this thesis and it is a teaser for the book that she has written, is writing, that's going to be coming out in 2021 called "The Sum of Us." And it is about precisely this dynamic. It's about the ways in which the legacy of racism and white supremacy produces a politics that produces a government that makes everyone worse off. That basically cutting off the nose to spite the face time and time and time again and never has it been more obvious than this moment right now. And so I thought it would be awesome. Also, I haven't talked to her for awhile, so I thought it'd be an awesome quarantine conversation to talk to my buddy scholar Heather McGhee.

HEATHER MCGHEE: Hey Chris.

CHRIS HAYES: How are you?

HEATHER MCGHEE: I mean, I personally am fine, right? I'm healthy as far as I know, my family is okay. Financially it's tough, but I'm okay. But as a citizen of this country and of this world, I'm heartbroken. This is worse than we feared, right? When this man walked into the White House, it was like, please don't let anything really terrible happen on his watch. And it has and he has bungled it more than we possibly could have articulated from waiting too long, to telling people to ingest bleach today. It's just really bad, and people are dying because of it.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. The word, I'm glad you used the word heartbroken, because I was talking to a friend last night in a Zoom cocktail hour and I'm going to get choked up actually right now, so I'll just try to keep it under control. But there's the thing with the numbers and this is such a cliche and trite observation, obviously Joseph Stalin said this years ago, but you're looking at the numbers and it's 50,000 dead and what does that mean? Then, we have people in our company who we lost. We have people on staff who have lost loved ones. I have friends who have lost loved ones. The grief is everywhere. I find it very overwhelming and very upsetting and heartbreaking. I feel deep grief and mourning and sadness a lot that I'm just wrestling with all the time.

CHRIS HAYES: But also that idea of what you just said is so true. The nightmare is here and it is a nightmare and I mean, I can believe and can't believe that we're living through this nightmare. But the thing that, I was thinking about, remember when he did that dumb--- thing with the hurricane where he Sharpied it, he was wrong about the path and he said it was going to hit Georgia I think, and Alabama and it wasn't, and then he Sharpied in the path. And I remember doing a bit on my show where it's like this is funny and dumb but also serious and also like thank God it didn't actually get anyone killed.

HEATHER MCGHEE: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: But the stakes are really high and now it's like here we are.

HEATHER MCGHEE: Yeah. Here we are and we have someone who after fumbling and lying and completely mishandling the situation is now firmly settled into his sweet spot of divisive politics of trying to create an us versus them within our own country and doing it really successfully, right? I mean down to the federal government picking winners and losers with protective equipment and outbidding states and stockpiling and suggesting that they should, Florida where Donald Trump has escaped to, because New York won't have him anymore, has more protective equipment and ventilators than it even wanted. And you're starting to see just this past week with a reported ban on immigration, Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education moving to make sure that dreamers don't get any kind of aid.

HEATHER MCGHEE: You're starting to see a clear, racialized divide and conquer. And Mitch McConnell saying that basically blue states can go bankrupt and red states that are more rural just can open up their economies and win. This is the formula, right? It's shrink the circle of human concern, give the people on your team an outsized sense of security and superiority. And in fact, make them delight a little bit in that. That is heartbreaking to me as someone who cares about humanity, cares about this country, cares about our soul, right? We are absolutely failing. And just last week, I think they've already gotten too much attention, but of course it was shocking. There were a handful of protests where you had mostly older white folks defying the protective orders to go out and protest and they were funded by the same right wing billionaires that have funded so much of the Tea Party.

HEATHER MCGHEE: And those people are going to get sick, right? It was supposed to be a drive by protest and they got out of their cars and they smush their faces against the Capitol building and it's like they were literally exposing themselves to die for this bargain. And that's what my book is about, that's what the Ted Talk was about, is the ways that racism costs everyone in the end.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, let's start with that phone call that I think is, in some ways was the first moment I think, or the seeds of the book. Even though you're work had focused on this long before that phone call on C-SPAN.

I just posted a YouTube that someone had cut of me on a very early C-SPAN appearance in which a caller while I'm looking into the camera says, "I just had an idea that one of the ways we can deal with garbage is put them down volcanoes and what do you think of that?" And I was like, I had to look in the camera, that is outside my area of expertise. But I thought of that because as I was watching the President just be like, I'm just spit balling here, but maybe we get some UV light up inside the body. I don't know how you do that, but it took me back to that moment. But all of this by way of saying the genre of C-SPAN calls is a fascinating and multifaceted one. And you had this, you were on a C-SPAN Washington Journal and someone called in, tell me what happened.

HEATHER MCGHEE: Yeah. So I was on that live television show, which is really like radio talk shows, but on TV, and the whole visual screen is your face reacting to this person. And someone called in identified as Gary from North Carolina. And his first words were, "I'm a white male and I'm prejudiced." It's kind of like the garbage in the volcano. What do you say? What do you do? You know, I was on there talking about tax policy and jobs and the deficit, right? He went on to say that he was basically afraid of black men and drugs and gangs and crime. But then he said, but I want to change and I want to know what your guest would tell me to do to become a better American.

HEATHER MCGHEE: And that got to me. And so I responded not by trying to deconstruct his bias in that way that you might, if you were really pissed at someone saying that they were so prejudiced against your people on live television. But I thanked him for being honest, and I gave him some simple tips about how he could integrate his life and unlearn the messages that he's learned. And that clip of our exchange went viral and you know, the official count is 8 million, but we had at one point counted it up as 20, it just keeps having a life of its own because people were surprised that a black woman wouldn't get angry. And they were surprise that a white man would admit his bias on national television.

HEATHER MCGHEE: In the end, after that exchange, Gary from North Carolina and I ended up getting to know each other. And what I learned from him was many things actually. But what I learned from him was that his racism was causing him to suffer. He had acute social anxiety, a sort of moral panic, and he was the one primarily suffering from his racism and it wasn't, for me it was a light bulb moment that there was a through line from the economic work that I've done my whole career as an economic policy person working at Demos, which is a progressive think tank that I ran for four years and worked at for 16, there was an economic argument I was making and policies I was pursuing that really taught me that you can't contain the fallout of racially motivated, bad economic policy decision making.

HEATHER MCGHEE: The seminal experience of my career has been, was trying to stop the subprime mortgage crisis in the early 2000s, before it ended up creating a toxic mix of racism and greed that took down the global economy. And seeing how, if we had stopped it then, back when it was only bad mortgages going to homeowners with good credit in black and brown neighborhoods, if anybody had cared who had the power to stop it, we literally would not have had the financial crisis if it weren't for racism. So I was able to connect that through line. It caused me to go on this journey over the past two years traveling the country and making the case that racism has a cost for everyone.

CHRIS HAYES: That example of the financial crisis is such an astute one. And also there's an amazing example you give that I think is like the best, which is the picture of the pool, which is so perfect about the cost to everyone. Tell the story of the pool, because it to me is like a self contained story about what the thesis is here. It works perfectly.

HEATHER MCGHEE: So I went to Montgomery, Alabama, where there is a park in the middle of the city called Oak Park, which back in the 1930s and forties was part of a nationwide building boom of beautiful public parks. You and I, as people who are born in the 70s and 80s, we don't really know this phenomenon, but it started in the New Deal, and then in the postwar era, these beautiful, grand swimming pools that were the heart of these communities, cities and towns all across the country. And they could hold a thousand people and they were this urban planner's vision of classlessness, right? The middle and upper class would all meet in their bathing suits and fall in love and get married, right?

CHRIS HAYES: The one that I know the best, which I can't believe existed, there's this Barton Springs in Austin, Texas, which is a natural swimming pool. It's a natural springs and it's built around it. And when you go there you think, "Am I in a country club?" You're pinching yourself that this thing exists as a public good. That no, you just go, it's public. You go and you swim in these cool fresh springs, and everyone hangs out and it's like, this is incredible. I can't believe this is a thing.

HEATHER MCGHEE: This is now a very rare sight because for the most part, even in northern cities, those grand public pools, those resort pools were public. They were funded by taxpayer dollars and they were exclusively for whites only. And in the 1950s when civil rights groups began to advocate and litigate against this practice...of exclusion, and the barrier started to fall down. Towns did what Montgomery, Alabama did, which was effective January 1st, 1959. The town council voted to close the public swimming pool. Not only Chris, did they close the pool, right? They drained the public pool. They filled it in with dirt, paved it over. They also shut down the entire parks department. They had a zoo, they had recreation centers, they had a dozen public parks. They closed it all down for a decade, and when they finally reopened it, they never rebuilt the pool.

HEATHER MCGHEE: That, to me is what has happened to our whole country. We had a very generous social welfare system that included subsidized housing, no down payment mortgages that were backed by the federal government, the Homestead Act, the land grant college system. We had a sort of a middle class that was constructed by government policy that was the envy of the world when it was for whites only, and really for white men only. And when the movement of the 1960s opened the doors to everybody else, the doors were closed on that vision, and so we've all been living in a stingier, drained public pool. We've been all been living in that drained public pool where our schools are underfunded, our roads and bridges are crumbling. They get a D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers. The world we know, right? I mean, this is the world we know.

CHRIS HAYES: We're watching, right now what we're watching this enormous global test of state capacity that is a challenge for every government. You know, even the best government, it's an enormous challenge for, and the U.S. is just really failing the state capacity test. I mean, in fits and starts and certain localized places being able to kind of get its act together. But on the whole, as a global test of state capacity, just how good and competent, and how administratively efficient is your state? We are not doing that well, and that's for everyone. Again, like it's not that it doesn't have disproportionate effects, but the general level of administrative capacity of the American state is not particularly high right now.

HEATHER MCGHEE: That is absolutely right, and this administration also accelerated a trend, and did things specifically to put to minimize the state's capacity to respond. Whether it was cutting the public health positions that would have been able to stop this earlier on, dismantling the chief in charge of pandemic response in the spring of 2018, whether it was making sure that our healthcare infrastructure remained in this state for the past almost four years of seesawing between attempts to kill the Affordable Care Act, to undermine, to create work requirements on the Medicaid that we have. To fund the fights against Medicaid expansion in mostly the former Confederate states. And here's where race comes in, again. Societies that have a public health system that is highly functioning, well coordinated and well-resourced are obviously going to do better in a public health crisis, and we have resisted that in the richest country on the planet in large part for the past 100 years because of racism.

HEATHER MCGHEE: It was the Southern Democrats who stopped president Truman from being able to have a national health insurance plan. It was a resistance by a racially organized Republican party that stopped Obamacare from being anything like actually having a collective at its core, stopped the public option, stopped the ability to negotiate drug prices. Anything where we would have to sort of be in it together, our government has resisted. And today the states that don't have Medicaid expansion, which means that working class people, white, black, brown, are unable to qualify for Medicaid, which means that working class people who make $10,000 a year, $12,000, $15,000 a year, make too much money to qualify for Medicaid even though their employers have no interest in offering them healthcare. People in those dozen or so states are left without. They're uninsured, they're dying at higher rates and their hospitals, many of them in their rural communities are closing because they have no healthcare infrastructure. And social science research has shown that racial resentment drives white opposition to Medicaid expansion. It's seen as a black program, and it is resisted by the majority of white people.

CHRIS HAYES: The most perfect example of this right now in this moment is, we did the story on the show last night, which was the unemployment system in Florida. And Rick Scott back in 2011 revamped it and made it harder, a lot like these Medicaid work requirements. And the whole politics of that is, these other people over there, they're lazy and shiftless, they don't want to work. So we got to prod them to work, and you know what I'm talking about when I'm talking about those lazy people over there. You shiftless people, we can't let them be on the dole. We don't want the safety net to turn into a hammock. So Scott makes, they cut benefits down from 26 weeks, I think to 12 and it makes it the one of the most onerous systems in the entire country.

CHRIS HAYES: You've got to go through all these hoops. You used to be able to sign up on the phone. Now you get on the computer, you've got to provide this documentation. Well, lo and be-f-------hold, and I'm sure that was smart politics at a certain moment because it's like, "Well I'm not unemployed. And that's those people over there." And then like what do you know? Millions of Floridians are unemployed and no one can get their stuff claim. And it's like, it's the drained pool, in real time in the last week. Now, I'm getting emails from viewers being like, "I can't get my unemployment processed because someone somewhere thought it was good politics," and maybe in the moment was good politics to go beat up on the unemployed, with all of the racial subtext of what that is.

HEATHER MCGHEE: Yeah. That is where we are. What I'm hopeful is that's not where we're going to be in six months, in a year, in two years. Because it feels to me like this is a cracking open of our society on such a fundamental level, where one of the major myths of American society, which is the myth of a hierarchy of human value, that there are just some groups of people that are inherently better than others and that the fortunes of society sort of accrue to those better groups. And so, the misfortune of people who are down on their luck, as we say it's in some way those people deserved it, right? The undeserving and the deserving is sort of the fulcrum of American society, and it's always been racialized, but right now as much as Trump is trying to, and the billionaire right-wing donor class is trying to sow the seeds of division, eight, nine out of 10 people agree with the stay at home orders.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

HEATHER MCGHEE: We're ready. People understand that something terrifying is happening. We've watched enough apocalyptic television to be like, "Okay, this is it. This is time." There is a sense, right? The support for Medicare for all is at the highest level it's ever been. It's at majority support. You've got support for things that were already popular, like a wealth tax and a guaranteed income, shooting up even more. You've got Republicans saying we need a universal basic income. You've got countries that are doing things like that, having unemployment rates that increased by a percentage and a half, as opposed to going up to 12 percent which the CBO, the Congressional Budget Office just predicted today. This is hurting too many people to continue to let our us versus them politics create an illusion of safety.

HEATHER MCGHEE: And I hope that coming on, the incredible momentum that Progressives have had at the ballot box, and an organizing led by women in the 2018 midterms, even in Wisconsin, which we thought was going to be a tragedy, not just electorally, but on a human level and still may be the latter. But you saw people brave a really evil, frankly, bargain to try to suppress the vote. You saw people say, "No, I don't want this right-wing Trump Supreme Court justice. I want somebody who believes in the public interest." So I'm cautiously optimistic. I've been wrong before by doing that, but I'm cautiously optimistic.

CHRIS HAYES: Here, I want to talk a little bit about how you deal with this because I think that there's a literature that's built up, both analysts like yourself and also there's been political scientists and historians. All together, there's sort of a growing literature about this, as a descriptive matter of how American politics has worked, the fulcrum of race and the social welfare state, right? That we know that racial resentment in Michael Tesler and other people's work has this correlation to people that views on things that aren't explicitly about race, but essentially racial resentment becomes a sort of proxy variable to determine your views on redistribution more broadly. And that the politics of that has created the kind of much less, much weaker public sector the US has, compared to other OECD countries. Right?

CHRIS HAYES: So then the question becomes, okay, what's the way around that? And one of the approaches, and I think this has been kind of a Bernie Sanders approach more in 2016 than I think now. I think there was some growth in his analysis. Is this kind of, can you do a kind of class first politics, a class first populism that says, "Look, put all that stuff aside, focus on the drug companies that are f------ you, and focus on the big banks because everyone hates them, and they want to raise taxes on the rich and look at all these polling. Polling on all this stuff is good. You could build a coalition that's sort of a class first coalition that sidesteps all at racial stuff might even just say like, enough with the wokeness, use whatever words you want." That stuff's ancillary to what we're trying to do here.

HEATHER MCGHEE: It's a class struggle.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. I think it's not an insane idea, but I think that it's shown its shortcomings and I'm curious to hear your thoughts on that approach.

HEATHER MCGHEE: Yeah. That is the big question, right? I think that that approach is naive. The way I like to picture it is white, maybe unemployed, maybe marginally employed, former worker in Wisconsin, goes to a Bernie Sanders rally, absolutely gets the full bore, colorblind economic populist argument, is psyched about it. Is like, "Yes, that makes sense. The corporations are the bad guys. It's the politicians that are in the pockets of the corporations, and they're the ones who have screwed us." Doesn't hear anything about race except maybe some disparities story, right, is told yes, and also brown and black people are suffering more than you, and then maybe, okay. Then gets back in his truck and turns on talk radio, and here's the people with the loudest megaphones in society, whether it's Fox News or conservative talk radio or the president of the United States doing an entirely racialized narrative that says it's not the corporations that you would love to work for again, who are screwing you over.

HEATHER MCGHEE: It's actually these brown and black people and every public programming that you've had, from what your parents may have joked about around the kitchen table when you were growing up, to the fact that you live in a segregated place where you never see people of color. And if you do, you know they're on the nightly news as as criminals, all of that other programming in our highly racialized society is going to say, "Why don't you want to be on the winning team? These people are losers. Rich people are winners." Why wouldn't you want to trade up, instead of having solidarity with people who are the perennial losers of American history?

CHRIS HAYES: But I also think there's an even more insidious version of that. So, the version of, "It's not the corporations, it's these people." The thing that I think Bannon and Trump got at 2016, which he doesn't do as well without Bannon in there, but like Tucker Carlson does, is it's actually worse than that. It's actually the corporations are actually, they're also the enemy, and they, and the liberals in the cities. And the academics and Hollywood, they're all in it together. Like immigrants, basically the immigrants and the urban black people, and the intellectuals and the elites, and the corporate people that took your job. They're all part of this weird conspiracy, this kind of woke neoliberal thing that's there to basically tear apart America, both through trade and through culture.

CHRIS HAYES: That is, in some ways an even more powerful message because they're not even saying, "Don't be mad at the big elites with a lot of money." They kind of are, it's that this like the Soros conspiracy is this bizarre conspiracy of poor black folks and immigrant farm workers, and then the rich and culturally powerful.

HEATHER MCGHEE: Yeah, that's right. That is the 2.0 that is much, much, much harder to fight.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, it's scarier.

HEATHER MCGHEE: It's much scarier.

CHRIS HAYES: It's a scarier version of a scarier message.

HEATHER MCGHEE: The good news, is they can't actually do it in the payoff, right?

CHRIS HAYES: No, they can't.

HEATHER MCGHEE: What do they do when they get into power?

CHRIS HAYES: That's right.

HEATHER MCGHEE: They pass the trillion dollar tax cut.

CHRIS HAYES: They can't not do it. That's right.

HEATHER MCGHEE: What do they do in the COVID relief bill? They further, have all of the tax relief go 80 percent of it to millionaires, right?

HEATHER MCGHEE: ... Have all of the tax relief go, 80 percent of it to millionaires, the Senate Republicans sneak that in, right? They do a small business thing, it ends up going to big chain restaurants, right? They can't not do-

CHRIS HAYES: They can't deliver on that message.

HEATHER MCGHEE: ... what they're supposed to do, right?

CHRIS HAYES: Yep.

HEATHER MCGHEE: But what we need is more organizing, right? We, I think we need two things. I do think we need a race conscious, multi-racial populism that arms white people who have competing frames in their minds. We did this deep research about this at Demos with my colleagues, Ian Haney Lopez and Anat Shenker-Osorio called the "Race-Class Narrative Project" and we found that the sort of persuadable folks in the middle of weren't just like at five on the one to 10 scale between racist and not racist. It's that they held tens and ones at the same time.

CHRIS HAYES: Explain what that means.

HEATHER MCGHEE: Basically, there are these competing frames that explain American politics when it comes to race and class. There's this one frame that says the rich are rich because they're better than us and government needs to be smaller and people of color are not doing as well because they're not as deserving and they don't work as hard. That's A, right, let's put that at one on the sort of racial resentment scale. And then on 10, it's the good progressive, the corporations are the ones who are rigging the rules, government needs to be in the public interest again and people of color, we need to do everything we can so that people of color have an equal shot. And the reason why there are these disparities is because government and corporations break the rules. And both of those ideas exist in the minds of the quote unquote, persuadable folks.

HEATHER MCGHEE: The people who are not sort of ideologically, absolutely in one camp or the other. Because they've heard both.

CHRIS HAYES: This is such an important point about people in the center are moderates. It's like the persuadables are just like, sometimes have just a weird mix of extreme views. That is a very common profile for a quote unquote persuadable voter. They're not like temperamentally moderate and in the center on a bunch of stuff, they're just like, oh no, like 9/11 was an inside job. We shouldn't be in the Iraq war and also like- Wall Street is run by Soros.I'm saying this from first person experience knocking on doors in Dane County, Wisconsin, just by the way.

HEATHER MCGHEE: No, absolutely. Human beings oftentimes hold very competing frames in our minds. And what matters is what's primed. And this is why the progressive narrative deficit that we have, by that I mean we just don't have the megaphone that the right does. Whether it's the most watched cable network, sorry Chris, being Fox News or it's the fact that right wing radio is a behemoth that has no corollary, or it's the fact that Donald Trump, who has the biggest social media and media attention getting ability than anyone in the world are all giving you that other frame. And so it's just a question of priming, which we used to call organizing, right? It's a question of who's in your ear, who's holding your hand, who's explaining the world to you day in and day out.

HEATHER MCGHEE: And so there have been moments throughout our history and in recent times of beautiful cross-racial working class solidarity. The Fight for 15 which joined adjuncts and fast food workers and janitors and home healthcare aides in an explicitly pro-humanity, pro-dignity fight for a living wage. I spent a lot of time with Fight for 15 workers and they talked about it. They said, you know what, racism has a cost for us too. Like literally a white woman that I talked to who worked at Wendy's was like, "Racism is what the boss uses to divide us. And we wouldn't have had such a low minimum wage if it weren't for racism and that's why I have a stake in ending racism." That exists, it is possible.

CHRIS HAYES: But to go back... when you talk about these frames though, just to concretize a bit because I know the whole race, class work that you guys did was really fascinating and very influential. People probably don't realize how influential it's been among like Democratic politicians and their staffs and campaigns. That work was seminal and it's seeded a lot of the ways that, if you were following the campaigns, presidential primary campaign, a lot of the stuff that you were hearing were straight up articulations of some of the stuff that you and your colleagues came up with. So what does it mean? So you got these persuadable voters and they have these different frames.

CHRIS HAYES: They have this kind of like, yeah, I don't like the boss or the big corporations or those or the Wall Street fat cats. And also I think that immigrants are kind of trying to get over on me. And kind of lazy and they're bringing all their family in and maybe taking my jobs, right? When you talk about giving people a sort of narrative or a framework that combines these questions of race and class, what does that mean?

HEATHER MCGHEE: What it means is you have to talk about race. You can't be silent on it because the loudest racial narrative is a divisive one for white people. But it depends on what you're talking about. For brown people, it's a divisive narrative around black people. For some black people, it's a divisive narrative around brown people. Like it's not only white people who have negative opinions about other races.

CHRIS HAYES: The idea that like racist demagoguery and prejudice are limited to white people, obviously as a structural fact that's about the structural white supremacy. But if you grew up in New York, you hear all sorts of crazy s---. All sorts of crazy negative s--- from all kinds of people about all kinds of other people, that's a constant.

HEATHER MCGHEE: Yeah, don't get me started on the Punjabis.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, exactly, right. And then you'd just be like, what, what, what did you? Or just like about the Puerto Ricans and the Dominicans or this or that and it's like, damn dude. And you would be even like hanging with a friend who you're cool with, and then he says something about the Chinese and you're like, bro, what, what? But it's like, yeah, like that stuff is in ... those narratives are being cultivated all over the place, not just for white folks.

HEATHER MCGHEE: Yeah. So you've got to talk about race because it's in our minds, it's the way we think about ourselves and the world. You have to specifically talk about race. You can't have a colorblind economic populism or you're not interrupting the dominant narrative. You have to explicitly call it out and explicitly call out the tool of division. And say that politicians are pointing the finger at immigrants and people of color while they pick your pocket. Say that they want us to blame other struggling families, who have the courage to move here and risk everything rather than put the blame with the corporations that gladly shipped our jobs overseas and still got big tax kickbacks. So you really do actually have to call out what Trump and the right wing are doing, so that people identify it when they get back in the car and they turn on right wing radio, right?

HEATHER MCGHEE: You have to give them the tools to actually unmask the greed behind the racism. And then you need to, and this we found is particularly important for people of color actually, you need to actually remind people that working together across race, which is something that everyone is pretty hungry to do. There's this latent desire for this division to go away. But that it's effective and that it has won things in the past, because we've been knocked down for so long it's hard to see the sky. There is a serious sense of fatigue that we can't actually win anything that will meaningfully change our lives, if we couldn't do that with Barack Obama in the office, White House for eight years, how are we going to do it for anybody less than him? That's really real for many people of color. So you need to actually give them hope. You need to actually remind people that we've been able to win before and lives have been changed and things have gotten better.

CHRIS HAYES: I want to talk about sort of building this narrative and what it means in this moment, this moment of both crisis opportunity and also an election, right after we take this quick break.

CHRIS HAYES: So the race, class stuff that you did, you did see it in the mouths of a lot of candidates. Elizabeth Warren, Castro, Booker and Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders quite a bit. I mean, I actually think there was like a real evolution of the Bernie Sanders message from a much more kind of class first economic populism. That's a side issue to a more explicit ... He had this whole thing about like they are trying to divide us. They want to divide us. They want to divide us by these ... and I thought actually that was the most effective, this sort of rhetorical sweet spot was when he was sort of leaning into that. But also, okay, so where is this message now in this whole thing, Because it's so bizarre, right? They're trying to do it again, I don't know how effective it is.

CHRIS HAYES: We're in a just totally different world. While you were doing all this work on this, while I was covering the primary, the world we were in was a world of this like weird right wing populism married to corporatism, like a populous message and a corporatist policy. They're suing to get rid of the ACA. They're beating up on immigrants in every way they can to sort of make a spectacle of it. They go back to that whenever they get scared. The economy has got three and a half percent unemployment. The macro numbers look pretty good. Inequality is still pretty bad. Working people still struggling but doing better than they were, say eight years ago. What does that all add up to and now it's like, I don't know, what is it now? I don't know. It's a scary new world.

HEATHER MCGHEE: It's a scary new world. A friend of mine said, it's like the tide went out and you realized everybody was swimming naked. Even though those numbers were great, even though the stock market was doing great-

CHRIS HAYES: Great point.

HEATHER MCGHEE: ... you still had people not actually able to pay their bills for one month if they couldn't go to work.

CHRIS HAYES: Look at those food bank lines, that's what that says. The food bank lines say, we have three and a half percent unemployment and a great economy a month ago, two weeks into quarantine, people need food from the food bank.

HEATHER MCGHEE: That's right. You had all of these businesses that actually were on such thin margins that even if they got through the hoops of all these ridiculous government programs funneled through banks, they couldn't actually wait the three weeks to get it done without firing everybody. So the underlying inequality was not mitigated. The safety net was even in worse shambles than it was before. Because we continued to have stupid things like food stamp work requirements and Medicaid work requirements and the sequester, remember that? When we did this grand bargain to just automatically chop off two percent of the budget, that's still been going on. Public programs have been operating at a razor thin edge for so long and it's all been revealed. The ways in which the backbone of our economy has been for two generations now, a service sector that is primarily and disproportionately women, people of color and immigrants, who now suddenly, not being the disrespected under $15 an hour workers are suddenly are essential workers.

HEATHER MCGHEE: And they're the only people who are going outside and going to work and they're doing so without hazard pay, without paid leave, without all the things that ... without masks and gloves and hand sanitizer. They're working at Amazon warehouses and getting fired for speaking up while the richest person on the planet is at the head of that corporation. They don't have anything that Ro Khanna and Elizabeth Warren's bill that they have, the essential worker's bill of rights, these are basic things, right? These are not trying to make millionaires out of delivery drivers. These are things that any worker should have on a good day. And certainly the only workers who are putting themselves out on the line every single day to keep families safe and healthy and fed, of course they should have.

HEATHER MCGHEE: And yet that still has not passed Congress. And we are in a moment I think of strange bipartisan agreement in weird corners of our politics, both out in the public and with, single Republican members of Congress and senators saying things like, we should have a guaranteed income until this is all over. And yet we have the fear of God struck into the hearts of the Republican billionaire class that is really willing to let 50,000 more Americans die in order to make sure that the stock market is functioning well and that Americans don't build a safety net right now that will stay after the pandemic is over.

CHRIS HAYES: That is one of the most ghoulish and gob smacking aspects in the moment. I do think sometimes, you're talking about the protest, I do think there's a little bit of, they have succeeded in doing a psych job in terms of like how expansive that view is. And I think they buy their own b------- a little bit to their detriment. I think they think that like there's this hunger, a great American awakening to go out and like work in the face of a virus and maybe die in a plague. And I don't think that's actually why. And I also think that, actually if you even surveyed a bunch of CEOs, they'd be like, Macy's in Georgia is not reopening.

HEATHER MCGHEE: Yeah, right.

CHRIS HAYES: They're not idiots. But what I do think is the ideological bedrock here, which is your watching right wing restlessness with a collective communal project that is done for public safety and health, at the cost to the market and commercial life. And it drives them nuts and they hate it and they're getting restless and they don't want to keep doing it because commercial life ... And part of that critique, we all get, I want to go to a G------ baseball game. I want to take my daughter to the concert that I bought her tickets for. I want my brother to get married this summer. Like everybody wants all of that. A lot of it's probably not going to happen. But these moments of weird truth-telling from like the Stephen Moore's of the world-

CHRIS HAYES: Weird truth telling from the Stephen Moores of the world and these others, where it's like, "No, no, you must offer up your body on the altar of the market of commercial life, of normalcy." Like Chuck Grassley talking about how worried he is about the fate of the pigs that have nowhere to go because of the people getting sick in the pork processing plant.

CHRIS HAYES: And it's like, "Okay bro, I get it. You represent a bunch of pig farmers and yes, it's a problem that their pigs don't have anywhere to go, but our area of primary concern are these sick workers in the pork processing plant. Right dude?" And not even pretending that's the case. Just been like, "I talked to farmers, and I'm like, what are we going to do the pigs, what are we going to do the pigs?" I'm like, "I get it. That's a real concern, but there are hundreds of people sick in these pork processing plants."

HEATHER MCGHEE: Gosh.

CHRIS HAYES: Just these moments where the sheer dehumanizing force of the ideological agenda, which is often not so explicitly stated, just keeps getting explicitly stated, and it's so shocking to hear it so loud. You're like, "No..." And also not just shocking to see, but I will say this, not popular. I just don't... For all of the rhetorical dexterity they have and the persuasiveness and appeal of the message, which you have been talking about, go sacrifice your body for the stock market to go up, it's like, no, the perspective is not a good one, that's not one of their best arrows in their quiver, but that's the one they've been going with.

HEATHER MCGHEE: But for black people, I have to say that message is one that our ancestors, that's been the story of America for us.

CHRIS HAYES: Literally, yeah.

HEATHER MCGHEE: Literally. And so when you think, where does this come from? Why is this being so naked and so cruel right now? Where does this belief, particularly among people who have a lot of money, that other people's lives are easy fodder to make more money. That does come back to the ideology of racial slavery. It does.

CHRIS HAYES: It's like throw a log in the fire.

HEATHER MCGHEE: As does the idea that you should have a minimum wage so low that someone can't feed their family after working all day. That same idea that the labor of some people is only valuable in as much as it provides profit to the owner class and in fact they should not gain really even just a modicum of the rewards for their labor. That idea, when you start out at zero in slavery, we're at 7.25 now, we've made a heck of a lot of progress in 200 years.

HEATHER MCGHEE: We really have to reckon with an ideology that was born from gross exploitation, whether it's colonialism or slavery, that still has some of its echoes in a way that many of the people who are justifying their social position are leading their lives today. I'm writing a chapter, my book, "The Sum Of Us" is coming out next February, the Ted Talk, which is called "Racism Has A Cost For Everyone," I tell these stories, I'm still gathering more stories of course, because now I have to add something about the public health crisis that we're in.

HEATHER MCGHEE: One of the things that I've been researching is, why it is that white men are the climate deniers? If you look at why the United States is not doing more on climate change, it is basically because over the past 20 years the Republican Party has become the only political party in the world, including other conservative parties, that not only want a market based solution to climate change, but just says it's not really happening, they don't believe it. And what is it about that party, which is 90 percent white, and over indexes among men, and white men, that this climate denialism is so important.

HEATHER MCGHEE: And what some sociologists have found is that it comes down to something called social dominance orientation, where you actually just believe that some groups of people are better than others, and you justify your own position in society. And that means that you don't think that something that is bad that is happening is going to affect you because you've seen bad things not affect you before. And in fact it inflates your sense of security, gives you a false sense of security and a false lack of empathy towards people who have been suffering and are suffering.

HEATHER MCGHEE: And I think that's exactly what's happening right now where there's this, "Oh wait, now it's just people with preexisting conditions and people who are already sick and hurt." The echoes of the healthcare crisis is like, "I don't want the healthy people to have to pay for the sick," as if the sick are a different species as opposed to just us before we trip and fall down the stairs.

CHRIS HAYES: Oh, the COVID?

HEATHER MCGHEE: Exactly. There's that social Darwinism, that social dominance orientation, that is a killer. It is a killer. It is causing the planet to fundamentally shift in ways that are inhospitable to human and animal life, and in this current pandemic, it is making the "greatest country on earth," the richest country on the earth, the worst at responding to this pandemic and protecting our own people. I don't think Donald Trump has had a moment of grief about 50,000 people who have lost their lives on his watch.

CHRIS HAYES: That part of it... And it's not just him, because he strikes me as a person who's genuinely, to a degree, that I find morosely fascinating, actually incapable, I think, of feeling human empathy. He's certainly capable of displaying it genuinely, I don't know what... I can't look inside his heart but he seems to struggle with it. But the degree to which, I said this on Twitter, of the idea that you would go around after 9/11 and be like, "Well, you know the flu kills 50,000 people a year. Do you know the flu kills... Look, we have swimming pools, we've got car accidents, we got cigarettes. Really, I don't get what everyone's so sad about."

CHRIS HAYES: People would have punched you in the face, you would have lost your job, you would have been spit on, and people also would have been like, "You're a sociopath. You're a sociopath. What the f--- is wrong with you?" And yet here we are, people I know, our loved ones, people I work with, people that we all know, famous people, not famous people, frontline workers, cops and firefighters, MTA workers, nurses and doctors, blah blah, and it's just like they don't care.

CHRIS HAYES: They're f------ running around telling us how many people die every year from the flu and from cigarettes, and from pools and it's like, good God. That part of it has been so horrifying to me, and so, at a human level, heartbreaking, it's as heartbreaking... It's like the grief is heartbreaking and the lack of mourning and grief and solidarity is doubly heartbreaking, where it's like, wow, they really don't care. They really don't care about this calamity that's befalling us.

HEATHER MCGHEE: This is an invitation to solidarity. And you know that that's the case when you see the corporations ads, which just changed and turned over in the past few weeks to all COVID-19 ads. And you have Walmart associates all singing Lean On Me into their smartphones. That's just the message. "We're all in it together," is what Colgate is saying, and Tide is saying. If you wanted some weathervane as to what is the dominant narrative that Madison Avenue, as we used to call it, is hearing, is what people want to hear right now, it is that, it is solidarity, it is we are all in it together.

HEATHER MCGHEE: And I think about the mask. So we were all finally told to wear masks and our instinct is, it's to protect ourselves, because that's what we do, we protect ourselves, we try to put on armor and we try to shield ourselves from this dangerous thing. And what is slowly being revealed in fits and starts is that actually it's to protect other people, which means that wearing a mask is an act of solidarity and protection to others. Even if you don't feel sick, you should wear mask because you might get someone sick who, either because they have preexisting conditions, or because that's just the way things happen. They could get very sick from something that hasn't made you sick.

CHRIS HAYES: And that's why I thought it was such a... And I hate, I actively dislike the feeling of a mask, and I've been wearing it for that reason and... So there is this little, in a weird way it's like we all have sacrificed. And I am enormously privileged and sacrificed at no level, at the level of grocery workers and nurses, but everyone, to a certain extent, has disrupted their normal lives. Again, together we have, and the mask wearing, there is a collective engagement in the public project to care for all of us together that ordinary people across the various divisions that divide our society have undertaken collectively in a way that is actually quite inspiring.

CHRIS HAYES: We have, Republican, Democrat, right-wingers and left-wingers, black, white and Latino, rich and poor... Again, it doesn't mean those divisions don't matter, it doesn't mean that it's hitting everyone the same way, it clearly isn't. But as a collective innercise and collective response, there has been a remarkable amount of unity of purpose, which is why the brand-

HEATHER MCGHEE: Because we are actually all humans, and our human bodies-

CHRIS HAYES: Our human bodies don't want to die in a plague. And not only that do we not want to die on the plague, we don't want others to die in the plague. We don't want to pass off the plague, we don't want to be a vector of someone's sickness, we don't want the infirm and immunocompromise and people in nursing homes, who we don't know, to get sick because of us. We don't want that. We genuinely don't want that. And that is the hopeful part of this whole thing to me. There is just genuine decency and concern for other people's lives that is on display everywhere. And I find that that part of it inspiring.

HEATHER MCGHEE: It is absolutely inspiring, the tens of thousands of people who had hung up their stethoscopes years before surge back in to volunteer to go to New York. I've had an oddly high number of friends who are doctors and nurses and public health officials, it's the most common job of my close friends, and hearing their stories of just, "This is what the moment we were prepared for. This is the moment we were made for." It feels like it's an invitation to solidarity.

HEATHER MCGHEE: I think one of the things that we've done poorly is that we haven't given everyday people enough more to do actually, because I think that that desire to be helpful is so high right now. These were not the times that we ever knew, because we were born into Reagan and just moved on from there, but there was a time when people were buying war bonds and planting victory gardens. And there was a time when everybody was moving across the country in order to be a part of an effort that was bigger than them.

HEATHER MCGHEE: And I think that's what we're going to need to do. I think about the New York, you and I both live in New York, you're from New York, I'm from Chicago originally. But I think about the city that is going to have to be rebuilt, and just how much I would be willing to do for that, and how much I hope that our government is able to give us ways to be a part of the solution, because this country is going to have to be rebuilt. It's going to have to mourn, which is just so crazy, the lack of mourning.

HEATHER MCGHEE: There's no moments of silence before these press briefings, there's no names being read or scrolling across the top, there's nothing, it's like we are in a plague. Every time I open up my Facebook feed, there's someone else's auntie who has died. And yet there's no public official counting of that, we need to obviously do that, and we need to roll up our sleeves.

HEATHER MCGHEE: I think we're going to be in a great depression, on top of the pandemic. And I just... The public projects that came out of that period with the new deal are what are going to need to be on the horizon. I think we need to take the fact that fossil fuels are trading at so low and actually have the government buy them, not bail them out, but buy them.

CHRIS HAYES: Buy and shut them down.

HEATHER MCGHEE: Buy them and shut them down and-

CHRIS HAYES: Just keep the workers.

HEATHER MCGHEE: And keep the workers and retrain them, and let's save the planet. Let's actually act like the greatest country in the world.

CHRIS HAYES: We've got to think big. Heather McGee is a senior distinguished fellow at Demos. She's author of the upcoming book, "The Sum Of Us," which is out in 2021. You can go preorder it right now. Also, she's got a new Ted Talk up about the cost of racism to all of us. You should check that out, we will include a link. Thank you, Heather, it's great to talk to you.

HEATHER MCGHEE: Thank you, Chris.

CHRIS HAYES: Once again my great thanks to my good friend Heather Mcghee a distinguished Demos fellow once again her new book "The Sum Of Us" will be out in February, you can pre-order it. You can also check out her Ted Talk. We love to hear your feedback at #WITHpod, email us at withpod@gmail.com.

"Why Is This Happening" is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the "All In" team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.

Related:

"The Sum of Us" by Heather McGhee

Watch Heather McGhee’s TED talk here

Heather McGhee’s call with Gary from North Carolina

The Volcano Suggestion

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