At right, Heather McGhee appears online during the 33rd annual MLK  Breakfast on Monday, Jan. 18, 2020.
At right, Heather McGhee appears online during the 33rd annual MLK Breakfast on Monday, Jan. 18, 2020.

It is time for all Americans to reject the destructive bargain of racism, "usher in a new core story" and create the just, multi-racial "beloved community" envisioned by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., author and activist Heather McGhee said Monday morning at 33rd annual MLK Breakfast.

The breakfast, the largest annual fundraiser for Crispus Attucks Community Center, took place virtually this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Crispus Attucks is a program of the Community Action Partnership of Lancaster County.

McGhee, a trustee emeritus at the public policy think tank Demos, is the author of "The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together," her first book, which will be released in February.

Her presentation Monday was inspired by King's final book, "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?" As America goes through one of the most significant transitions in its history, it is facing exactly the stark choice that King described, she said.

Racism, she said, has a cost for everyone. Much as venues with public pools reacted to integration orders in the Civil Rights era by draining them or filling them in rather than opening them to Black families, racist ideology has been deployed to limit efforts to improve public welfare, denying all Americans "the full majesty of our national treasure."

Truth and transformation

How can American communities build solidarity across racial lines? The first step is being honest about history, Heather McGhee said during a Q&A that followed her presentation Monday at the MLK Breakfast.

McGhee recommended "Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation," a framework developed by the Kellogg Foundation. Information is available at healourcommunities.org.

The history of racism in America has been suppressed, and that doesn't help anyone, McGhee said: "You have to get on the same page before you can turn it."

The chaos we are seeing in the pandemic — as overburdened, under-resourced public systems hit their limits, leaving individuals and communities to face "privatized burdens" alone — is the natural result of that "failed paradigm," with its emphasis on individualism and zero-sum competition, she said.

America must pivot, she said. Its "core challenge" is to find "fellowship and brotherhood across lines of race." Those who have borne the costs of American inequality, particularly women of color, are best positioned to lead it, she suggested: "We see the system for what it is and have the clearest view."

McGhee pointed to the runoff U.S. Senate elections in Georgia won by Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. The multi-racial coalition that elected them "rejected racism and hate," McGhee said, embraced solidarity and "committed themselves to a new South and a new America."

Asked how communities can start building solidarity, she suggested one promising area is housing. Exclusionary zoning, the legacy of redlining, remains a common practice, and raises housing costs for all families; reforming it would benefit low- and middle-income Americans of all races.

Organizations like CAP, she said, are helping to reinvent America and bring about the kind of society King envisioned. She called on the MLK Breakfast audience to continue supporting those efforts: "Together we are dreaming of an America not yet seen but promised to us all."

As part of the Monday's MLK celebrations, Crispus Attucks gave out the following awards:

  • The Essence of Humanity Award: Kyonna Bowman; executive director of The Mix at Arbor Place; and Rachel Farmer, unit clerk in the Trauma Neurosurgical Unit at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health.
  • The Ruby Payne Cook Award: Crispus Attucks volunteers Patricia Short and Violet Thomas and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Scholarship Fund.
Tim Stuhldreher