The Sum of Us

by Heather McGhee

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Chapters 5–6 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on April 8, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1357

Chapter 5

McGhee recounts the story of a Nissan auto plant in Mississippi that voted on joining the United Auto Workers union; the vote failed, despite years of work by organizers. McGhee recalls her own Midwestern heritage, observing that working at an auto plant was a good job and that joining a union was a sign of strength. McGhee met with the UAW organizer and several workers to discuss what went wrong. One worker’s t-shirt, emblazoned with “NO ONE FIGHTS ALONE,” encapsulates McGhee’s argument that solidarity would benefit all workers.

After recalling the history of labor unions, emphasizing that the bargaining power of unions has always been based on the premise of strength in numbers, McGhee investigates what made white Nissan workers vote against their own interests. Corporate leaders commonly create a hierarchy that encourages competition among workers rather than solidarity; often, race is the major dividing line that allows low-ranking white workers to feel superior to Black workers. Racist rhetoric associating Black workers with laziness and practices awarding white workers with easier tasks and promotions were just some of Nissan’s tactics to pit their employees against one another.

Sowing division among laborers hearkens back at least to the Reconstruction, but workers understood early on that if they wanted to have a voice, they needed to unite. The first union, the Knights of Labor, “recruited across color lines,” but later, in the 1890s, their power faded as Jim Crow laws segregated races and espoused white supremacy. Later unions like the AFL excluded Black workers and supported eugenics, but the CIO, founded in 1935, promiseed “interracial unity.” When unions joined people of different races, they were more successful, resulting in what McGhee terms the “Solidarity Dividend.” 

Unions have become a scapegoat for conservative politicians, emblems of a supposedly lazy workforce looking for handouts. McGhee traces the decline in support for unions to the UAW’s alignment with civil rights. The workers at the Nissan plant echoed the belief that racism motivates white resentment against unions. The South repeatedly failed to endorse union organizing after World War II, resulting in several southern states having no minimum wage laws or other worker protections that unions could secure. The idea of “last place aversion” is also blamed for white workers’ refusal to unionize: If benefits are not equal amongst workers, white laborers can maintain a status slightly above their Black co-workers by virtue of their race.

However, there are success stories, including the organizing of fast food workers in 2012 and a similar airport worker strike in 2013. In these cases, workers united despite differences in race, gender, or immigration status. The Stand Up KC and the Fight for $15 movements both explicitly recruited a diverse body of support and, as a result, were able to achieve some success. 

Chapter 6

McGhee explores the way racism has inhibited America from becoming a true democracy, namely because of the disenfranchisement of minority voters. The founders of the nation considered slaves property, and the Electoral College built inequity into the voting system. While initial voting rights were restricted to white male property owners, all free white men were allowed to vote by the early 1800s; this was part of a move to “defend a white-supremacist government,” as McGhee puts it. McGhee argues that citizenship was defined in opposition to Blackness.

During the Reconstruction, “Fusion” alliances, a combination of white and Black laborers, sought rights for workers and funding for infrastructure; however, such movements were opposed by the powerful white supremacist contingent. States implemented literacy tests and poll taxes to disenfranchise minority groups. However, when uneducated or poor...

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whites had trouble meeting new guidelines, they were included via grandfather clauses. 

Inconsistent policies across states further discourage civic engagement. McGhee points out, though, that laws and practices also disadvantage a large number of white voters who, for example, do not have photo identification. It is difficult for married white women to vote in some states where an exact name match is required across multiple forms of identification. A final example notes how an Ohio measure purged voters after they had missed voting in one midterm election; those voters had no way to know of the change until they were barred from voting on election day. 

Because of the influence of millionaires and billionaires like the Koch brothers, the Republican Party protects the interests of the top one percent rather than considering what is best for the greatest number of citizens. Those who would suppress voting in minority populations have also come to fear young citizens who question the inequities in capitalism and democracy. For example, state legislations have moved polling places from college campuses to make voting more challenging for students.

McGhee applies the zero-sum paradigm to democracy; citizens at the top of the hierarchy believe that if other groups gain power, they will necessarily lose theirs. However, certain measures that have positively impacted minority groups have also assisted white voters, such as the elimination of the poll tax in the mid 1900s. McGhee examines the problematic arena of campaign financing, which allows the wealthiest in society to influence public policy in a way that hurts the majority of citizens, regardless of race. 


In these chapters, McGhee takes on labor unions and access to the vote. “No One Fights Alone” examines various labor movements, some of which have had success, to understand how Americans can usefully achieve socioeconomic progress. The answer McGhee always returns to is that citizens must unite across racial lines in the name of the common good. The major example in chapter 3 is that of a Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, where organizers attempted to help workers unionize. The initiative failed, and McGhee’s conversations with pro-union plant workers and organizers revealed that the corporation defeated potential unionization by pitting workers against one another based on race. McGhee infers that “in the face of a possible cross-racial organizing drive, it seemed to be a company strategy to make white workers feel different from, better than, the Black majority in the plant.” This also reveals the potential power of cross-racial unity, which McGhee explores later in the chapter. She also exposes the irrationality of the plant’s leadership, who told white workers myths about the laziness of Black workers, despite Black workers “doing all the hardest, most relentless and dangerous jobs” and also “the lowest paying.” Management used the zero-sum mindset to turn white workers against Black colleagues and distract them from the reality that unionizing would benefit all workers.

McGhee introduces the concept of the “Solidarity Dividend” to explain what successful organization looks like. One example, the Stand Up KC movement, fought attempts by those in power to divide and conquer by having workers see themselves in a racial hierarchy. In defiance, the movement’s banner read, “UNITED AGAINST RACISM—GOOD JOBS FOR ALL.” Placing racial unity at the forefront was the key to Stand Up KC’s success and serves as a model for the future, McGhee asserts. 

McGhee’s research led her to the discovery that “our democracy is even less equal than our economy,” the result of a long history of disenfranchisement limiting Americans from participating in or having any meaningful impact on the political process. In tracing disenfranchisement to its foundation, McGhee shows that America has never been democratic, because it has implemented limited voting rights from its very start. Even when Black citizens achieved the vote, poll taxes and literacy tests barred some from actually using this most precious democratic right. Today, barriers remain in the forms of the electoral college and arbitrary and inconsistent voting laws. Unjust voting laws also hurt poor whites, college students, and married women, proving once again that even practices rooted in racism have a far reach. According to McGhee, the conservative concern “is that a robust democracy will lead to the masses banding together to oppose property owners’ concentration of wealth and power.” McGhee’s examples and commentary in this chapter work together to prove that the American political process does even less to represent the common good than we might imagine; those at the top of the hierarchy are the only beneficiaries.


Chapters 3–4 Summary and Analysis


Chapters 7–8 Summary and Analysis