The “Sum of Us” is worth reading twice

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, July 23, 2021

Heather McGhee’s “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together” is a thoughtful, thought-provoking, refreshing book on an old topic: racism in America.

The book was first published Feb. 9, was almost instantly on The New York Times bestseller list and has been well-endorsed by many well-known authors and opinion leaders, so I am not the first to see its insights.

The book is so good that I read it, cover-to-cover, twice. McGhee was a DC policy wonk trained in economics and law, but reportedly she grew up aspiring to be a TV writer, and she uses that talent to write clearly, telling complex stories of racial injustice in a clear way.

The two most memorable themes of “The Sum of Us” are probably: 1) the idea that life is a “zero-sum game” is a dominating belief in American society and 2) that historically white Americans emptied, closed and filled in public swimming pools rather than integrate them as required by court order. The single idea that her analysis moves toward is that there are “solidarity dividends” to be had for all of us if we learn to see them and cooperate in obtaining them.

“Zero-sum” assumes that there is a fixed amount of resources such that if you get more, I get less. It is based on a narrow view of self-interest and denies the benefits of cooperative behavior found in teams and communities. As McGhee points out, this narrow vision is an assumption of academic self-interest that is not empirically examined for its truthfulness. But it is a simple story spread throughout neighborhoods and workplaces so that opportunities for Black Americans were seen as direct threats to white property owners and union members. The middle chapters in “The Sum of Us” are excellent, clear histories of housing and labor policies and practices and the tragedy of the GI Bill and Social Security that left Black veterans behind in home ownership, post-secondary education and retirement benefits. It is head-jarring how the development of the interstate highway system in the late 1950s and 1960s, the change in public attitudes about guaranteed income in the early 1980s and the shifting of the cost of public higher education from state governments to families and students all have large and lasting racial disparities.

The saddest stories shared by McGhee are those of the hundreds of communities in dozens of states that eliminated public services, such as public swimming pools, in the 1950s and 1960s rather than integrate them. It makes a difference. According to the USA Swimming Foundation, 64% of African American children do not know to swim compared with 40% of white children. Seventy-nine percent of children in families with less than $50,000 income do not know how to swim. Among young people age 5 to 19, Black children drown in pools at a rate 5.5 times that of white children. Similar racial disparities can be found, of course, in quality of education, housing and health care.

I remember hearing about the 1971 Supreme Court decision, Palmer v. Thompson, which held that a city could chose to close public polls rather than integrate because “there was no evidence of state action affecting Negros differently than whites.” I was a junior in college at the time and was angered by my pre-law friends who accepted the argument that as long as “equal protection of the laws” was achieved, then racial disparities leaving Black people without pools, and quality K-12 schools, was acceptable.

McGhee appreciates how our founders were single-mindedly devoted to overthrowing King George III and prepared to compromise with the slave-owning South to achieve it. She calmly explains how the South won the three-fifths compromise that increased its voting power in Congress and in the Electoral College based on its not free and nonvoting Black populations. While it is arguable that Northerners, and Virginians such as James Madison, had to make that compromise in order to sustain national independence, few of us recognize how the sizable impacts on racial inequality have persisted to the present day. Even today, efforts to change voting procedures have a differential racial impact that is viewed as positive by the Republican state legislatures that establish them.

While at first, I didn’t fully appreciate McGhee’s conclusion, after some thought I realized that what makes the book unique is its blend of historical facts and inspiration tone. The last chapter is not a concluding list of policy recommendations but rather an inspirational account of her discovering that in places like Lewistown, Maine, white citizens and new immigrants have realized the value of working together to achieve “positive-sum” benefits where everyone is a winner.

While she endorses big ideas such as reparations, she proposes establishing “Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation efforts” at the local level to help present-day citizens realize the legacy of the past and move on to benefit more citizens. McGhee proposes that racial reparations be viewed as the seed capital to create the diverse nation we can become. An advantage to reconciliation efforts that are future-oriented is that they are less viewed as zero-sum transactions that are part of our collective racial problem in the first place. If we approach controversial issues constructively, we can all obtain “solitary dividends.”

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at