‘The Sum of Us’ author takes aim at zero-sum thinking

By Teresa Acosta, Feb. 20, 2024

In front of a crowd of over 300 attendees author, Heather McGhee warned against the mutual cost of a zero-sum mentality by sharing anecdotes from her book, “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together,” as part of the Common Read program  Feb. 12.

The book is a history lesson, describing laws, though not race-based, that were used to unfairly target people of color in America. Following those brief lessons, McGhee would share stories of the impact these laws would have on people and their families.

McGhee said the lie of the zero-sum gain is holding back the collective economic progress of the country. Zero-sum thinking is the idea that for one group to have a gain another group must take a loss.

“According to the research, this predominate world view, this zero-sum worldview, is one that’s racialized in the U.S.,” McGhee said.

McGhee explained how racial and ethnic groups compete for dominance, status and to reach the top of the social hierarchy.

The false narrative of zero-sum thinking, she said, caused white Americans, through policy and other means, to restrict access to Americans of color and in doing so have restricted it from themselves as well.

“Racism in our politics and our policy making, ultimately, just like with the drained pools has a cost for everyone,” McGhee said.

The true story McGhee tells is of the shared public pools that were built during the 1930s and 1940s as part of an investment in public goods and their eventual shuttering illustrates the lengths citizens would go to maintain segregation. After cities received court orders to integrate their public pools, because the pools were funded by everyone’s tax dollars, they decided to fill the pools with concrete, closing over 2,000 pools all over the country.

“Many towns and cities across the country, not just in the Carolinas, not just in Alabama, not just in Mississippi, but in New Jersey, West Virginia, in California, in Ohio, in Washington state. They decided in one way or another that the era of the grand resort-style public swimming pool would be no more,” McGhee said.

Jacob Wiems, an aerospace engineering student, asked McGhee, during the question-and-answer portion of the speech, if she thought there was any value in comparing the European models of democracy to U.S. policy.

McGhee responded, when America was majority white, well-funded public goods were easier to build and create a foundation for. In recent years, large-scale immigration to certain European countries has brought about some of the same integration issues the U.S. has faced in the past.

The Office of Student Success and Dora Lee, director of Academic Support & Learning Services at Cal Poly Pomona organized the keynote speech to facilitate engagement and conversations based on the themes of the book among the campus community.

“We all have different learning styles, different communication styles and are we truly appreciating the diversity and the needs of our communities,” Lee asked.

This was one of the applicable themes from the book Lee referenced to the campus. Lee overseas the First Year Experience program and the Common Read book selection.

When the FYE committee chooses a book for Common Read, they look at past choices, genres, authors and try to choose a book that represents different voices, experiences and disciplines. The goal is to provide a wide range of topics that appeal to the largest group of people.

When people say they do not relate to the book of choice, Lee believes this is exactly why they should read it. She said it is a wonderful way to learn about different communities they are not a part of or familiar with, so they can learn about different experiences and broaden their perspectives.

Presidential Associate for Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer Cindy Pickett nominated the book. She works to identify strategies the campus can use to foster an environment that is welcoming to students, faculty and staff.

Through her work Pickett aims to create conversations on campus that lead people to think about how they interact with each other.

“There are systems of inequality, systems of privilege and power that are present in any organization or institution and Cal Poly has a lot of those dynamics taking place,” Pickett said.

The concepts and ideas in “The Sum of Us,” about working together to gain rather than lose, are some of the reasons she felt the book would be useful for the campus community to read with

McGhee’s book was adapted into a version for young adults and a podcast, available on Spotify. Copies of “The Sum of Us,” are available in the Bronco Bookstore.

Book cover of ‘The Sum of Us.’ | Courtesy of One World

Feature image: Teresa Acosta

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