The Sum of Us

by Heather McGhee

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Last Updated on April 8, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1027

Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us was published in early 2021, following a year in which Americans wrestled questions of racial division and equality, seeing a new wave of Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of police-involved shootings of unarmed Black citizens. As a Black woman working for policy reform group Demos, McGhee felt optimistic that she could drive change “for [her] people and everyone who struggled.” However, she soon realized that economic progress would not be as simple as convincing citizens to vote in their own interest; she discovered that the nation would have to grapple with a deeper force behind persistent inequality: systemic racism. 

McGhee makes her central principle exceedingly clear from her title and introduction. Her research will “show the costs of white supremacy to our entire society,” a premise that she acknowledges is risky. McGhee understands that she must make her argument inclusive and appealing to all Americans, and she also adopts a hopeful tone, wishing that her work can lead Americans of all races “to piece together a new story of who we could be to one another.” She also creates a sense of immediacy, referencing dire economic statistics and the fallout from policies that benefit only those at the top. 

Each chapter of the book takes McGhee’s general principles—that racism negatively impacts all Americans and that solidarity is the path to a more just society—and applies those principles to a specific segment of American society. In every chapter, McGhee begins with either a personal anecdote or a concrete example to engage the reader. She proceeds to explicate the history of that particular segment of society, whether housing or voting rights, describing how systemic racism was built into its foundation and tracing its development over centuries or decades to show how that racism still functions under the surface of present-day systems. She always returns to the idea that the systems are not truly functioning—or at least not for the majority of Americans. 

McGhee repeatedly establishes the irrationality of those, usually white citizens, who repeat hollow beliefs and vote for candidates who do not support their best interests. Her chapters also focus on key examples that allow her to paint a vivid picture of how systemic injustice plays out in real time in the lives of real people. Within each chapter, McGhee incorporates interviews from experts and everyday citizens, historical references, relevant anecdotes and statistics, and personal reflections and commentary. She asserts again and again that the work of understanding and exposing the racial hierarchy on which America is built is the first step towards correcting it. Moreover, all Americans must embrace this work in order to achieve the Solidarity Dividend.

A representative chapter, chapter 8, “The Same Sky,” begins with McGhee’s memory of reading a Guardian article whose headline warns that “WE HAVE 12 YEARS TO LIMIT CLIMATE CHANGE” while nursing her newborn baby. She describes the “rising dread” she experienced thinking about how this dire future would affect not only her but also her infant son before transitioning into a discussion of the economic impact of climate change: “an estimated $240 billion a year . . . nearly half the average annual growth of the U.S. economy from 2009 to 2019.” Here, the strength of McGhee’s rhetoric arises from the way she combines a poignant personal reflection with a powerful statistic to drive home the very real and immediate threat of climate change and its resulting extreme weather. McGhee further engages readers by posing a question at the start of the chapter: Why would Americans resist solutions to this problem? McGhee answers the...

(This entire section contains 1027 words.)

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question with her characteristic blend of broad research and first-person reportage. She sketches the broad view by drawing on facts about conservative politicians’ voting tendencies and quoting activists and researchers. And she counterbalances the broad view with her own account of visiting Richmond, California, where she learned first-hand about the racial and socio-economic dimensions of local pollution. Overall, this dual approach effectively conveys the problem of environmental racism. 

McGhee ends her book with a chapter titled “The Solidarity Dividend,” taking the town of Lewiston, Maine, as a symbol of how Americans can reach across racial lines and unite for the common good. Even though its population is among the whitest and oldest in the nation, and though it was governed by a mayor who used racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric, Lewiston grew into a progressive and productive community after an influx of Somali refugees in the 1990s. This town is a great example for McGhee because it is one of many in which ”today’s immigrants of colors are revitalizing rural America.” Referencing a communal barbecue, one of the events that make Lewiston an exciting representative for McGhee’s theory in action, she writes, “Bruce’s cross-cultural festival provide[s] glimpses of the way Lewiston—and much of America, could be.” McGhee notes, however, that there is still “zero-sum tension” here and elsewhere that Americans must work to reverse. Numerous concrete examples of the success of multiracial and cross-racial alliances in achieving workers’ benefits, higher wages, investments in climate change, and justice for those preyed upon by housing lenders demonstrate to readers that solidarity is ultimately a better path than competition. 

The title of McGhee’s The Sum of Us is a play on words that balances zero-sum thinking on the one hand with “the sum of us” on the other. The zero-sum paradigm, as McGhee proves again and again, results in further inequality and regression for people of color and white Americans. This kind of thinking—that a gain for others means a loss for oneself—results in gains for only “some of us,” usually a very small number of people at the top of the hierarchy. She ends the book by referring to one of America’s most famous phrases: “we are so much more when the ‘We’ in ‘We the People’ is not some of us, but all of us. We are greater than, and greater for, the sum of us.” McGhee’s repetition and wordplay—leveraging the homophones “some” and “sum”—emphasize that the greatest gains come from the greatest number of people working together.