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The Sum of Us
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Learn the key ideas of the book by Heather McGhee

The Sum of Us

The social implications of systemic racism

What does game theory have to do with racism? According to author Heather McGhee, the root cause of racial segregation and injustice in the United States is the zero-sum mentality, which supports the theory that, when black people win rights, white people lose out. This mental model is ingrained in American history and society, and negatively impacts all citizens, regardless of their skin colour. McGhee explores the economic and social consequences of racism in her book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together.

The Sum of Us
Read in 12 min.
Listen in 15 min.

Racism is caused by the zero-sum hierarchy, created by the wealthiest segment of society

In game theory, the term zero-sum is used to define specific situations in which the gain or loss of one player leads to the same loss or gain of another player: for example, if one player wins a given sum, the other player will lose the same amount.

The author defines racism in her home country, the United States, as a zero-sum hierarchy. Data shows that many white people do not believe that an increase in black rights is a logical and necessary step to level the playing field or achieve equality, but that it will result in them losing out. In essence, McGhee maintains that racism works like a zero-sum game, whereby the rights won by black people are perceived as a loss of rights for white people.

The author studied the data and decided to explore this mentality further. In order to understand where racism comes from, and how to fight it, we must go to the source, analyse it, and try to resolve the conflicts and misunderstandings from which it originated.

According to the author, racism in America is the result of various factors that are all connected to the economic interests of the country’s tiny clique of multimillionaires.

In order to understand why so many people believe that they will lose out if others start winning rights, we first have to analyse the history of the colonisation of the Americas. Not all European settlers who landed on the American continent were landowners or nobles; the vast majority of them, especially of the British settlers, were poor, humble, and disadvantaged people, who travelled to America with the hope of finding opportunities and creating a better future for themselves, leaving behind a life of destitution in their home countries. The Native peoples in the Americas, however, paid the heaviest price for the sudden influx of Europeans, as their land and possessions were taken away and given to the settlers. The poor white settlers were happy with their new privileged status over the enslaved and disenfranchised black and Native peoples: life was hard in the new country, but at least they had it better than other groups of people, thanks to a simple birthright that could not be taken away from them, namely the colour of their skin.

From the very beginning, therefore, society in America was founded on the hierarchisation of people according to their skin colour, whereby even the poorest whites felt lucky and privileged compared to people of colour. At the same time, the rich continued to enslave, mistreat, and exploit Native populations and people of colour, profiting from this hierarchy while keeping poor whites in check.

This racial hierarchisation is the root cause of the zero-sum mentality: since social differentiation is based on a supposed superiority over lower classes, making everyone equal narrows the gap, and effectively robs white people of their privilege.

Landowners, especially, encouraged this model, as it allowed them to exploit two main advantages: on the one hand, defining Natives and people of colour as inferior justified the fact that they were mistreated and enslaved; on the other hand, it created a division between poor whites and poor people of colour, and telling poor whites that they were superior discouraged uprisings that would have upset the order of things. In short, the rich elite maintained the status quo of their privileged class by making the poor white classes believe that they were superior.

The zero sum at the heart of racism, therefore, benefits a very small clique of multi-millionaires, who still have every interest in maintaining and supporting the status quo. It does not benefit anyone else, because it is based on a method of control that prevents people from standing up to exploitation and socially progressing.


The key ideas of "The Sum of Us"

Racism is caused by the zero-sum hierarchy, created by the wealthiest segment of society
Some Americans would rather lose a service or benefit than share it with black people
Disasters such as climate change or economic recessions could be avoided if there were no racism
Racial division has worsened working conditions for everyone
A democracy is not a democracy if it only applies to part of the population
Take-home message
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