‘The Sum of Us’ can be more than our parts

There’s a “solidarity dividend” to be gained when we work across lines of race and class to improve lives for everyone, Heather McGhee writes in her excellent and incisive book “The Sum of Us,” published this year. Everyone gains when we work together and don’t waste our efforts holding others back.

Conversely, she writes, we all pay a penalty when we succumb to racism and to social and economic divisions. The zero-sum myth, which holds that someone else’s gain is necessarily our loss, lets politicians and the powerful divide us into warring, partisan factions.

Book cover of 'The Sum of Us'

One sphere where this plays out is education. The belief that there is a limited supply of “good” schools — and that they are in affluent communities and enroll mostly white students — hurts us all. Schools become more segregated by race and class. Many children attend schools that are stigmatized as failing while the fortunate pay a premium for the schools they want.

“But what if the entire logic is wrong?” McGhee writes. “What if they’re not only paying too high a cost for segregation, but they’re also mistaken about the benefits?”

Evidence that white people are wrong about the benefits of being at the top of our nation’s racial hierarchy is at the core of “The Sum of Us.” McGhee, an economic policy expert and a former president of the research and advocacy group Demos, describes how racism robs people of all races of political power, economic security, health care and other amenities.

The book’s central metaphor is the drained swimming pool. In the first half of the 20th century, large public pools were the pride of many U.S. communities. They brought people together, including rich and poor, native-born and immigrants. But in many locales, they were open to white people only. This was especially true in the South, but there were plenty of examples in the North: for example, Engman Public Natatorium in South Bend, Indiana, initially banned Black swimmers and later let them in on a segregated basis, on designated days.

When the civil rights movement swept the country and courts ordered public facilities to desegregate, a common response was to close swimming pools or turn them over to private clubs. McGhee describes examples where white officials filled the pools with concrete rather than share them with Black families. As a result, white children had no safe place to swim unless they had access to private pools.

The story was similar with schools after the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. In the South, officials opened “segregation academies” that received public funds but were privately operated. As desegregation moved to the North, many white families paid to send their kids to private schools or moved to the suburbs, where property taxes enabled them to support lavish schools.

McGhee describes research that shows families pay significantly more to live in predominantly white neighborhoods where schools are rated highly based on standardized test scores. “These white parents are paying for their fear,” she writes, “because they’re assuming that white-dominant schools are worth the cost to their children; essentially that segregated schools are best.”

And yes, they are mistaken. Research by University of California, Berkeley, professor Rucker Johnson and others, cited in the book, finds that integrated schools provide social and academic benefits for white students as well as students of color. “The dividends to diversity in education pay out over a lifetime,” McGhee writes.

What makes “The Sum of Us” inspiring and highly readable is that it’s packed with stories of people and communities that have pushed back against the zero-sum mentality. They include middle-class white and Asian parents who send their kids to high-poverty and largely Black and Hispanic neighborhood schools, activists who focus on environmental justice and cities where immigrants join with longtime residents to revitalize the local economy.

McGhee writes that we are divided into two visions of what it means to be an American. In one vision, our claim to that identity is threatened by people of other races and backgrounds. In another, we share a common humanity and work together for the benefit of all.

“Since this country’s founding,” she writes, “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.”

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1 thought on “‘The Sum of Us’ can be more than our parts

  1. Pingback: Steve Hinnefeld: Racial Integration Benefits All of Us | Diane Ravitch's blog

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