Heather McGhee’s ‘The Sum of Us’: Required reading to move the country forward — together, writes John Warner

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
John Warner, Chicago Tribune
·4 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Every so often a book comes along that seems perfectly timed to the moment and has the potential to radically shift our cultural conversation. “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together” by Heather McGhee is one of those books.

McGhee, a native Chicagoan and former head of progressive think tank Demos, has crafted a book that combines economics, sociology, public policy, and memoir to tell the story of how all Americans (save the very wealthiest) have been harmed by “zero sum” thinking — that the benefit to one group must come at the expense of another.

As McGhee shows through a combination of academic studies, economic analysis and on-the-ground examples, the zero-sum mentality is rooted in the country’s long legacy of racism. In the era of Civil Rights, the racism was overt: Consider, for example, municipalities throughout the country that filled in their majestic public pools with concrete, rather than integrate them.

The racism is somewhat more sublimated now in racist tropes, like “welfare queens” or immigrants coming to “steal our jobs.” McGhee shows how some people are willing to deprive themselves of well-deserved help as long as some other group they think is undeserving is worse off.

The result of all this zero-sum thinking is a greatly degraded public sphere, where people of all races and backgrounds are harmed by a failure to provide access to basic conditions — a living wage, affordable housing, access to health care — that promote overall well-being.

The coronavirus pandemic has been a perfect example of how zero-sum thinking has harmed everyone. The public-health infrastructure, which was eroded because a majority white culture has been allowed to believe that public spending goes to “undeserving” people, has led to a disastrous response for everyone.

The devastating effects have been disproportionately borne by Black and Hispanic people, but because whites are a majority of the population, far more white people have been sickened or died in aggregate.

McGhee spends no time suggesting that white folks like me feel any guilt about what’s happened in the past. Instead, she lays out a blueprint for achieving a “solitary dividend.”

A solitary dividend is a collective social multiplier where our government and policy-making apparatuses are genuinely focused on the collective needs of society. We’re talking about things like free (or very inexpensive) college — which was once widely available before minorities and women tried to access it — and abundant renewable energy, which will prevent our planet from being destroyed.

It is a sometimes angry or frustrated book, rooted in McGhee’s long career at Demos trying and mostly failing to secure legislation that would benefit the public. But in the end, it’s a hopeful book because McGhee’s vision is so clear and so convincing.

I didn’t need much convincing. The bigger test for the book is if it busts out of the liberal demographic to impact others who are not already on board.

There is hope. While congressional Republicans are uniformly against President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan, bipartisan majorities of the public and many Republican governors and mayors say it’s necessary. There is a growing recognition that we are all in this together, and there are some things we should do to benefit everyone.

John Warner is the author of “Sustainable. Resilient. Free.: The Future of Public Higher Education.”

Twitter @biblioracle

Book recommendations from the Biblioracle

John Warner tells you what to read based on the last five books you’ve read.

1. “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” by Heather Morris

2. “Men Explain Things to Me” by Rebecca Solnit

3. “The Knockout Queen” by Rufi Thorpe

4. “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas

5. “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” by Reni Eddo-Lodge

— Tess F., Chicago

For Tess, I’m recommending a powerful historical novel “The Report” by Jessica Francis Kane.

1. “So Much Blue” by Percival Everett

2. “A Children’s Bible” by Lydia Millet

3. “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” by Ottessa Moshfegh

4. “Such a Fun Age” by Kiley Reid

5. “Olive, Again” by Elizabeth Strout

— Sheila K., Kenilworth

This is a reader who is in sync with The Biblioracle, because four of five of these books are ones I would put among my recent favorites. I hope that another recent favorite, “The Italian Teacher” by Tom Rachman, fits the bill.

1. “Migrations” by Charlotte McConaghy

2. “The Library Book” by Susan Orlean

3. “The Art Forger” by B.A. Shapiro

4. “Once You Go This Far” by Kristen Lepionka

5. “The Wild Laughter” by Caoilinn Hughes

— Jelmir A., Sycamore, Illinois

Max Barry’s exploration of language and communication in the context of a suspense novel seems like something that may connect with Jelmir. The book is “Lexicon.”

Get a reading from the Biblioracle

Send a list of the last five books you’ve read to books@chicagotribune.com.