The Sum of Us

by Heather McGhee

Start Free Trial

Chapters 7–8 Summary and Analysis

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on April 8, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1376

Chapter 7

McGhee reflects on her personal experiences in schools with varying student populations, including a rural school with an “overwhelmingly white” student body. This rural school was the least diverse of the “largely white worlds” she has inhabited. She notes that neighborhood, work environment, and peers shape the person, and she raises the question of how existing in a more diverse space might shape people differently. Studies show that white people voice support for diversity initiatives but that their own lives, such as where they live and what schools they send their children to, do not tend to reflect that support. 

McGhee traces how the government has segregated populations over time. Though segregation is most often associated with the Jim Crow South, McGhee points out that segregation began in the North and continued as Americans expanded westward. Post-Civil War laws could have ended segregation, as the reforms included bans on discrimination and integration in southern cities. Once working-class people started uniting across racial lines, though, those in power felt the need to encourage the white lower classes to choose loyalty to race over class. 

Despite a 1948 ruling meant to ban racist housing policies, the practice continued through redlining and the identification of people of color as credit risks. Interstate highways separated white and Black neighborhoods. McGhee’s neighborhood in Chicago consisted of mostly working- and middle-class families, but many apartments were bought on contract and did not acquire equity. McGhee traces how the racial make-up of her grandparents’ neighborhood in Pill Hill changed over time, from a ninety percent white to a ninety percent Black community. Segregated living areas, McGhee argues, result in white people knowing little about their Black peers’ lives, and such social isolation is ultimately harmful to white citizens.

Even when studies show that white Americans support integration and “say they want to be outnumbered by people of color,” they continue to live in mostly white communities and send their children to majority white schools. McGhee argues that there is an economic and sociological cost to this continued segregation, as integrated areas are “less polluted” and anticipate higher life expectancy. Anecdotal evidence suggests that students in integrated areas are more engaged and invested in their communities and are more comfortable addressing difficult issues like systemic racism. On the other hand, it is more difficult for white students who attend more exclusively white institutions to understand and confront white privilege. 

Chapter 8

McGhee recalls a warning that we have only twelve years to solve the climate change crisis. Extreme weather events present a serious economic drain, as the nation must spend billions to prepare for and recover from increasingly intense natural disasters. McGhee wonders why the United States refuses to address the reality of climate change despite being a former leader in the development of solar energy. Even though the nation creates by far the most carbon pollution of any country in history, climate change has been politicized, and those opposed to investing in solutions hold the power to prevent growth. The faction that adamantly refuses to address climate change is overwhelmingly white and conservative. 

McGhee cites findings that white Americans are less concerned about the pressing dangers of climate change than people of color. Because the system seems to be “working” for white conservative men, they see no need for adjustment. McGhee describes her interaction with Kirsti M. Jylha, a Finnish researcher, who comments on the immediate preference and privilege she has experienced in the United States solely based on her race. Their conversations lead McGhee to infer that Scandinavian countries’ “more humane” systems of social...

(This entire section contains 1376 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

democracy create greater empathy and do not arrange people into hierarchies of race; further, extreme class distinctions do not exist in the way they do in the United States. 

McGhee explains the concept of environmental racism: that communities with higher numbers of minority citizens will suffer more environmental dangers than predominantly white communities. In fact, some policies actively discriminate against people of color in this way, placing more landfills and dumps in their communities or situating industries that will pollute the environment near minority neighborhoods.

McGhee takes as an example the community of Richmond, California, a town that is not incorporated and thus unable to access public services and infrastructure. McGhee spends time with Torm Nompraseurt, a Laotian man who serves on the Asian Pacific Environmental Network. Richmond, whose population is ninety-seven percent people of color, is neighbored by a massive Chevron oil refinery. The city’s proximity to highways also means that they face “mobile pollution” from cars and chemicals emitted by the oil plant. On the edge of Richmond is a hilltop community known as Point Richmond, home to mostly upper-class white citizens. Because of climate patterns, this community faces less of an obvious impact from the Chevron plant, but when a fire struck the plant and winds changed, resulting in more pollution for Point Richmond, the residents were outraged. 

McGhee’s argument is that despite the Point Richmond community’s attempt to set itself apart from people of color and those of lower socioeconomic status, they are all “living under the same sky.” Ultimately, pollution and the resulting negative health outcomes impact everyone in the vicinity. McGhee references Green New Deal plans being proposed across the country, with some success in a few states already. This framework seeks to transition the United States away from fossil fuels, which contribute greatly to climate change. The key to progress has been the multiracial coalitions that have taken up this work, and McGhee sees hope for the future in the activity and resources currently being invested in solving climate change. 


McGhee examines segregation in these chapters, both in terms of living spaces and education and in terms of environment and climate. The key finding is, again, that segregation solves none of the problems that some citizens are attempting to escape and in fact creates additional ones. Beginning with neighborhood segregation, McGhee argues “there are costs—financial, developmental, even physical—to continuing to segregate as we do.” Like the other arenas McGhee examines, segregation has a long history, beginning in the North before the Civil War with strictly African-American neighborhoods. After Reconstruction, partly out of fear of cross-racial organizing, “new rules to promote white supremacy” would “ensure the allegiance of the white masses to race over class.” Ultimately, though, separating people by race means that they cannot learn about one another, making it difficult to move past racial stereotypes and resentment. 

Neighborhood segregation corresponds with segregation in public school systems, but even some white Americans who voice support for racially diverse communities send their children to mostly white schools. On the other hand, McGhee found that “white students who attend diverse K-12 schools achieve better learning outcomes and even higher test scores.” They are also better able to discuss race and confront privilege. McGhee spoke to a white college freshman named Fiona who attended “a high school where just 10 percent of the student body was white.” Fiona revealed that white kids in her district who attended private school would pity her public school experience, but Fiona “credited the experience with giving herself the skills to be an advocate.” She spoke of her increased empathy and her desire to drive change in the community. Ultimately, Fiona’s experience reveals the myriad benefits of immersing oneself in a diverse community and represents for McGhee the hope that others can follow suit in the future.

McGhee goes on to argue that refusal to address climate change impacts all Americans. Efforts to place pollutants and landfills in minority neighborhoods cannot entirely prevent negative effects on wealthier, whiter communities because, as the title suggests, all communities ultimately share a natural environment. This principle is proven by the example of Richmond, California, which has experienced environmental racism as home to both a largely minority community and a giant Chevron refinery. However, a fire at the refinery demonstrated that Richmond’s pollution can also harm the majority white community to the north at Point Richmond. Notably, those residents only became concerned about the pollution when it directly impacted their community. This example proves McGhee’s point that problems that affect minority communities actually hinder all communities, even those who see themselves as separate and superior.


Chapters 5–6 Summary and Analysis


Chapters 9–10 Summary and Analysis