Civil rights aren’t a zero-sum game

Professor Steve Haycox penned an observant opinion piece published in the Anchorage Daily News on July 16, “We can’t make America better if we pretend it’s already perfect.” However, he missed a great opportunity to offer a persuasive reason for conservative white folks to join their fellow citizens in bringing equality and equity to all people, no matter their color or gender identity. In public — and likely private — discussions about the persistent blot of historical discrimination by our country’s local, state and federal governments, which enabled private business and religious institutions to adopt similar practices, the effect of that destructive behavior on conservative white men is almost always ignored. Professor Haycox himself did so when he wrote, “We have always been a race-conscious society, and that preoccupation has worked persistently to the detriment of African Americans and other non-white minorities.”

In a very readable, thoroughly researched book, “The sum of us: What racism costs everyone and how we can prosper together,” author Heather McGhee carefully analyzes the social and economic detriment of discrimination on white men. Racism and sexism, and the policies and practices they spawn, demonstrably punish white men, not just people of color, women and the non-binary.

McGhee describes a historically accurate but truly absurd example from Montgomery, Alabama. For context, in the years after World War II, public swimming pools became a common diversion for middle class America. More accurately, writes McGhee, since the swimming pools permitted access only to white people, “the word public did not mean ‘of the people.’ It meant ‘of the white people.’” When federal courts ruled that publicly funded swimming pools had to be made available to all citizens, regardless of color, Montgomery took the ridiculous step of simply filling its beautiful public swimming pool with dirt. The white local government preferred preventing its white folks from enjoying a swim over sharing the pool with people of color. How stupid is that? Zero-sum theory — if it’s good for you, it must be bad for me, so you can’t have it — carried to the extreme.

Which brings to mind the current insistence by numerous states that voting needs to be restricted. The ostensible rationale is that the 2020 presidential election was actually won by Donald Trump, and the huge number of mailed ballots that turned the election into a Joe Biden victory was somehow fraudulent. Of course, claims of election fraud are completely unproven and utterly false. The true reason for current efforts to restrict voting rights is conservative white American males fear that if people of color are allowed to freely and fairly vote, white male Americans will lose their grip on power. Rather than welcoming all citizens into the voting pool, lots of state and local governments are instead choosing to restrict voting pool access for everyone.

Voter restrictions are the most recent example of the government using zero-sum theory to advance white male privilege and control. But McGhee makes it abundantly clear that the approach actually imposes enormous costs on white, middle-class American males, not just the downtrodden. More importantly, McGhee provides clear evidence that everyone, including conservative white men, gains a great deal from diversity, integration and equality. The demonstrable benefits are financial as well as social and cultural, and include improvements to public mental health.

For my part, I hope everyone comes to recognize that when a right or privilege is denied to all people, the costs fall on middle-class white men, and not just people of color, women or non-binary folks. On the other hand, granting a right or privilege to everyone benefits us all. When conservative white American men wake up to that connection and reject the division sown by zero-sum claims, perhaps our country can achieve the goals espoused in the Declaration of Independence.

Chuck Ray is an attorney in private practice. He lives and works in Anchorage.

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