Author Heather McGhee gives lecture refuting the American ‘zero-sum’ mindset

and | Staff Writer and Contributing Writer

McGhee speaks in Graham Chapel (Alan Zhou | Student Life)

Heather McGhee, a New York Times bestselling author and policy advocate, gave a lecture titled “The Sum of Us: Moving Beyond the Myth of Equity as a Zero-Sum Game” in Graham Chapel on Feb. 1.

The Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Equity (CRE2) hosted McGhee as its 2024 Distinguished Visiting Scholar. According to its website, CRE2’s objective is to examine pressing social issues surrounding race through the lens of in-depth research in numerous fields.

McGhee spoke about reframing equality such that racial progress does not appear to occur at the expense of others, a phenomenon she refers to as the “zero-sum” mindset. She grounded her talk in her experiences from writing her book “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together” and from recording the “The Sum of Us” podcast.

To begin her talk, McGhee introduced the zero-sum mindset as a racialized concept. According to McGhee, the zero-sum mindset states that one can only find success if another person fails. 

“This zero-sum story says there will be no mutual progress. If one player scores a point, the other player loses it,” McGhee said. “It is racialized because the groups that are competing in this fixed pie of well-being are racial and ethnic.”

McGhee said that the zero-sum story continues to affect modern situations. According to McGhee, perceptions of race and growing inaccurate ideas about racial division impact competition in areas like real estate and college admissions. 

“[The zero-sum story] has been a story of job competition. It’s been a story of competition around where to live and ‘If they are neighbors of color, your property values will fall,’” McGhee said. “It’s been a story that says there are only so many slots in this institution. It’s a lie.” 

McGhee also said that the wealthiest 1% of the U.S. population profits from the zero-sum story at the expense of the rest by shifting everyday workers against one another instead of assigning blame for economic woes to those responsible.

“[The one-percenters] want to create a world in which people struggling with very similar economic circumstances are pointing their figures at each other, and not at those who got their hands in their pockets,” McGhee said. 

McGhee later spoke on addressing the zero-sum mindset, focusing on the concept of collective action and a unified effort across races, a concept she referred to as “the Solidarity Dividend.” 

“There are real gains that you can unlock by coming together in cross-racial solidarity,” McGhee said, adding a quote from a Congolese immigrant she interviewed: “Alone, we are so weak, you can break each finger. Together, we are a fist.” 

WashU senior Caro Pedraza noted the importance of recognizing the history behind the zero-sum mindset and how it can be used towards anti-racism. 

“It’s not enough to just equal the playing field,” Pedraza said. “We need to realize that there is a history that is continuously disadvantaging people. Anti-racism is understanding that history and working to make amends.” 

Senior Katharine Niles said that she felt hopeful about people unifying against racism.

“Hearing those stories of how it has become possible, that people are actually learning to come together and work, makes me really excited,” Niles said.

At the end of the lecture, McGhee expressed her own aspirations for society going forward. 

“I believe that we will all be free when we repair the past and we unlock the future,” McGhee said. “I will have freedom when I know that I do not need to fear my neighbor because we have finally put to bed this pernicious lie of the zero-sum.”

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