The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee

he Sum of Us by Heather McGhee cover imageSummary: Racism harms not just racial minorities but the country as a whole. Thinking of race as a zero-sum game prevents changes that would help everyone.

The Sum of Us plays on the zero-sum game many think our modern racial reality is limited to. A few days ago on Twitter, I saw a comment on a review of the book Reparations by Kwon and Thompson. The comments said that expansion of minority students into high-quality colleges meant that he had not gotten into the school he wanted. I responded that very few White students had not gotten into a college solely because of racial preferences. The response back was a classic zero-sum game response, “There are a limited number of students in universities. If some of them are selected based on race, then someone was denied entry.” First, there is not a limited number of students in universities. If there is a greater demand for university admissions, more seats will be opened up. But second, even now, where many colleges and universities have pledged to work for more diversity in admissions, there are still influences that prioritize white students, like in the case of legacy admissions being the real reason that more Asians were not being accepted into Harvard, not policies to attempt to admit more underserved racial minorities (as is discussed here and here).

What most interested me about why Heather McGhee started researching this book how much it made sense of political gridlock. When she was on staff and then the head of a policy think tank in Washington DC, McGhee advocated policies that would help many people in the US. But she ran into opposition that was willing to vote against policies because of concerns that the policies would help minorities too much. Simply making intellectual policy arguments and financial return arguments on investment did not move the deep-seated bias that many are not aware are moving them. This type of idea comes up frequently in economic psychology (The Righteous Mind or Predictably Irrational). Still, I am also interested in this for issues around both race and spiritual direction. How do we help people see race more clearly, or how do we help people see deeper emotional issues instead of the surface-level intellectual issues around their faith and practice.

Heather McGhee has a central metaphor, the many municipal pools built in the 1920-40s across the country but then were closed and often removed rather than allow integration. Communities were worse off, not just because of the lack of a community pool, but because there was a willingness to destroy a part of a community infrastructure that harmed everyone rather than allowing Black community members to share in the pool. What McGhee is reporting matches what Kevin Kruse reported in White Flight about racial attitudes of White Atlantans. According to Kruse, when a space or activity was integrated, the common assumption of White people was not that this space is not an integrated park or school or public transportation or community, but that it became a Black-only park or school or public transportation or community. Kruse suggests that this is what gave rise to the rise of libertarian opposition to common good spending. McGhee is approaching from a different perspective.

McGhee is looking at the harms to White communities as a result of racism. The model that McGhee is using works in a similar way across many social spheres. Racism exists; it harms racial minorities, especially Black citizens. That harm is impossible to limit only to racial minorities because of ‘color blind’ policies. So those policies which originally harmed Black and other communities by explicit or implicit intent, not also start harming White communities, usually the lowest economic groups first and then working up the economic ladder.

The recent changes to voting laws in Flordia are an example. Changes that are described as being for “election security” disproportionately impact Black and Hispanic communities. But because of racial demographics, those changes do not only impact racial minorities. In Flordia, restrictions on mail-in ballots and early voting will also significantly impact elderly populations, which are disproportionally  White voters. In the chapter on housing and the 2007-08 financial crisis centered around sub-prime loans, mortgage brokers and housing refinancing groups targeted low-income and minority populations for loans, often unethically stripping value from the homeowners through hidden fees or outright fraud. As McGhee illustrates, targeting minority communities first, communities that overwhelmingly White executives and staff rationalize as less than, which allows those staff and executives to get used to dehumanizing their clients and then to expand those activities beyond the originally targeted minorities communities. Yet, the examples of outright fraud by mortgage lenders and staff are rarely prosecuted criminally, even though the financial losses to the community and the country are significant, larger by magnitudes than traditional robbery and theft.

McGhee walks through many policy areas, housing, unions, and other types of organizing, voting and other political issues, healthcare, criminal justice, and more. The pattern is largely the same; the continued existence of racism separates communities, allowing for the exploitation of the poor and resistance to common good spending and policy proposals. The early chapters are incredibly depressing. The history of exploration and abuse of the poor and racially discriminated is a history that we need to understand. But the end of the book is largely upbeat and hopeful. Heather McGhee thinks that there is potential for working not only to end the impacts of racism, but for cross-racial organizing and policy proposals to bring about common good outcomes that would make the world better for everyone.

The question really comes down to, “can we stop approaching the world as a zero-sum game and work for ends that are better for everyone?”

I did not know how to fit this quote directly, but I think it is a perfect example of how political and economic systems in the US work. “Dog Whistle politics is gaslighting on a massive scale. Stoking racism through insidious stereotyping while denying that racism has anything to do with it.”

The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

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