The Sum of Us Summary

The Sum of Us is a 2021 nonfiction book by Heather McGhee about the social and economic costs of racism, which all Americans must pay.

  • McGhee discusses the “zero-sum paradigm,” the common but false idea that any gains for Black Americans must mean losses for white Americans.
  • McGhee illustrates how this zero-sum thinking plays a damaging role in all sectors of American life, including education, housing, labor, political representation, and the environment.
  • Ultimately, McGhee argues for racial unity, which will yield a “Solidarity Dividend,” a resulting enrichment for all Americans.

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Last Updated on April 8, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1274

Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us starts with the assumption that the majority of Americans are suffering economically due to policy that benefits only a small segment at the top of the social hierarchy. Through her personal experiences, legal studies, and work at the think tank Demos, McGhee comes to realize that underpinning America’s unjust economic landscape is systemic racism fueled by the white supremacy built into the country from its start. Each chapter of her text tackles a specific area of American society to uncover the sources of injustice and inequality and to suggest strategies for tackling these problems for the common good.

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McGhee begins by defining a key term, “the zero-sum paradigm,” a concept which presumes that if one segment of the population gains something, then another must be losing something. Specifically, when people of color achieve rights or benefits, white Americans perceive themselves as losing instead of seeing that all citizens can and do profit from a more just society. She traces zero-sum thinking back to the colonial era, when white Europeans positioned themselves as superior to Indigenous people and African slaves. These white Europeans then created a nation with a racial hierarchy, situating themselves at the top. American citizenship became aligned with freedom and with whiteness, shutting out and dehumanizing people of color.

McGhee moves on to a more modern phenomenon as she examines how the government has been “singularly stingy” toward its citizens in regards to public goods and infrastructure that would benefit everyone. Her central example is the public pools of the early twentieth century, which were host to thousands of citizens until integration opened access to Black students as well. White Americans refused to use the pools, so they fell into disuse. Racism resulted in public losses for everyone, not just Black citizens.

McGhee then examines how higher education was once considered a necessity; it received more generous public funding, making it affordable for middle-class white Americans. However, once more students of color began to enroll, and anti-government sentiment grew after the civil rights era, public funding for higher education was perceived as a handout. Subsequently, higher education costs skyrocketed, and students have been saddled with crippling debt in their pursuit of a college degree, which remains a marker of success in American society. Another public good that could benefit the majority of Americans but has been deemed a handout that will be taken advantage of by freeloaders is healthcare. Despite the adoption of the modest Affordable Care Act, states have turned down what McGhee calls “free money” through Medicaid, resulting in rural hospital closures and negative health outcomes, even deaths, for everyday Americans. As with the example of the public pools, McGhee asserts that “public healthcare is often a benefit that white people have little interest in sharing with their Black neighbors.”

McGhee examines the housing crash of 2008 but looks even more carefully at its precedent: the predatory practices of subprime mortgage lenders who targeted Black homeowners in the late 1990s. Banks refinanced the homes of Black Americans at subprime mortgage rates because they were seen as “risky” borrowers due to their race or their residence in “redlined” communities, even when their credit would qualify them for a better rate. Janice Tomlin was the primary plaintiff in a case against the predatory lenders, and her testimony secured payments for over a thousand homeowners. However, the warning that should have been sounded by this example was not heeded, and subprime lending continued until the crash of 2008.

Next, McGhee investigates unions and the hestiance of white workers to join them, even when they would gain benefits for themselves. She finds that a potential unionization drive at a Canton, Mississippi, Nissan plant failed, because white management pitted workers against one another based on race and painted Black workers as “lazy” complainers who just wanted handouts. However, McGhee also references instances of successful cross-racial bargaining, such as the Stand Up KC and Fight for $15 movements, in which workers resisted corporations’ attempts to see them as each others’ competition and embraced the unity of their cause. These examples become McGhee’s earliest evidence of her concept of the “Solidarity Dividend.”

McGhee looks into disenfranchisement throughout American history, from limited rights to vote as drawn up in the Constitution, to poll taxes and literacy tests in the Jim Crow era, to continued attacks on the democratic process today. The American democratic system, fueled by the flawed electoral college, is inherently problematic, not least because a politician can be elected without the support of the majority of the voting public. However, the vote holds so much potential for change that the most powerful will seek any method to disenfranchise citizens, whether Americans of color or progressive college students. Recent techniques have ranged from purging voter rolls without voters’ knowledge and removing polling places from university campuses.

McGhee considers segregation, both official and unofficial, beginning with the ways people of color were forced into specific neighborhoods in northern cities like Boston or barred from moving into Western states during early drives for expansion. Segregation continued with the Jim Crow South, and even after integration, it remains a common practice, even when white citizens claim they value diversity. Indeed, many communities remain mostly white or Black, and public school systems continue to reflect more diverse populations than private institutions. McGhee has found, though, that white students who attend diverse schools achieve academic and social gains beyond what their white peers can accomplish in majority white schools.

McGhee tackles climate change and environmental racism, noting that conservative white men, who seem to be the least affected by climate change, refuse to seek and implement solutions. Part of the reason is the zero-sum thinking that leads many to assume that what is good for the environment will be bad for the economy, but as with every other sector McGhee examines in her book, another motivator is systemic racism. Communities of color are both more likely to be impacted by climate change and more vocal in their concerns about its effects. Regardless, as McGhee finds from her time in Richmond, California, Americans live “under the same sky,” and white communities and communities of color alike will be impacted by extreme weather driven by climate change and the resulting economic drain.

McGhee then shifts her attention to a less tangible impact of systemic racism: the moral cost of racism on white Americans. McGhee relays the myriad mechanisms white people use to ignore their involvement in maintaining the racial hierarchy and the privilege they enjoy as a result. White citizens may feel guilty but also unable to deal with feeling “like the bad guy.” Some project their anger and shame onto people of color, while others deny that racism exists, adopting a misguided practice of “color blindness.” Ultimately, it is the responsibility of white people to come to terms with their role in the country’s inequality and work for a more just society for everyone.

The final chapter studies Lewiston, Maine, as an exemplar of how immigrants of colors can invigorate failing rural towns and provide opportunities for cross-racial solidarity. Though Lewiston and other similar towns still experience zero-sum thinking and underlying tension, they become microcosms of McGhee’s concept of the “Solidarity Dividend,” the idea that citizens can all gain from joining together rather than seeing each other as enemies. McGhee ends by recommending that the American government adopt a program like Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation nationwide to begin identifying the sources of systemic injustice and to encourage citizens to work together to reverse those injustices, thereby creating a more equitable society for all Americans.

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