The Sum of Us

by Heather McGhee

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Chapters 3–4 Summary and Analysis

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Chapter 3

McGhee discusses how access to affordable higher education was a priority between the 1860s and 1970s. Support for public universities was not considered a handout but a necessity for the success of society as a whole. However, this period also featured far lower enrollment of people of color. Since 1980, the percentage of students of color has risen, and that population now makes up about forty percent of public university enrollment. The rise in students of color has coincided with a backlash against funding for the public university system among white taxpayers. Because college degrees are necessary for middle-class jobs, students still must graduate from college but at great financial cost. McGhee argues that the current college debt crisis disproportionately affects Black families who have “less wealth to draw upon” due to generations of systemic racism. 

A more diverse student body was accompanied by growing anti-government sentiment in the 1980s and 1990s. Instead of supporting public universities, money has gone toward police departments and prisons, often as part of the War on Drugs, which has disproportionately targeted and harmed Black citizens. However, opioid abuse has recently run rampant in white suburban and rural communities, presenting a conundrum that requires communities to again choose between funding schools or tackling the drug problem. McGhee argues that rising student debt due to diminished public funding for higher education has hurt most white students. She relates stories of middle-aged graduates who fear they will never resolve their debt due to the exorbitant interest they will end up paying. 

Healthcare is another example of what should be a “collective endeavor” but has instead been privatized to the great detriment of most citizens, Black and white. Even though it was passed, Obama’s Affordable Care Act caused resentment amongst white citizens. McGhee also notes the crisis of hospital closures in rural white communities, namely in Texas, which opposes Medicaid expansion. As a result, over a million Texans suffer and even die due to the closures that have put them at a great distance from the nearest hospital. 

McGhee infers that resistance to universal healthcare is a result of racism and cites the racist language of “infestation” used by politicians who claim these benefits will bring freeloaders “out of the woodwork like bugs.” In stigmatizing those who would take advantage of the benefits, white citizens cannot then support those benefits for themselves, lest they be forced to share the stigma. Ron Pollack, an advocate for healthcare and other causes meant to even the playing field, voices McGhee’s argument that the answer to social progress is solidarity. Finally, McGhee references the Greater Than Fear campaign, which sought to unite Minnesota citizens through representation of diverse community members articulating their shared interests.

Chapter 4

McGhee begins with the story of a Black married couple, Janice and Isaiah Tomlin, the first of their families to own a house. When they moved into their house in the late 1970s, white neighbors were dismayed by their presence, and the community was primarily Black by the 1990s. When Chase Mortgage Brokers began calling the Tomlins in 1998, Janice was initially cautious but fell victim to a predatory subprime loan scheme. The term “subprime” refers to less-than-ideal borrowers with low credit profiles; as such, their loans are accompanied by higher interest rates. The problem, though, was that the Tomlins were not subprime candidates. These companies often thrust subprime loan terms on candidates who could have qualified for prime loans. This unethical and predatory practices disproportionately affected Black and brown citizens. Countless other homeowners ended up in a similar predicament to the Tomlins, with...

(This entire section contains 1385 words.)

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high interest rates and equity-stripping terms that doomed them. Janice later became the lead witness in a suit against predatory lenders.

A decade after the Tomlins’ ill-fated subprime loan began, the nation faced the Great Recession of 2008, fueled by the catastrophic crash of the housing market as a result of subprime lending. Most foreclosed homes were owned by white Americans, and beyond the loss of homes, property values declined, as did jobs, mental health, and funding for education. The 2008 crash was foreshadowed by the earlier examples of Black homeowners like Janice Tomlin, but McGhee goes deeper into the country’s history to trace the origins of predatory loan practices. 

Immediately after Emancipation, Black Americans were not permitted to use white banks, so the Freedman’s Bank emerged, “a separate but thoroughly unequal” alternative. The New Deal of the 1930s birthed the redlining of neighborhoods, a tactic that indicated to lenders where the “riskier” residents lived—a coded term for people of color. Eventually, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 made these discriminatory banking practices illegal, but the new laws were not enforced consistently for decades. Congress’s failure to regulate bank loans across the nation allowed uneven, discriminatory lending to continue. Over time, the financial sector gained influence in politics such that all conditions worked to the benefit of the banks and to the detriment of the borrower. 

Following the housing crash, political rhetoric blamed borrowers for taking on loans they could not afford, but McGhee exposes the lenders and loans themselves as the risky elements. She also asserts that while predatory practices begin their work on people of color, they eventually spread and affect everyone, including white citizens. McGhee’s research revealed that the first collateral debt in the country’s history was that of enslaved people, so it is no surprise that Black citizens continue to be targeted by the unethical practices of those in power. 


These chapters focus on the issues of higher education, healthcare, and home ownership, three distinct areas where zero-sum thinking on behalf of white citizens has kept “the sum of us” from meaningful socioeconomic benefits. Public university education was once considered a benefit for the common good—that is, until more people of color began to enroll. Suddenly, anti-government sentiment rose, and white Americans railed against “handouts” like affordable college degrees. While Black students suffer more from student debt due to generational disadvantages in the aftermath of slavery and ongoing racism, white students have also taken on crippling debt. McGhee includes an anecdote from Josh Frost, a white man in his late thirties who “pays three-quarters of his salary toward his student debt while living with his parents,” despite doing “everything society told him to do.” American society still prioritizes higher education as a requirement for employment and an upper-middle-class life, but fewer and fewer students of any race are able to realize this standard. Borrowers like Frost are financially incapable of buying homes or starting families. Frost is just one of the countless casualties of privatization and student loan debt. 

In states like Texas, refusal to adopt reforms accompanying the Affordable Care Act have needlessly crippled rural hospitals—much to the detriment of poor white Americans who can no longer easily access medical treatment. Texas’s rejection of Medicaid expansions, which McGhee refers to as basically “turning away free money,” was a result of Republican politicians’ argument that Medicaid benefits would help supposedly freeloading populations. “These folks are gonna come out of the woodwork like bugs,” according to Ginny Goldman, a community organizer in Texas. This “language of infestation” represents a racist trope often levied against immigrants, but it also misrepresents the reality that poor white Texans would be the primary beneficiaries.

Chapter 4 recounts how predatory housing lenders took advantage of Black homeowners in the late 1990s in what should have been a warning sign for the 2008 economic crash. The Tomlins, a Black couple who bought their first home in 1978, were sold a subprime loan that drained their home’s equity. Because of their race, they were given a subprime rate as “risky” borrowers, even though they could have qualified for lower interest. Thousands of others were similarly impacted, and Janice Tomlin became the key plaintiff in the legal case against the predatory lenders. Not only does Janice serve as a poignant example of how an average American can fall victim to the country’s flawed economic policies, she also voices a belief that echoes McGhee’s own: that America can and should do better. When she spoke in court of having faith in her country, she espoused an optimism in the potential America represents but has not achieved for its citizens.


Introduction–Chapter 2 Summary and Analysis


Chapters 5–6 Summary and Analysis