The Sum of Us

by Heather McGhee

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Introduction–Chapter 2 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on April 8, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1435


Heather McGhee argues that economic policies fueled by systemic racism have limited the progress of all Americans. McGhee began thinking about economic inequality as a child and was invigorated by her role at Demos, a group that researches inequalities and poses policy reform. Her work has been informed by a belief that Black people disproportionately suffered as a result of poor economic policy, but she came to realize that bad economic policy hurts white communities as well. 

McGhee’s initial research focused on rising debt in the lower and middle classes, specifically Black and Latinx families. After Demos’s report and policy recommendations, Congress passed a reform bill that helped credit card companies instead of citizens. A chance moment during which McGhee overheard a senator lambasting “deadbeats [who] dodge the child support” led to an epiphany—racial stereotypes limit productive reform. Political developments like Barack Obama’s election, the rise of the Tea Party, and the presidency of Donald Trump provided opportunities for further research.

McGhee realized that some Americans were not “operating in their own rational economic self-interest.” She concludes that feelings “about who belongs and who deserves” can be understood by examining the racial divide at the heart of American history. McGhee returned to the fundamental question of why white Americans would not support economic policies in their own interest when those policies would also benefit people of color. McGhee thus hopes to elucidate “the hidden costs of racism to us all,” because narrow, race-based views of who is American stifle the progress of all Americans. Ultimately, exposing and discussing the roots of inequality will help the nation move forward. 

Chapter 1

McGhee defines the “zero-sum paradigm” and applies it to persistent attitudes towards race. McGhee’s parents came of age when voting rights and access to affordable housing made the American dream somewhat achievable for people of color. However, this epoch was soon followed by “the Inequality Era,” when the middle class shrunk. Now, nearly half of Americans do not earn enough to meet basic needs, and a third of workers’ jobs offer no benefits; meanwhile, the wealth gap has grown as CEOs and corporations thrive. 

McGhee references a Harvard study on capitalism and race relations that found that white Americans perceive themselves as facing increased oppression and stronger racial bias than Black people. In other words, white people see race relations as a zero-sum game: if people of color make progress, it must be at the expense of white people. This is the essence of McGhee’s concept of the zero-sum paradigm.

McGhee cites the racial hierarchy created through African slavery and the erasure of Indigenous peoples as starting points for America’s development. Zero-sum thinking informed Europeans’ attitude toward Indigenous peoples’ lands, and their sense of cultural and religious superiority dictated their treatment of Indigenous people. McGhee elucidates the economic benefits white Americans gained from slave labor; white slave owners provided slaves with bare minimum essentials, refrained from paying them, and maintained the labor pool by sexually abusing female slaves. Further, the entire country’s economy depended on slave labor, as northern mills processed cotton from plantations.

The Constitution did not envision slaves as Americans, instead defining American identity in terms of whiteness. Accordingly, colonial laws protected poor whites at the cost of Indigenous and Black laborers. American colonists’ radical notion of individual liberty could only be concretely understood in contrast to the utter bondage of slavery. This racial hierarchy, in part, replaced a class-based system that placed white workers at the bottom. Citizenship in the new nation was based on freedom, and freedom meant whiteness. More recently, white voters have continued to vote against their interests in part because they see advances for people of color, such as Affirmative Action, as discriminatory against white people. And they see policies meant to increase economic equality, such as welfare, as disproportionately benefitting Black people when the opposite is actually true. 

Chapter 2

The American economy is substantial enough to support its citizenry and improve their overall standard of living, but the government refuses to institute such an arrangement. At Demos, McGhee started to consider what role race might play in this counterintuitive reality. McGhee traces how the slave economy stunted the growth of the entire slave-holding region. The plantation was basically self-sufficient; there was no perceived need to invest in education or public works to raise the general standard of living. Further, slavery lowered land value, impoverishing southern whites. Today, southern states continue to lag in education and lead in poverty rates. 

McGhee argues that a nation’s well-being depends on a sense of cooperation informed by the knowledge that no individual can accomplish alone what the nation can achieve collectively. However, throughout American history, socioeconomic benefits have often been available to “whites only.” Even twentieth-century policies like the GI Bill failed to significantly impact Black citizens. Access to housing and Social Security is limited by arbitrary “job categories” that exclude fields dominated by workers of color. 

McGhee focuses on integrated public pools to illustrate the lengths to which white citizens, gripped by zero-sum thinking, will go to limit equality for people of color. In the 1920s and 1930s, large public pools that could accommodate thousands sprung up across the nation, partly aided by the Works Progress Administration. Touted as a symbol of democracy, the pools thrived until the push for integration in the 1950s. Pools that were once social hubs for white swimmers fell out of use after integration granted equal access to Black Americans. Decreased use of public pools meant an increase in white memberships to exclusive clubs, a move in which “entire communities lost out.”

While the March on Washington highlighted the agenda of Black leaders who supported job security and a higher minimum wage, white support for these issues diminished after the march. By the 1980s, the white populace had begun to adjust to social equality for people of color, but their own economic progress stalled, stoking racial resentment. In a related development, the popularity of anti-government conservatism increased. Despite what McGhee perceives as the clear racial underpinnings of this resentment, white Americans deny the role of racism in anti-government attitudes.

In seeing the government as disproportionately giving resources to people of color, white Americans reiterate racist stereotypes and ignore reality; for example, contrary to stereotypes, more white people receive welfare. Following the lead of Republican politicians and Fox News anchors, who stoked racism in the wake of Obama’s election, white conservatives and moderates believed as recently as 2016 “that Black Americans take more than [they] give.” However, in supporting conservative economic policy, these citizens vote against their own interests. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has been associated with civil rights since Johnson’s presidency. When their economic interests and desire for racial superiority come into conflict, white voters choose “racial allegiance.” 


In the opening chapters, McGhee defines the zero-sum paradigm, one of her major themes. In essence, white Americans do not vote in their own economic self-interest when they feel that people of color will also benefit, because they think that progress for people of color means losses for white people. To disprove this faulty logic, McGhee gives examples of policies that could have helped Americans across racial lines but were rejected by white citizens. Racism contributed to disapproval of the Affordable Care Act but also negatively impacts lower- and middle-class white Americans who have less access to healthcare. 

McGhee references and analyzes the historical conditions that gave rise to America’s persistent racial resentment. For example, McGhee explores the ways African slavery in the colonial and early national eras resulted in a racial hierarchy that lifted white people above Black slaves and Indigenous peoples. The racial hierarchy meant lower-class white people were “elevated from the bottom of a rigid class hierarchy to a higher place in a new ‘racial’ hierarchy by dint of something as immutable as [their] skin color.” This created a sense of superiority and entitlement in white Americans which continues today and which blocks meaningful socioeconomic progress for people of all classes and races. 

Chapter 2 introduces a symbolic example that McGhee will return to repeatedly as she discusses the ways in which public benefits that are kept from Black Americans prove that the zero-sum paradigm also prevents white citizens from social and economic progress. A public pool in Montgomery, Alabama fell into disuse after integration, and McGhee observes that “the council decided to drain the pool rather than share it with their Black neighbors.” This exemple comes to represent the larger problem of white resistance to social programs that would benefit all citizens.

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Chapters 3–4 Summary and Analysis