The Sum of Us

by Heather McGhee

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Chapters 9–10 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on April 8, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1371

Chapter 9

Typical school programming about the civil rights era, McGhee notes, makes white students feel like “the bad guys.” However, McGhee argues that white Americans cannot see their own role in the nation’s story without recognizing the harsh reality of racism, and white citizens inevitably experience guilt or denial about how their race has granted them privilege and allowed others to suffer. Beyond the negative economic and political impacts, Americans cannot ignore the moral ramifications of racism. Compounding the problem is that there is no easy solution or “route for redemption.”

Angela King, a former neo-Nazi, discusses her own need to shift blame for society’s woes from white people; for example, she found ways to excuse American slavery. Angela went to prison for a hate crime but began to rethink her perspective when a Black woman befriended her. Their conversations led her to educate herself on the history of race relations. Angela eventually founded Life After Hate, which helps white supremacists leave extremist groups. 

McGhee examines how right-wing media fueled by racism has painted immigrants as scapegoats for socioeconomic woes. This distracts from the systemic racism at the heart of America’s inequities, so the problem persists. McGhee also criticizes color blindness, the idea that the best way to deal with racial difference is to pretend not to see race. Rather than helping people overcome the problem, it “is a form of racial denial.” While denial stops white Americans from addressing racism and the impacts of inequality on people of color, it also prevents them from understanding their own complacence. Once again, the cost of racism falls on white Americans, despite their position of relative privilege. Racism also leads white Americans to stoke unfounded fears, such as those associated with Affirmative Action, based on the false belief that Black citizens are taking jobs that belong to white people. 

The more serious extension of this racially motivated fear is the cost of Black lives at the hands of white citizens who fear people of color. McGhee discusses “Stand Your Ground” laws, which can absolve assailants of responsibility if they feel threatened. Recent examples of police-involved shootings of unarmed Black people are a concrete example of the danger of white Americans’ misplaced fear. The Black Lives Matter movement thrived in the wake of such incidents, but prejudices also surfaced in the reaction to and media coverage of protests. 

McGhee cites African-American Christianity as a driver of civil rights, but Pastor Daniel Hill also links Christianity with the dehumanization of African slaves and the formation of the systemic racism that still haunts the United States. Because Christians could not account for mistreating other humans, also made “in God’s image,” as property, they had to think of them as inhuman. And those who oppress others are also dehumanized in the process. 

Chapter 10

McGhee studies Lewiston, Maine, as an example of how, even in the state with the whitest and oldest population, communities can achieve the Solidarity Dividend by reaching across racial lines and having difficult conversations about social justice. Lewiston’s population grew in the early 1990s as a result of a wave of Somali refugees escaping civil war. While housing and storefronts sat empty and Lewiston declined, the new immigrants revitalized the community, economically and socially. 

The precedent has been for immigrants to sacrifice their culture to join American society. Even in cases of “white-skinned immigrants,” assimilation as a white American meant losing aspects of their culture, such as their original language. People like Lewiston’s Cecile Thornton fight this by attending French-speaking group meetings to regain lost cultural roots. Meanwhile, groups like Maine’s People’s Alliance unite people across racial and cultural lines to fight for common benefits such as a higher minimum wage. Lewiston serves as an example of what America could achieve: the Solidarity Dividend. 

Despite strong ties in communities like Lewiston, political leaders continue to use anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric to divide citizens and hoard power for the most privileged. Those who subscribe to practices of cooperation and coexistence have gained their insight due to their personal experiences. Community organizer Ben Chin lost mayoral races to candidates fanning the flames of division rather than unity, so the question still remains: Why do people continue to vote for an agenda that does not benefit them? 

McGhee reiterates five key takeaways from her research before describing the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation (TRHT) initiative, which aims “to identify community decisions that have created hierarchy in three areas: law, separation, and the economy.” TRHT gives communities the resources to investigate and address sources of inequity. McGhee asserts that the agenda of the TRHT should be adopted across the country in an effort led by the federal government. The organization was founded by Dr. Gail Christopher, the author’s mother. Christopher argues that Americans are creative and have great potential. Before progress can be made, however, America must recognize “the belief in the hierarchy of human value” upon which the country was founded and still stands. McGhee believes that America’s destiny is not to stay caged by this reality but to move past it and make a better world. 


Chapter 9 places the onus on white Americans to acknowledge the nation’s racial hierarchy, the ways they as white people have benefited from it, and the need to move beyond it for the greater good. While the economic costs of racism and inequality have been clearly spelled out, McGhee emphasizes the moral cost of racism for its perpetrators. White people have developed various defense mechanisms to deal with the hard truth that “our country’s moral compass is broken” due to systems created and controlled by white Americans. White people attempt to deny their culpability, claim to not see race at all, and project their own self-doubt onto minorities in the form of hatred. Perhaps most important, though, is that “white Americans have denied themselves critical self-knowledge.” McGhee firmly believes that white citizens need to grapple with American history and systemic racism if the nation is to become the equitable society it holds the potential to be. Her assertion is shared by Julie Christine Johnson, a white woman who grew up in a white community but who later realized that racism “is our problem to solve.” Johnson’s agreement solidifies McGhee’s point that it is in the best interest of all Americans to solve the problems created by deep-seated racism. 

In closing, McGhee returns to the Solidarity Dividend, whose promise is demonstrated in Lewiston, Maine. McGhee cites a national trend of immigrants reinvigorating declining rural towns. Communities like Lewiston are apt microcosms because they have majority white populations who have welcomed and worked with immigrants to build a better town for all citizens. In addition to providing a concrete example of what the ideal community in America might look like, McGhee explicitly lays out in list form her five major takeaways and a strong argument for government involvement in a nationwide initiative to identify the roots of racial hierarchy, eliminate them, and begin to see unity as the key to America’s destiny. In doing so, McGhee recaps her main ideas and returns to her key terms and symbols, such as the Solidarity Dividend and “draining the pool,” asserting that Americans need to generously fund public services that benefit everyone—in other words, to “refill the pool,” as McGhee reformulates the phrase.

McGhee makes what she admits is a potentially controversial claim: that Americans must possess an almost radical faith in its government such that they “hold it to the highest standard of excellence and commit [their] generation’s best and brightest to careers designing public goods instead of photo-sharing apps.” The comparison that closes this sentence suggests that McGhee sees striving for the common good as the most worthy undertaking any American can pursue. The work Americans must do is so important that the sharpest minds are needed to tackle it. Despite the brutal history of racism in America, McGhee ends on a note of hope, insisting that it is “our destiny” to “move forward with a new story, together.” Ultimately, Americans hold the potential to reverse the damage and achieve the promise that the nation represents.

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Chapters 7–8 Summary and Analysis