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Indiana blogger Steve Hinnefeld reviews Heather McGee’s The Sum of Us, which he highly recommends. As we saw in the Olympics, Americans are different that other countries. We are a remarkably diverse people, and we succeed when we work together across lines of race and class.
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.
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.