The Sum of Us

In the 1920’s and 30’s, towns and cities across the United States built large, beautiful public swimming pools for their communities. Montgomery, Alabama was one such town. Its Oak Park pool was one of the largest in the region.

It was open to whites only.

Civil rights lawsuits in the 1950’s eventually led federal courts to order the desegregation of public pools. In Montgomery, the town council reacted decisively: they closed down the pool rather than integrate with their Black neighbors. In fact, they closed the entire Parks Department, including a community center and a zoo. For ten years. 

Even when the parks reopened the pool did not. The town filled it with concrete and planted grass on top of it.

This is batshit crazy, right? Everyone lost, Blacks and whites.

But it wasn’t an isolated incident. Public pools were drained or filled in all over the country. 

I first learned about white communities shutting pools rather than sharing them with Blacks when I read Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (review) last year. But I had no idea the practice was so widespread. And I certainly didn’t understand it as a template for how racism has harmed and impoverished so much of American society, whites included.

Heather McGhee understands. McGhee is the former president of Demos, a think tank focused on advancing a just, inclusive, multiracial democracy in America. She now chairs the board of Color of Change, the largest online social justice organization in the US. McGhee holds degrees from Yale University and UC Berkeley. 

Her book The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together looks at how the self-harming racist behavior of whites draining public pools has been repeated over and over again in areas such as health care, education, housing, voting rights and even the environment. The book also illustrates how communities working together across racial divides can improve their lives and win substantial “Solidarity Dividends.”

Cover of The Sum of Us

The Sum of Us
By Heather McGhee
One World, New York, 2021

After reading about the Oak Park pool, the first question that popped into my head was why? Why would whites do this to themselves?

McGhee argues that most whites see racism as a zero-sum game. Any gains by Blacks must come at the expense of whites, whether it’s a monetary gain or a gain in status. I’ll try to explain this briefly.

It starts, like most things in US history, with slavery.   

Even before the country’s founding, whites justified the atrocities of slavery and Native American genocide with racial and religious prejudices: natives and slaves were “heathens”, “savages”, and “uncivilized.” As the Colonies grew with their economies built on slave labor, a race-based hierarchy became firmly entrenched in American society: whites on top, Blacks and Natives at the bottom. In a slave economy, any gains by Blacks would have meant direct financial losses for whites. 

Waves of European immigrants to the US were slotted into this hierarchy too. Even though they were mostly too poor to own property, let alone slaves, they were still white and still ranked above Blacks in the racial hierarchy. Gains by Blacks might not have imposed a direct economic cost on them, but it threatened their status, threatened to place them on the same footing as Blacks – at the bottom of the hierarchy.

In this light, Black access to public swimming pools represented the loss of a privilege held exclusively by whites. Rather than incur a loss of status, whites chose to drain their pools. 

Yeah, it’s still crazy.

McGhee’s main idea in The Sum of Us is that this zero-sum calculus within a racial hierarchy explains and perpetuates many of the disparities in American society, even though whites are often harmed too.

Take health care.  Why can’t we fix the US health care system? 

“Healthcare works best as a collective endeavor, and that’s at the heart of why America’s system performs so poorly.  We’ve resisted universal solutions because, when it comes to healthcare, … racism has stopped us from ever filling the pool in the first place.”  [p. 49]

McGhee notes that most states of the former Confederacy have so far refused Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). You can see it on this map. Why would states turn down federal funding? She cites research showing that as the percentage of a state’s Black population increases, the likelihood of that state adopting Medicaid expansion decreases. 

This zero-sum calculus prevails even though, in some states, whites outnumber Blacks who would be eligible for Medicaid if their states adopted it. And it prevails even though lack of funding in these states is forcing the closure of rural hospitals that serve primarily conservative white residents. 

The Sum of Us sheds the same glaring light on how disparities in public education, minimum wage laws, voting rights, environmental protection, and other key areas of American society – driven by racist policies – primarily harms Blacks and other people of color, but also harms whites.

The book would be unrelentingly depressing, but McGhee remains hopeful. She describes some uplifting examples of people coming together across racial divides to work for their common benefit, a benefit McGhee calls the “Solidarity Dividend.”  For example, in Maine a multi-racial grassroots coalition won a 2017 ballot initiative that required the state to adopt Medicaid expansion over the vetoes of its Republican governor.

Unsolicited Feedback

The Sum of Us is impressively well-researched; there are about a hundred pages of notes at the end of the book. While you could argue that there are other factors contributing to inequality in America – like globalization and technological change – McGhee makes a compelling case that racism lies at the heart of it. 

In the last couple of years I’ve read a few books about racism but I know I’ve only just scratched the surface. (You can find my reviews here.) The Sum of Us reinforced some ideas that I’d read elsewhere, in particular that racism has been designed, even engineered. The concept of “race” did not exist until the seventeenth century when it was created and refined to justify slavery and genocide. Since then it’s been exploited by the powerful (people, corporations and governments) to maintain power through division and intimidation.

While slavery has been abolished in the US, deliberately racist government policies have carried on, and their lasting impact continues to this day. McGhee dives deeply into the history and consequences of many of these policies. Large parts of this were new to me. Even seemingly benign policies like the GI Bill have unequally benefited whites because of the way they were administered.

To dismantle the racial hierarchy, we need to dismantle racist policies. We will all benefit, but it will require a long coordinated effort across racial lines.

As McGhee says, the sum of us is stronger than just some of us.  

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