Book: The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee
Publisher: One World
Publication date: 2021
Pages: 415 — 293 of text, the rest is notes and index
Source: Borrowed hardback from the library
Summary: The Sum of Us examines the zero-sum game that we in the US have been taught that we’re playing against each other. Heather McGhee found that it’s an empty metaphor and she found a lot of Americans who are clawing their ways out of its sticky depth to shine through brighter possibilities on the outside.
The old zero-sum paradigm is not just counterproductive; it’s a lie. I started my journey on the hunt for its source and discovered that it has only ever truly served a narrow group of people. To this day, the wealthy and the powerful are still selling the zero-sum story for their own profit, hoping to keep people with much in common from making common cause with one another. But not everyone is buying it. Everywhere I went, I found that the people who had replaced the zero sum with a new formula of cross-racial solidarity had found the key to unlocking what I began to call a “Solidarity Dividend,” from higher wages to cleaner air, made possible through collective action. And the benefits weren’t only external. I didn’t set out to write about the moral costs of racism, but they kept showing themselves. There is a psychic and emotional cost to the tightrope white people walk, clutching their identity as good people when all around them is suffering they don’t know how to stop, but that is done, it seems in their name and for their benefit. The forces of division seek to harden this guilt into racial resentment, but I met people who had been liberated by facing the truth and working toward racial healing in their communities. (p. xxii)
We’ve had a long history with the zero-sum game, so it’s a narrative that’s hard to escape.
Yes, the zero-sum story of racial hierarchy was born along with the country, but it is an invention of the worst elements of our society: people who gained power through ruthless exploitation and kept it by sowing constant division. It has always optimally benefited only the few while limiting the potential of the rest of us, and therefore the whole. (p. 14)
Thoughts: The Sum of Us had so much wisdom in its pages that I shared quotes and information from it on my Facebook page day after day while I was reading it.
The best short explanation of what happened in the 2008 housing and financial crisis is Chapter 4 of The Sum of Us. It turns out that the clearest place to start that story is with the black families who were the canaries in the coal mine. If we’d responded to their experiences with investigations and regulations, a whole lot of white families would have kept their homes, too. And, we wouldn’t have gone through a global economic melt-down that impacted everyone and that many people were still recovering from when 2020 brought another blow.
Chapter 7, “Living Apart”, is about housing and education. So, I thought I knew it all. Wrong.
I learned that there was an appendix to the appellants’ briefs in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The appendix to that decision was written by social scientists. The parts about how minority children were disadvantaged by segregation slipped into general consciousness because the nine justices highlighted it in their decision to strike it down. I was taught about disadvantaged black children when I learned about Brown v. Board of Education.
But there was another path from Brown, one not taken, with profound consequences for understanding of segregation’s harms. The nine white male justices ignored a part of the social scientists’ appendix that also described in prescient detail the harm segregation inflicts on “majority” children. White children “who learn the prejudices of our society,” wrote the social scientists, were “being taught to gain personal status in an unrealistic and non-adaptive way.” They were “not required to evaluate themselves in terms of the more basic standards of actual personal ability and achievement.” What’s more, they “often develop patterns of guilt feelings, rationalizations and other mechanisms which they must use in an attempt to protect themselves from recognizing the essential injustice of their unrealistic fears and hatreds of minority groups.” The best research of the day concluded that “confusion, conflict, moral cynicism, and disrespect for authority may arise in [white] children as a consequence of being taught the moral, religious and democratic principles of justice and fair play by the same persons and institutions who seem to be acting in a prejudiced and discriminatory manner. (pp. 182-3)
That was the “best research of the day” in 1954 — eight years before I was born. So, why did I only learn about the damage that segregation causes white children in the last few years when We Stories was started in St. Louis?
Deeper understandings of the 2008 housing crisis and Brown v. Board are only two of the many insights I gained from this book. And, from all of it, it’s the first two paragraphs that echo in my brain almost every day when I listen to the news.
“Why can’t we have nice things?”
Perhaps there’s been a time when you’ve pondered exactly this question. And by nice things, you weren’t thinking about hovercraft or laundry that does itself. You were thinking about more basic aspects of a high-functioning society, like adequately funded schools or reliable infrastructure, wages that keep workers out of poverty or a public health system to handle pandemics. The “we” who can’t seem to have nice things is Americans, all Americans. This includes the white Americans who are the largest group of the uninsured and the impoverished as well as the Americans of color who are disproportionately so. “We” is all of us who have watched generations of American leadership struggle to solve big problems and reliably improve the quality of life for most people. We know what we need–why can’t we have it? (p. xi)
Appeal: If you resist reading books about race in America because they’re too depressing, give The Sum of Us a try. The Sum of Us was the June selection for the Community for Understanding and Hope Book Group — it was the 128th book that we’ve read together. It’s one of the most comprehensive books that we’ve read while also being one of the most positive books that we’ve read. The Sum of Us provides multiple paths for us to invest ourselves in our communities in ways where we can reap the “Solidarity Dividend” together. The more of us who understand this material, the more we can make progress on getting the nice things that a high-functioning society can provide.
Challenges: This is my fifth book for the Diversity Reading Challenge.
The Color of Money was the March selection of the CFUH Book Group (making it our 125th book). I’m not going to do a full review of it because it’s so academic. But if you get through The Sum of Us and find that you want more details about how US financial institutions perpetrated poverty in Black communities, generation after generation, this is the book. In every generation there were efforts made to raise Black communities out of poverty (or, at least, make it look like the issue was being worked on). It turns out segregating money works about as well as segregating schools. And the result has harmed us all.
Have you read either of these books? What did you think?