The Solidarity Dividend

The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee: A cover full of color blocks resolves as a diving board into swimming pool with a white boy jumping off the end and a black girl climbing the ladder.

“I’m a white male, and I am prejudiced.” In August 2016 on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, public policy expert Heather McGhee, answered the challenge presented by Garry, a caller from North Carolina. He asked, ”What can I do to change, you know, to be a better American?” The video went viral due to McGhee’s reasoned, compassionate response. Thanking the caller for being honest while acknowledging we all have prejudices, McGhee proceeded to offer advice including, “In order to be a demos that is united across lines of race and class and gender and age, we have to foster relationships. We have to get to know who one another actually is.” When McGhee’s book, The Sum of Us, was published, I was curious to learn more from her. After reading it, I especially appreciate McGhee’s insight into how the mentality of “us and them” was built and how we can break it down. 

The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together describes how all ethnic and class groups suffer when racism influences government policy. McGhee researched the roots of economic disparity in the United States and explored causes and solutions from a perspective of unity rather than division. She argues that many problems with wage distribution, education, health care, housing, and environmental policy arise from the concept of a zero-sum game. When citizens perceive one racial group’s gain as another group’s loss, we cannot work for a common good. She documents how everyone loses out when racial hierarchy guides legislation. When public pools are filled with cement to circumvent enforcement of desegregation legislation, all the kids whose parents can’t afford private pools can’t go swimming. Using the concept of the public pool as a central metaphor, McGhee deconstructs how the US reached today’s level of political division and how American society can move forward, allowing all races, ethnicities, and classes to thrive. 

Of course, the idea of “what helps you, hurts me,“ goes beyond kids not being able to cool down in a pool in the summertime. The Sum of Us carefully traces trade union busting, healthcare access gaps, rising costs of public colleges, and the sub-prime mortgage crisis back to racial profiling. The resulting wage stagnation, benefit cuts, student debt, and foreclosures affected all racial groups.  

McGhee’s empathy raises The Sum of Us to a higher level than some other books I’ve read on similar topics. For example, as a self-proclaimed data nerd, she clearly explains the economics of the 2007-2010 financial crisis but then goes beyond the numbers to show, “what was risky wasn’t the borrower; it was the loan.” I gained understanding not only of the economics of the crisis, but the societal toll. Although predatory loan practices were initially targeted at low-income Blacks, later, the loans were pitched to everyone, regardless of their credit status. Many borrowers were eligible for prime mortgages but were manipulated to accept sub-prime mortgages because of the financial bonanza for the lender. McGhee presents this as yet another situation where racism eventually hurt everyone. 

McGhee has coined the phrase “Solidarity Dividend” for the benefits arising from communities collaborating across the racial divide. From minimum wage increases to investment in affordable housing development to improvement in air and water quality, the Solidarity Dividend boosts the economy while enhancing quality of life. “Getting white support to address those different levels of need, and to acknowledge the racism that caused these differences, is never easy – particularly when the zero-sum mental model turns every concession into a threat of loss,” McGhee writes. The Sum of Us demands to be read both for the well-researched documentation of the past and the message for our future.  

By the way, Heather and Garry, a disabled Navy veteran, built a friendship. Garry continues to work on understanding racism and realigning his own thinking. 

Cherise Tasker is an Adult Instructor and Research Specialist at the Central Branch. When not immersed in literary fiction, Cherise can be found singing along to musical theater soundtracks. 

Losing Eden by Lucy Jones

A circle filled with the white "negative" space of different sorts of ferms and plants against a green and red background sits above the title and author.

by Ben H.

What can a casual reader take away from Lucy Jones’s 2020 book Losing Eden: Our Fundamental Need for the Natural World and its Ability to Heal Body and Soul? I’d like to say I’m not just a casual reader, but I am. Losing Eden isn’t as entertaining as Rhythm of War, as helpful as The Korean Vegan (I can’t stop making the spicy and crunchy garlic tofu!), or as cathartic as rewatching The Return of the King. But, it’s totally worth your while!

Losing Eden is informative, thought-provoking, and well researched. I found inspiration in its pages. I found it comforting and distressing. Sometimes it’s comforting to read a whole book about how the world is hurtling toward disaster instead of dozens of headlines, short articles, op-eds, and social media posts. Reading Losing Eden made me feel like Ethan Hawke in First Reformed, except I have a daughter and I don’t pour Pepto-Bismol in my whiskey.

Losing Eden is glued together with memoir paste, but it’s mostly an academic, research-based treatise on the importance of time spent outdoors, the immense value of plants and animals, and the urgent need to protect the natural world. Jones uses climate change, mental health, socio-economics, and racial equity as reasons to care about this green world. She also references dozens, if not hundreds, of studies, books, and research projects running the gamut from the social effects of green space in Chicago to the importance of the Białowieża Forest, a primeval area in Poland and Belarus. 

She cites Robert Pyle’s theory of the extinction of experience. Pyle’s general idea is that the less we interact with nature, the less we will care about it. Extinction leads to extinction of experience and then to more extinction. Jones writes, “Over the past fifty years the populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish have fallen by 60 percent worldwide.” Passages like that are distressing.  

Jones explores the possible emotional impact of spending time outdoors. The answer might be in the dirt. A bacteria found in dirt, mycobacterium vaccae, has been linked to increased happiness. In 2004, oncologist Mary O’Brien created, “a serum that contained M. vaccae, a species of bacteria found in soil.” It did not have the desired effect, a cure for cancer, “but, strangely, those who received the immunization reported feeling happier.” Dr. Christopher Lowry was separately working on a similar research project and found that ,“mice injected with the bacterium exhibited fewer anxiety- or fear-like behaviour and were 50 percent less likely to have stress-induced colitis.” It’s dangerous to label nature as a panacea for mental health issues, but I think Jones makes a compelling argument, while being careful not to stray into an irresponsible reliance on nature as a magical cure.  

Jones also mentions chronic inflammation and its connection with mental health. She writes, “people with depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and other neuropsychiatric disorders have been found to have higher levels of inflammation biomarkers.” Cytokines are a biomarker for inflammation, and “studies show that just two hours In a forest can significantly lower cytokine levels in the blood, soothing inflammation. This could partly be caused by exposure to important microorganisms.” If you’ve never heard of shinrin-yoku, this book is for you.

She also approaches the topic from a socioeconomic angle. She writes that “people in lower socio-economic groups or from racial and ethnic minorities usually have less access to green space and parks than those who are white and affluent.” She traces this issue back to the 17th century and the enclosure acts in England: “the practice of enclosing land from the British people began in earnest with the passing of over 5,200 Enclosure Acts between 1604 and 1914, which fenced off 6.8 million acres of previously common land.” I particularly loved this part of her book because the enclosure acts were an integral part of my thesis on pastoral poetry. If you’re ever in the UMBC library, check out: “Borrowed Weeds: Courtiers in Disguise in Renaissance Pastoral.” I guarantee you’ll be the first person to ever check it out.  

Jones saved one of her most compelling arguments for last. She cites the research of Professor Rich Mitchell from the University of Glasgow. His idea of “equigenesis” is full of real-world applications. The basic idea is that “If an environment is equigenic, it may reduce the gap between the rich and the poor by weakening the link between socio-economic inequality and health inequality.” Prof. Mitchell realized that the massive changes needed to address inequity weren’t going to happen, so he searched for other solutions. A 2015 study looking at more than 20,000 people in 34 European countries showed that, “access to nature was the one characteristic that reduced socio-economic inequality in mental well-being (by 40 percent).” 

Her evidence is compelling. Jones accumulated loads of research and attacked the question from many angles. I had a lot of takeaways from her book. I should definitely encourage my daughter to play in the dirt. I should garden. I should spend time outdoors. Should I buy a chicken to diversify my microbiota like Jones did? Maybe? 

I’ll definitely encourage my daughter to continue to watch squirrels, look for the moon during the day, and watch for chubby hawks in the trees.  

Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).