Cut Nose, Spite Face

THE SUM OF US, by Heather McGhee

Book Review by Frank Blechman

In The Sum of Us, Heather McGhee brings over 20 years of experience into a strong and very readable case that white supremacist racism hurts white people as much as people of color.

McGhee goes to all this effort to present the information because she has become convinced that the “zero sum” idea — the concept that one group’s gain must mean another group’s loss – is at the base of why racism is so persistent and destructive.

McGhee seamlessly combines economics, sociology, and history. She adds real, human personal stories to illustrate the big frameworks. If you want the documentation, she provides over 120 pages of notes on sources and details following the 296 pages of text.

The story most often retold by other reviewers of this book comes near the beginning (Chapter 2; it makes me wonder, did they read the whole thing?). She describes how in the 1920s and ‘30s, many communities across the country built very large public swimming pools in well-maintained public parks. These proved very popular, permitting mixing of ethnic and economic communities otherwise mostly separated. That ‘melting pot’ did not include people of color, of course. And, when those people, particularly Southern African-Americans, sought entry, white leaders closed the pools, drained them, and even filled them in to avoid integrating them. Defiance may have insulted black people seeking dignity and a chance to cool off in the summer, but it hurt the white people, particularly poor whites, who could not retreat to private pools or segregated country clubs. The same applied to shuttered libraries, schools, and healthcare facilities.

Defiance may have insulted black people seeking dignity and a chance to cool off in the summer, but it hurt the white people, particularly poor whites, who could not retreat to private pools or segregated country clubs. The same applied to shuttered libraries, schools, and healthcare facilities…. [The reverse is also true.] Lewiston (Maine), a dying mill town led by anti-immigrant politicians, [saw] immigrants [as] dirty-lazy-job-stealing-criminals, [but they] came to town anyway, attracted by low rents and a relatively safe environment. These new residents brought a vitality the town had lacked for a generation, reviving both commerce and community life. Her point is clear: There is a real measurable “solidarity dividend.” When we stand together and overcome artificial and imposed differences, we are all better off.

McGhee also presents the positive reverse side of the coin. She documents cases such as Lewiston (Maine), a dying mill town led by anti-immigrant politicians. Despite claims that immigrants were dirty-lazy-job-stealing-criminals, immigrants came to town anyway, attracted by low rents and a relatively safe environment. These new residents brought a vitality the town had lacked for a generation, reviving both commerce and community life.

Her point is clear: There is a real measurable “solidarity dividend.” When we stand together and overcome artificial and imposed differences, we are all better off. The final line in the book is “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.”

Although I was already familiar with much of the material presented, I found the book energizing and uplifting. My concern is that it will only be read by those who already agree with its conclusion. If so, it won’t have the impact it should. This is a book I recommend reading. Pass it on.

 



Categories: Book Review, CIVIL RIGHTS, democrats, elections, Issues, legislature, Local, National, political parties, politics, State, VOTING RIGHTS

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