The Sum of Us

by Heather McGhee

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The Sum of Us Themes

The main themes in The Sum of Us are zero-sum thinking, solidarity, and the roots of racism.

  • Zero-sum thinking: The book shows the various ways in which zero-sum thinking has affected American life, causing needless disunity and damage.
  • Solidarity: McGhee ultimately calls for racial solidarity, showing how unity is the proper basis for overall social and economic advancement.
  • The roots of racism: The book traces the legacy of American racism, showing how the nation’s troubled foundations are reflected in today’s social problems.


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Last Updated on April 9, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1012

Zero-Sum Thinking 

McGhee introduces the concept of the zero-sum paradigm in the first chapter of The Sum of Us and returns to it repeatedly to explain how and why white Americans espouse beliefs that conflict with their own interests and vote for candidates who do nothing to support their economic progress. In a conversation with Harvard researchers Michael Norton and Samuel Sommers, McGhee learns “that the average white person views racism as a zero-sum game. … If things are getting better for Black people, it must be at the expense of white people.” 

This premise, that “there’s an us and a them, and what’s good for them is bad for us,” forms the foundation for McGhee’s argument that the racial hierarchy of the United States motivates white citizens to falsely believe that progress for people of color will result in losses in status or benefits for white Americans. This is why white citizens will repeat racist stereotypes, like the idea that “lazy” people of color take government “handouts” like welfare at a greater rate than white Americans, when the reality is that more white people are on welfare. Seeing politics as a zero-sum game explains why white citizens will vote for politicians who use anti-immigrant rhetoric even though the same representatives will work to benefit only those at the top of the economic ladder, not average white citizens. Interestingly, the Harvard researchers also found that Black citizens tend not to believe the zero-sum idea, so it is not necessarily a tendency bound to human nature.

Zero-sum thinking began in the colonial era and continues today. McGhee examines how this paradigm informs attitudes toward affordable higher education, universal healthcare, unionization, and public goods. Again and again, McGhee finds that when white Americans see people of color benefiting from government programs or from ethical labor practices, they feel that their place in the racial hierarchy is threatened. Corporate management takes advantage of the fact that when faced with a choice between race and class, workers will tend to side with others of their own race. Zero-sum thinking even figures into resistance to climate change legislation because of the false assumption that funding for environmental initiatives will result in economic losses. 


The inverse of zero-sum thinking in McGhee’s formulation is what she terms the “Solidarity Dividend.” Instead of seeing Americans of different races as competition, citizens must understand that we can all go farther if they work together. To support the theory that unity, particularly across racial lines, results in benefits for everyone, McGhee gives concrete examples of the work in action. 

McGhee counters the disappointing failure of the vote to unionize in a Mississippi Nissan factory with the success of Stand Up KC, which “from the beginning … named racism as a common enemy.” Instead, the mission of “GOOD JOBS FOR ALL” allowed workers to avoid being pitted against one another by employers and to focus on the greater goal: to achieve higher wages and fairer conditions for every worker. Workers like Bridget, a white woman of Irish heritage, saw parallels between her circumstances and those of a Latinx woman who spoke at a Stand Up KC meeting about trying to provide for her children but also feeling stuck and hopeless. Building on common ground and working for the common good leads to the Solidarity Dividend: everyone gains when they choose to prioritize the progress of society and not just a select few. 

Throughout her research, McGhee “found radiating out of the people who had the biggest impact on me and their communities . . . the knowledge that we truly do need each other.” People like Torm and Miya in Richmond, California, and residents of Lewiston, Maine, in addition to workers and organizers she spoke to about unionization, inspired McGhee to discover that the key to progress is unity. She recognizes that “we’ve got to get on the same page before we turn it,” meaning Americans have to acknowledge the often brutal reality of our nation’s history and the way the foundational racial hierarchy continues to separate and hinder Americans today. Then and only then can Americans move forward together, “with a new story, together.” As the book’s title suggests, Americans can achieve more with “the sum of us” working as a united whole. 

The Roots of Racism

Before moving forward as a nation, it is crucial that Americans understand the underpinnings of the current inequality that hinders social and economic progress. McGhee emphasizes throughout her book the historical background that created today’s systemic racism. In chapter 1, McGhee returns to the roots of zero-sum thinking by starting with colonial America, which “rank[ed] humanity in terms of inherent worth” and whose “economy depended on systems of exploitation.” These early settlers, mostly white Europeans, “set up a zero-sum competition for land that would shape the American economy to the present day, at an unforgivable cost.” As a nation, despite gradual progress in terms of civil rights, America has never quite shaken off these inauspicious beginnings. 

McGhee uses historical evidence throughout the text to trace the beginnings and evolutions of systemic racism and its results. For example, she looks at the ways in which segregation developed from the early national period in the North, to Jim Crow laws in the South, to modern-day voluntary segregation in the form of white residents choosing to send their children to mostly white private schools rather than more diverse public schools. Later in the text, McGhee asserts that the racial hierarchy at the heart of America’s history has had not only economic costs but also moral costs on white citizens, who must grapple with the reality that their own privilege has come at the expense of people of color. However, McGhee reiterates that in order to achieve the solidarity that would benefit us all, Americans must move beyond diversionary tactics like color blindness or “one size fits all” solutions and reckon with “the great lie at the root of our nation’s founding,” which is the ongoing belief in a hierarchy of human value.

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Chapter Summaries