The Sum of Us

The Copley library at our own University of San Diego held an event starring Heather McGhee. Heather McGhee is the author of the informative novel The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone. The Sum of Us: an evening with Heather McGhee was eye-opening. I was able to see how white people treated African Americans in a way I had never really thought about it. McGee describes how white people treat life as a zero-sum paradigm/ game. The zero-sum paradigm is a mindset that progress for one group comes at the cost of another group. So white people are under the impression that African Americans take jobs, money, and housing from white people. In retaliation, white people will conspire to take advantage from African Americans. Essentially African Americans taking a piece of pie means white people receive a smaller piece of pie, so white people make pies illegal. The elite population of America has spread this zero-sum game for their own purposes. “The zero-sum game is a story sold by wealthy interests for their own profit, and its persistence requires people desperate enough to buy it” (McGhee 29). So, the elite and people in power have spread the zero-sum game to profit from racist ideologies and ensure that African Americans cannot surpass white people economically and socially.  


A prime example of this zero-sum game mindset is the New York City draft riots wars during the Emancipation period. During the civil war, it was clear the objective of the war was more than just federal versus state; to African Americans, it was freedom or slavery. As the war progressed and it became clearer that this was a war to free African Americans, the North’s support began to waver. In March, the Northern government instituted a draft, and people in the North started to riot. “Emancipation may have become a war aim, but for many whites, it was not welcome. Many white soldiers resented the government, forcing them to fight and die to free the enslaved people. Many white working-class men and women feared that emancipation would mean a flood of black laborers coming north to take their jobs and undercut their wages and status” (White 489). White people could not see how freeing African Americans would benefit them; they only saw the possibility of losing jobs to African Americans. So to ensure power would stay in the hands of the whites, the people in New York refused to fight in the civil war. This made it harder for the North to win and decreased every African American’s chances of being free.


During the Great Depression, everyone was struggling. It was not until the government stepped in to help that economically things started to look up. The problem is only white people were receiving help. “The American government told banks it would insure mortgages on real estate if they made them longer-term and more affordable- but the government drew red “Do Not Lend” lines around almost all the Black neighborhoods in the country with a never-substantiated assumption that they would be bad credit risks” (McGhee 36). Not only is this racist, but the government gave white people exclusive advantages that would snowball into better benefits and opportunities. This blatant favoritism increased the economic divide between whites and African Americans. So why did the United States only give white people the advantage? To ensure that economically and socially, white people would stay ahead in the zero-sum game. If advantages went to the African Americans, then the white people would receive less. The economic benefits allowed whites would be able to live in nicer neighborhoods with better education for kids and safer streets. At the same time, white people forced African Americans to live in unsafe environments in poorer sections of cities because the government did not give them the advantages given to white people. The unfair advantages the government gave out had created a stereotype of African Americans that they were a danger to whites and were not acceptable for society. However, white people forced African Americans into this false stereotype. The Financial Crises of 2008 gives an excellent example of people believing and acting on these racial stereotypes.


One of the big talking points in the conversation with McGhee was the financial crisis of 2008, where white people blamed the financial crisis of 2008 on black people. Here are the myths white people believed: black people were trying to buy houses they could not afford. What happened is the banks would reverse redline- aggressively target black neighborhoods with mortgage contracts that made no sense using terms such as subprime loans and refinance loans. So yes, technically, African Americans did buy houses they could not have afforded. Still, the banks put African Americans in that position, so how can whites fault the African Americans. It was because of the stereotypes that have stemmed from the days African Americans were enslaved that have molded into this horrible perception of African Americans. The people in power have spread the idea that African Americans are lazy, ignorant, and not fit for society. When the housing market crashed, white people began pointing the finger of blame toward the African Americans. It wasn’t that hard for the elites to sell the story that African Americans were trying to pull themselves to their feet a bit turned into a way that hurt white people, further feeding into this zero-sum game.


Another way the government has fed into this zero-sum game is by spreading racist propaganda. In the past, the United States presidents have never shied away from telling the people how they feel about African Americans. During the discussion, McGhee highlights how it was easy for the government to sell the northern and western portions of the United States the southern strategy during President Reagan’s years in office. “The Reagan campaign’s insight was that northern white people could be sold the same explicitly antigovernment, implicitly pro-white story, with the protagonists as white taxpayers seeking defense from a government what wanted to give their money to undeserving and lazy people of color in the ghettos” (White 44). So, the government is playing the on white people’s fear using the zero-sum game. The government claims they would rather give white people money; however, the government is forced to give it to the African Americans. So African Americans are receiving more money at the expense of white people. To keep the “natural order” of white supremacy, President Reagan spread the idea that government funds should not go to the “lazy” African Americans who live in the ghettos. The irony is the government in the past forced African Americans to live in bad parts of the neighborhood. It was not the African American’s idea to have been enslaved and then freed and told to live their free lives with no money and no assistance from the government. On top of all that, African Americans lived in fear their whole lives, angering white people for existing, lynching, and not to mention terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. So, it is no surprise that African Americans generally meet government assistance standards. African Americans are not receiving a larger portion of this pie; they are receiving the amount they should have received, which should have been the same amount white people are receiving.


A question asked during the conversation was why small businesses, specifically small black-owned businesses, are doing so poorly in this Covid era when the government is supposed to have money set aside to help them. McGhee explained that the Biden administration did have money set aside to give to small businesses. A couple of things happened after the distribution of the funds. It was much easier for a white business owner to receive the money than an African American business owner. Additionally, when African American business owners could receive the money, white business owners began suing; until it came to a point, the Biden Administration stopped giving the money. So not only were African Americans set back economically again; the actions of a small group are now setting back all small business owners. The white people were afraid the small business owners were taking a larger piece of the pie. So they took action to ensure that white people would economically stay ahead. Not only did white people set African Americans back; but they also set back every other minority group and white small business owners.


The event with Heather McGhee explained the history of African American struggle through this zero-sum framework. Not only has the zero-sum game put the white people in a poor position economically and socially. It has pushed African Americans into unnecessary impoverished economic situations and brutal social classes. Which begs the question, why have African Americans not been given reparations for their struggles? Or better question, is there a way to change this zero-sum mindset? The zero-sum game will always be a part of life; there is no way around it. What did not need to be a part of the zero-sum game was the racism that stemmed from it.


Works Cited

McGhee, Heather. The Sum of Us. Random House Publishing Group, 2021.

White, Deborah G., et al. Freedom on My Mind: A History of African Americans, with Documents. Third ed., Bedford/St. Martins, 2021.


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