The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee


This is a very excellent book written by a real visionary.  McGhee has a sharp mind which she uses to combine historical facts with personal anecdotes and stories that she gathered from interviews as she crossed the country from Maine to Mississippi to California. She wanted to discover why it is so common for people to see life as a zero-sum hierarchy.  Many white people in our country fear that if someone gains, someone else must lose (Blacks tend to believe that if the folks at the bottom gain, everyone gains).  This fear is reinforced by power dynamics.  The higher up in the power hierarchy, the more important it is to be sure those who have less power work against each other rather than work together to create mutual benefits.  The strategy of divide and conquer is alive and well.  This book provided me with an excellent tool with which to take a deeper look at my own life to see more clearly how my family and I benefitted from this fear and unwittingly helped sustain racism and prejudice against the “other.”  The author’s genius is in her ability to give example after example of how the zero-sum mentality is damaging for everyone and how it can be unraveled.  She interviews a host of folks who have worked together across differences to dismantle unjust systems.    

Each chapter in The Sum of Us covers a specific topic like redlining, environmental injustices, and even the systematic draining of public pools in this country rather than allowing Black families to swim in them.  Before the change in segregation laws, there was a strong belief that public pools in expansive public park areas would help unite a country populated by disparate immigrants.  These public spaces would be places where folks could gather and share the public good at no cost—they were paid for by tax dollars; however, underlying this grand scheme was the hidden rule that the facilities were for whites only.  When new laws were passed prohibiting segregation, these spaces could not legally exclude Blacks.  Even though the U.S. had a premiere internationally acclaimed program of publicly funded public spaces with huge swimming pools (I remember pools in both San Diego and Chicago when I was growing up), segregationists preferred closing the spaces to everyone rather than integrating them.  Pools all over the country were bulldozed and parks left unmaintained while white as well as Black children stood by sadly watching the destruction.  The result—private swim clubs that charged fees were created that could legally exclude Blacks; they also excluded those whites who could not afford memberships.  This was a particularly jarring chapter, because I benefitted from those public spaces as a child, and, until I read this book, I had no idea of the history.

McGhee has done extensive research; there are pages and pages of footnotes.  She is also adept at interviewing.  She spoke to a diverse group of people to obtain a real cross section of opinions and experiences.  McGhee skillfully narrates her own stories and her interviews making the book feel very personal and alive.  I gained many new insights (some very painful but important) and learned about important strategies for working toward a more inclusive future where everyone is equally valued.  The more I read, the more urgent I sense the need for systemic changes and intersectionality in activism. Young people are very savvy, and they are pulling together to work across differences to create a global community that they want for themselves and future generations. Forty-one year old Heather McGhee is a great example of a woman who believes that a paradigm shift is both necessary and possible, and she provides ideas on how to do the work.

Speaking of strategies, this title goes in the “Activism or Social Justice” square for Book Bingo.  I’m currently reading The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich.  There isn’t a “Native American” square, so I’m already planning to use my “Free” square. Unfortunately, “Free” doesn’t line up with “Social Justice.”  I’m not starting off the summer with a very effective “Book Bingo” strategy!  🙃   

5 comments on “The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee”

  1. Barbara, this review inspires. Great depth and detail. I was struck by this –

    “Many white people in our country fear that if someone gains, someone else must lose (Blacks tend to believe that if the folks at the bottom gain, everyone gains).”

    What a stark juxtaposition that is! What a skewed world view which considers that someone must lose in order for me to rise. Yikes. Much to ponder here and definitely heading to the library to get this one on my list.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. As a follow up bit of info., I came across this article: It revealed the complex ramifications of public pool closings. It also reminded me of the cultural importance of hair in the Black community. I first learned a bit about this from Ayanna Pressley: I have lots more to learn!


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