The Sum of Us, by Heather McGhee

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The plutocrats have always known that solidarity is the answer, that the sum of us can accomplish far more than just some of us.

This is a fantastic book describing how racism has benefited “some of us”, while costing us the benefits of solutions that help all of us. McGhee suggests that “the sum of us” could be far greater if we united in solidarity to work together for what all of us need: safety, belonging, education, and a living wage. Instead, corporations and capitalists have used racism to turn us against each other so that we don’t notice how they continue to enrich themselves by exploiting us.

McGhee writes: “In the two-hundred-year history of American industrial work, there’s been no greater tool against collective bargaining than employers’ ability to divide workers by gender, race, or origin, stoking suspicion and competition across groups. It’s simple: if your boss can hire someone else for cheaper, or threaten to, you have less leverage for bargaining. In the nineteenth century, employers’ ability to pay black workers a fraction of white wages made whites see free black people as threats to their livelihood.

the result was a zero sum: the boss made more profit; one group had new, worse work, and the other had none. In the war years, men would protest the employment of women. Competition across demographic groups was the defining characteristic of the American labor market, but the stratification only helped the employer. The solution for workers was to bargain collectively: to band together across divisions and demand improvements that lifted the floor for everyone.”

When we unite and act for all of us in solidarity, we all benefit.

McGhee also uses American public swimming pools as a narrative for how racism impoverishes everybody. They were built by the government in the early 20th century as delights for (white) families of all ages, with elaborate slides and diving boards. But when the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was no longer allowed in government-supported facilities, many towns closed the pools entirely and filled them in, rather than let Black families join. So everybody in the community suffered because of racism – the town’s families who had enjoyed the benefits of the pool no longer had them, and the Black families never got access. She then traces out how this pattern has played out in situation after situation in America, where the government offered a program to support citizens, but that benefit was removed after the Civil Rights movement meant that Black people could potentially use the benefit.

Public universities were initially designed to be affordable to all for most of the 20th century, with many being completely tuition-free, and others being affordable for regular people; McGhee cites tuition as being “$617 at a four-year college in 1976, and a student could receive a federal Pell Grant for as much as $1,400 against that and living expenses” (this was news to me!). But with the rise of movement conservatism and Ronald Reagan, government funding was seen as a “handout” to “undeserving” Black people, so taxes were slashed and public funding disappeared. The lack of government funding meant that tuition skyrocketed, even at public universities, creating the student debt crisis that affects all students, Black and white, who need that educational credential. In the attempt to avoid helping Black people, everybody lost.

This change means that older white people who complain that kids these days are too entitled, because they didn’t receive help or need to take out a loan for college, often don’t realize just how much of their education was subsidized by the government, and how much things have changed. At the time, “This massive public investment wasn’t considered charity; an individual state saw a return of three to four dollars back for every dollar it invested in public colleges. When the public meant “white,” public colleges thrived.” But businessmen rebelled and wanted lower taxes, so they designed a new narrative where government was the enemy, taking money from hard-working (white) Americans and giving it to undeserving (Black) freeloaders, which led to impoverishment for all Americans, while benefiting the richest by allowing them to grow their wealth exponentially.

Another example McGhee shares is that government-backed mortgage lending entities like Fannie Mae generously supported homeownership in the mid-20th century, but refused to support mortgages in Black neighborhoods, thus keeping Black families from building similar wealth. Without that wealth, Black families didn’t have the savings to cover emergencies, and were then targeted by banks that used predatory tactics to convince them to take out bigger loans at unnecessarily high rates so that they could get the money they needed to cover their bills. The sheer profitability of such tactics led the banks to use those tactics on everybody, which then led to the subprime mortgage crisis and the Great Recession.

McGhee writes: “And all of it was preventable, if only we had paid attention earlier to the financial fires burning through black and brown communities across the nation. Instead, the predatory practices were allowed to continue until the disaster had engulfed white communities, too — and only then, far too late, was it recognized as an emergency. There is no question that the financial crisis hurt people of color first and worst. And yet the majority of the people it damaged were white. This is the dynamic we’ve seen over and over again throughout our country’s history, from the drained public pools, to the shuttered public schools, to the overgrown yards of vacant homes.”

Even topics like industrial pollution and climate change are covered, as they are thought to first mostly affect the “other”: pollution and toxic waste have overwhelmingly been directed towards neighborhoods of Black or indigenous people, but of course pollution doesn’t just stay in one place, and affects neighboring communities as well. The same is true of climate change, which is often framed as “a zero-sum competition between the environment and the economy as it is”. Even though we all “live under the same sky” and experience the harm being done to the environment, we have all not benefited equally from the “economy as it is”, which creates a division between “us” and “them”. If somebody has benefited from the status quo, they want to keep things as is; since they also have greater resources and more options to avoid suffering and spare themselves the costs of environmental problems e.g. moving away from the pollution, or building air-conditioned retreats to shelter from the scorching heat. That means that the environment isn’t a problem for them, only “others”, and with a zero-sum mindset, helping others would mean hurting themselves, so they don’t do it.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. If we invested together, we could create new jobs, create new industries, and do things in a more sustainable way that could save the planet. Rather than take a zero-sum mindset where more for you means less for me, we could work together to grow new possibilities and create more for everyone. Such a shift would involve taking a new solidarity mindset so that we could make changes to the status quo, but it’s possible.

Instead, McGhee points out that the American economy continues to play out the original model of slavery: “the less the slaveholder expended making his bound laborers’ lives sustainable, the more profit he had. The only limit to this zero-sum incentive to immiserate other human beings was total incapacity or death; at that point, theoretically, black pain was no longer profitable.” Note that this pattern is repeated today in many corporations, with Amazon being a notable example of treating most of its workers as fungible sources of cheap labor that they can churn through until incapacitated to generate profits for the owners. To justify this total lack of empathy, we dismiss others as deserving of their suffering through the myth of meritocracy: “if you’ve spent a lifetime seeing yourself as the winner of a zero-sum competition for status, you would have learned along the way to accept inequality as normal; you’d come to attribute society’s wins and losses solely to the players’ skill and merit.”

And once you believe that, then it is a small step to believe that other people’s suffering is deserved: “If you’re in a society where you’ve already let someone go without shelter, then what does it matter if they drown? If it’s okay for people to suffer, then it’s okay for people to suffer.” If they didn’t go to college, then they deserve a backbreaking minimum-wage job (never mind that college has been made unaffordable). The subprime mortgage crisis was blamed on people of color with “it was the borrowers’ fault; they took out loans they couldn’t afford” (I’m embarrassed to admit that I said and thought such things at the time), rather than recognize that the loans were created and targeted by banks in irresponsible ways. By blaming the borrowers, the banks got a bailout, rich white people’s wealth was preserved, and the people affected (both people of color, and poor white people) lost a lifetime of savings and were sentenced to live in poverty going forward for their “sins”.

As an aside, for those doubting the connection between slavery and the Great Recession, McGhee shares how her research revealed “just how literally the country’s original economic sin was connected to the financial crisis of 2008. The first mortgages and collateralized debt instruments in the United States weren’t on houses, but on enslaved people, including the debt instruments that led to the speculative bubble in the slave trade of the 1820s. And the biggest bankruptcy in American history, in 2008, was the final chapter of a story that began in 1845 with the brothers Lehman, slave owners who opened a store to supply slave plantations near Montgomery, Alabama.”

McGhee tells story after story of how this pattern plays out, where those who benefit from the current system exploit the power of zero-sum thinking to convince people that “them” doing better means “us” doing worse. And yet that thinking leads to worse outcomes for everybody, in a real-world mirroring of the prisoner’s dilemma, as the systems and structures used to oppress Black people are then turned on other populations, including a majority of white people.

Instead, we can do better if we recognize the benefits of solidarity and non-zero-sum thinking, of recognizing that all of us do better when we invest in all of us. McGhee writes: “Nothing about our situation is inevitable or immutable, but you can’t solve a problem with the consciousness that created it.” When we stop treating people as resources to be exploited, but as people like ourselves, we become more whole ourselves, and that wholeness translates into different thinking and different results.

This shift would likely already be happening if our elected representatives were more responsive to the voting population. But due to carefully designed gerrymandered districts, repeated efforts to make it harder to vote, and unlimited money used to plant certain framings into voters’ minds, the connection between voters and representatives is broken in the United States. McGhee points out that other democratic countries have voter registration rates of over 90% because it’s straightforward to register, whereas America’s voter registration rate is only 70%, with only 61% voting, where those numbers don’t include those ineligible to vote due to felony convictions which are overwhelmingly biased towards those with black and brown skin.

I had known bits and pieces of this history, but McGhee’s book brings it all together in a powerful narrative to show the cost that racism has on all of us, not just the Black people it is designed to diminish. By separating us from our common humanity, we lose the ability to work together in solidarity to benefit everyone, because “A functioning society rests on a web of mutuality, a willingness among all involved to share enough with one another to accomplish what no one person can do alone.” The irony is that most conservatives consider the 1950s the America that we should aspire to, and what enabled that golden age was the common acceptance of mutuality (the Eisenhower Republican positions of 1956 would be considered radically leftist today). But that willingness to work together for the “sum of us” was systematically destroyed rather than accept all people with all skin colors in that mutuality, much like the public swimming pools were destroyed rather than admit Black people.

I’ll let McGhee’s closing words speak for themselves: “it is time to face the great lie at the root of our nation’s founding: a belief in the hierarchy of human value. … when a nation founded on a belief in racial hierarchy truly rejects that belief, then and only then will we have discovered a New World. That is our destiny. To make it manifest, we must challenge ourselves to live our lives in solidarity across color, origin, and class; we must demand changes to the rules in order to disrupt the very notion that those who have more money are worth more in our democracy and our economy. 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. … the “We” in “We the People” is not some of us, but all of us. We are greater than, and greater for, the sum of us.”

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