The Sum of Us

“Why can’t we have nice things?”

This question begins The Sum of Us, by Heather McGhee, and each subsequent chapter provides a piece of the answer.

The “nice things” that those of us who live in the United States can’t have, are adequately funded schools, wages that keep people out of poverty, and a reliable infrastructure—just to name a few. And the main reason we can’t have a nice things, according to McGhee, is because white people have bought into the false narrative that racism is a zero-sum game, such that if something is good for people of color, it must be bad for white people; and therefore, even if it means acting against their own best interests, they will consistently support policies, programs, and legislation that they think will not privilege people of color—even if makes things worse for them as well.

Early on in the book, McGhee describes her realization that stories are what matter—the stories we tell about ourselves, and the stories we believe about others. Thus, she writes, “Laws are merely expressions of a society’s dominant beliefs. It’s the beliefs that must shift in order for outcomes to change” [xviii]. Specifically, the belief that must change is the idea that “increases in racial minorities’ status will reduce white Americans’ status” [xviii].  Because the reality is, racism gets in the way of all of us having nice things. [And, as an aside, I couldn’t agree more with her point about stories….]

For this reason, McGhee wrote this book: to “piece together a new story of who we could be to one another, and to glimpse the new America we must create for the sum of us” [xxiii].

So, after she details this zero-sum game narrative in the first chapter, the subsequent chapters describe how this plays out concretely, using a wide variety of examples: college tuition, labor unions, climate change, K-12 education, etc., etc. In each chapter, she details how, again and again, white people vote and act against their own self-interests from the inaccurate belief that to protect their own status, they must challenge and resist policies and laws that could support the betterment of people of color. So, for example, she describes the increase in voter suppression laws in order to prevent a “thriving, multiracial democracy.” 

In another example, she writes:

“In order to chase these so-called good schools, white families must be able and willing to stretch their budgets to live in increasingly expensive, and segregated, communities. These white parents are paying for their fear because they’re assuming that white-dominant schools are worth the cost to their white children; essentially, that segregated schools are best. But what if the entire logic is wrong? What if they’re not only paying too high a cost for segregation, but they’re also mistaken about the benefit? Here’s where things get interesting. Compared to students at predominantly white schools, white students who attend diverse K-12 schools achieve better learning outcomes and even higher test scores, particularly in areas such as math and science. Why?…their minds are improved when it comes to critical thinking and problem solving. Exposure to multiple viewpoints leads to more flexible and creative thinking and greater ability to solve problems” [181].

But for me, the most vivid example of this counter-intuitive thinking comes in chapter 2, when she describes all of the white communities who chose to drain and fill in their public pools in the 1950s and 1960s, rather than integrate them. One particularly stark example is Oak Park in Montgomery, Alabama. In this large, lush [and whites-only] park, there was a beautiful public pool, and even a zoo. When the segregation of the park was no longer legally possible, they drained the pool and paved it over, and sold off the animals and closed the zoo. In fact, the entire public park system in Montgomery was closed for over a decade [25]. In essence, to keep black children from having access to a public pool, they made sure that no one, no children had access to a public pool.

In subsequent chapters, the same dynamic of “we’d rather no one have it than we all have it” plays out over and over again—with diminishing grants for college tuition, unwillingness to pass legislation to prevent toxic pollution and environmental degradation, and lack of support of labor unions.

And to emphasize the role politicians play in all this, in chapter 10, she quotes a Somali immigrant, who says “In Central and Southern Africa, there’s a saying: ‘When election day comes, keep your knife close….The politicians will try to separate us” [265]. Make no mistake: the same dynamic is playing out in our country today.

So, what we desperately need, instead of this false zero-sum narrative, is a new story, a story that honors and celebrates the ways we rise and fall together, the ways we depend on each other—a story that enables us to work together for the greater good for all of us. She writes:

“Everything depends on the answer to this question. Who is an American, and what are we to one another? Politics offers two visions of why all the peoples of the world have met here: one in which we are nothing more than competitors, and another in which perhaps the proximity of so much difference forces us to admit our common humanity. The choice between these two visions has never been starker. To a nation riven with anxiety about who belongs, many in power have made it their overarching goal to sow distrust about the goodness of the Other. They are holding on, white-knuckled, to a tiny idea of We the People, denying the beauty of what we are becoming….Since this country’s founding, we have not allowed our diversity to be our superpower, and the result is that the United States is not more than the sum of its disparate parts. But it could be. And if it were, all of us would prosper…We are greater than, and greater for, the sum of us” [288-289].

It is a really compelling argument, and the book is very well written—I highly recommend it. The only thing I was left wondering is, are the people who need to read it going to read it, or is she only preaching to the choir?  I’m not sure how best to get it into the hands of people whose minds might be changed by reading it. 

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