Book Review: “The Sum of Us” by Heather McGhee

The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee

The theme of this book is described in the chapter heading, “Racism Drained the Pool”.  McGhee recounts the time when most towns had wonderful public swimming pools.  These venues were marvelous melting pots, bringing together many diverse Americans, including new immigrants, in a shared community.

Public pools were, of course, whites only.  (Everywhere, not just Dixie.) The melting pot only went so far.

When the courts overturned Jim Crow, public swimming pools were required to integrate, to allow all residents to join the melting pot.

All across America, towns closed their pools rather than integrate.

McGhee’s point is that this may have hurt Black residents, but it mostly hurt everyone (at least everyone who didn’t have a private pool or swim club).  White people were no longer allowed to have a nice thing, mainly to make sure that Black people didn’t have the same thing.

Why do such a thing?  It makes no sense.

McGhee’s basic thesis is that the powers-that-be use a story of zero sum competition to destroy the public sector.  This story is basically that “They” are going to take your stuff.  The pernicious part is that even if you haven’t got much, if you have a tiny bit of White privilege, you can feel you are better, and better off, than “them”.

In short, racism is used to deprive everyone of nice things.  And, again and again, white people lose their nice things.

(Who really wins?  The most privileged few get even richer, and keep control.)

McGhee’s book is a long, detailed exposition of this hypothesis in one arena after another.

Frankly, it’s depressing. 

Assuming you accept her analysis—which I certainly do—what should be done? 

McGhee’s answer is a very Bidonesque project.  She wants to see a broad multi coalition push through investments in public goods:  housing, schools, environment, jobs.  It’s just that simple.

The Sum of Us is more for all of us.

For me, one important question is, how does McGhee differ from, say Kendi or Gates?   How is “Sum of Us” different from “Anti-racism”?

The fact is, they come out pretty much in the same place.  McGhee argues that fixing racial inequity benefits everyone (except maybe a handful of powerful plutocrats).  So, a lot of the “anti-racism” program is just what’s needed to fix things for everybody.

But, of course, McGhee thinks the best, and possibly only, way to make this happen is through broad, multi-racial coalitions.  (She also makes clear that this isn’t a one-size-fits all project—it’s the same goals, but communities have different histories and conditions and ways forward.)

McGhee is heavily focused on replenishing public goods, reopening the metaphorical swimming pools.  This requires public action, and that requires compromise and hard work, not showboating (and I would say, not “cancelling”).

Definitely the ‘Biden’ vibe.

One of the important points that comes out is that this fix is about morality as much as economic or political equity.  Closing the swimming pool was a shame, but most of all it was a deep moral stain on our people, on all of us, even those who didn’t do the deed.  It is important to make things right, so we can feel clean again.

I wonder how many readers, especially white readers, will be enlightened or even shocked by this book.

I certainly wasn’t.

I mean, “duh”!   If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve seen the pools close over and over again.  (And ask a Native American about what “America” means.)

And it’s not just racism. 

While race is the distinctive American moral disaster, in the last 50 years we’ve seen the defunding of higher education (to punish those anti-war protestors), denigration of professions that promote by women (e.g., medicine, law), and, of course, massive assault on “cultural elites” of all kinds, who have started to allow women, gays, and who knows who get into the story, as well as non-whites.

The most horrible thing I see is that in aftermath of this last election we can have seen that the very principles of representative democracy are now one of the “nice things” that we no longer deserve to have.  Elections that give the “wrong result”, that “they” are allowed to win; are declared illegitimate and must be overturned.  We’d rather close democracy than integrate.

This is pretty much the last step in destroying the public sector, of course. There isn’t much farther to go.

“Depressing” doesn’t begin to cover it.

  1. Heather McGhee, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, New York, One World, 2021.

Sunday Book Reviews

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