The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together - book cover
  • Publisher : One World
  • Published : 16 Feb 2021
  • Pages : 448
  • ISBN-10 : 0525509569
  • ISBN-13 : 9780525509561
  • Language : English

The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • LONGLISTED FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD • One of today's most insightful and influential thinkers offers a powerful exploration of inequality and the lesson that generations of Americans have failed to learn: Racism has a cost for everyone-not just for people of color.

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY Time The Washington Post BookRiotLibrary Journal • LONGLISTED FOR THE ANDREW CARNEGIE MEDAL • "This is the book I've been waiting for."-Ibram X. Kendi, #1 New York Times bestselling author of How to Be an Antiracist

Heather McGhee's specialty is the American economy-and the mystery of why it so often fails the American public. From the financial crisis of 2008 to rising student debt to collapsing public infrastructure, she found a root problem: racism in our politics and policymaking. But not just in the most obvious indignities for people of color. Racism has costs for white people, too. It is the common denominator of our most vexing public problems, the core dysfunction of our democracy and constitutive of the spiritual and moral crises that grip us all. But how did this happen? And is there a way out?

McGhee embarks on a deeply personal journey across the country from Maine to Mississippi to California, tallying what we lose when we buy into the zero-sum paradigm-the idea that progress for some of us must come at the expense of others. Along the way, she meets white people who confide in her about losing their homes, their dreams, and their shot at better jobs to the toxic mix of American racism and greed. This is the story of how public goods in this country-from parks and pools to functioning schools-have become private luxuries; of how unions collapsed, wages stagnated, and inequality increased; and of how this country, unique among the world's advanced economies, has thwarted universal healthcare.

But in unlikely places of worship and work, McGhee finds proof of what she calls the Solidarity Dividend: the benefits we gain when people come together across race to accomplish what we simply can't do on our own. The Sum of Us is not only a brilliant analysis of how we arrived here but also a heartfelt message, delivered with startling empathy, from a black woman to a multiracial America. It leaves us with a new vision for a future in which we finally realize that life can be more than a zero-sum game.

Editorial Reviews

"A book for every American."-Elizabeth Gilbert

"Illuminating and hopeful . . . McGhee isn't a stinging polemicist; she cajoles instead of ridicules. She appeals to concrete self-interest in order to show how our fortunes are tied up with the fortunes of others. ‘We suffer because our society was raised deficient in social solidarity,' she writes, explaining that this idea is ‘true to my optimistic nature.' She is compassionate but also clear-eyed, refusing to downplay the horrors of racism. . . . There is a striking clarity to this book; there is also a depth of kindness in it that all but the most churlish readers will find moving."-Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times

"One of the most fascinating things about The Sum of Us is how it challenges the assumptions of both white antiracism activists and progressives who just want to talk about class."-The New York Times, "The Book That Should Change How Progressives Talk About Race"

"Required reading to move the country forward . . . Every so often a book comes along that seems perfectly timed to the moment and has the potential to radically shift our cultural conversation. [The Sum of Us] is one of those books. . . . It is a sometimes angry or frustrated book, rooted in McGhee's long career at Demos trying and mostly failing to secure legislation that would benefit the public. But in the end, it's a hopeful book because McGhee's vision is so clear and so convincing."-Chicago Tribune

"If everyone in America read this book, we'd be, not only a more just country, but a more powerful, successful, and loving one. A vital, urgent, stirring, beautifully written book that offers a compassionate roadmap out of our present troubled moment."-George Saunders, New York Times bestselling and Booker Prize–winning author of Lincoln in the Bardo

"Supported by remarkable data-driven research and thoughtful interviews with those directly affected by these issues, McGhee paints a powerful picture of the societal shortfalls all around us. There is a greater, more just America available to us, and McGhee brings its potential to light."-BookPage

"[McGhee] takes readers on an intimate odyssey across our country's racial divide to explore why some believe that progress for some comes at the expense of others. Along the way, McGhee speaks with white people who confide in her about losing jobs, homes, and hope, and considers white supremacy's collateral victims. Ultimately, McGhee-a Black woman viewing multiracial America with startling empathy-finds proof of what she terms the Solidarity Dividend: the momentous bene...

Readers Top Reviews

Daniel Glass Rn Wh
Tells the true history. A must read for anyone that cares about this world going forward. An amazing book that you must read.
Thomas J. Farrell
In the African American activist Heather McGhee’s first book The Sum of Us: What Racism[in the United States] Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together (2021), she perceptively explores how to develop a multi-faceted alternative to the zero-sum thinking in our contemporary American winner-take-all economy in the United States. As McGhee explicitly acknowledges (page 300), her primary source for describing the zero-sum thinking of certain comparatively economically well-off white Americans is white professors Michael I. Norton and Samuel R. Sommers’ article “Whites See Racism as a Zero-Sum Game that They Are Now Losing” in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, volume 6, number 5 (May 2011): pages 215-218. Even though McGhee sees zero-sum thinking as connected with our contemporary American winner-take-all economy in the United States, she does not happen to refer explicitly to the 2010 book Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class by the white American professors Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson. However, despite this relevant omission from McGhee’s new book, I am not intimating that her book is under-researched, as her detailed “Notes” (pages 295-397) and her impressive alphabetized “List of Interviews” and dates of interviews (pages 399-400) show. According to the dates listed, she conducted her earliest interviews in June 2017, and her most recent in September 2020. She conducted interviews of more than 50 individual persons. Now, McGhee interviewed two persons at three different times each: (1) May Boeve in August 2018, February 2020, and August 2020, and (2) Ben Chin in June 2017, May 2018, and June 2020. McGhee also interviewed four other individual persons each at two different times: (1) Julie Christine Johnson in August 2017 and June 2020; (2) Angela King in June 2017 and August 2017; (3) Torm Nompraseurt in March 202 and April 2020; and (4) Ali Takata in March 2019 and August 2020. In addition, she interviewed an unspecified number of Nissan workers in Mississippi in August 2017. See the “Index” (pages 401-415) for specific page references to each of the 52 individual persons listed in the alphabetized “List of Interviews.” More significantly, in my estimate, McGhee is not familiar with the terminology about catastrophizing thinking that the late white American psychologist Albert Ellis (1913-2007) developed. But what she refers to as zero-sum thinking tends to produce what Ellis refers to as catastrophizing thinking as a byproduct. In short, zero-sum thinking tends to be accompanied by catastrophizing thinking – in, for example, comparatively economically well-off white Americans who see Black Americans as advancing economically at the supposed expense of white Americans. This is a salient example of what McGhee refe...
This book should be read by all Americans. Heather weaves stories together that show us the economic cost of systemic racism for every American. You will see that cost for yourself as she discusses topics ranging from changes in education policy to today's student loan debt crisis, redlining to the subprime mortgage catastrophe of the late 2000s, lack of affordable health care, environmental pollution, voter suppression and more - with 100 pages of footnotes to back up the facts. So much of our history wasn't taught in schools and/or wasn't discussed and that has led Americans to live with a zero sum mentality - if you get more, I lose. Read this and you'll soon see that when we all do better, we all do better. Five Stars up, Heather. And thank you!  
Joanna P.
However you currently understand structural racism, America’s fiscal policy making, and the concept of public goods, this book will explode and expand that understanding. McGhee has found the personal stories that illustrate hard data clearly and emotionally. And she shows us, optimistically, how we can all grow richer— we are talking $$ as well as spiritual and cultural riches— together. I thought I understood the subprime mortgage crisis until I was introduced to the Tomlins, who could have qualified for any mortgage but instead were sold one whose fee structures were difficult for even legal specialists to decipher. (They had never missed a payment.) I will have a new understanding of environmental justice because I will remember Torm, the Laotian refugee racing through his neighborhood to translate emergency directives to the immigrants living near the Chevron plant in Richmond, California whose pipes degraded. (Attention wasn’t paid until an ill wind blew toxic chemicals into the rich side of town.) Heather McGhee is an exceptional writer and communicator, and her book feels like a conversation between the people who deserve better from this country, and the fighters trying to tease out answers to these issues (with the kind whispers of a history teacher connecting the dots of the past for the rest of us). It’s an engrossing and enlightening read whose time is now.
This book and the compilation of stories deeply touched me and caused me to reflect on incidents that have happened throughout my life. The beauty of how Heather has told this story is that, not only is it based on documented factual history, but we also get the benefit of Heather's insights and unique voice. The Sum of Us should be required reading within our educational curriculum and with our politicians.

Short Excerpt Teaser


"Why can't we have nice things?"

Perhaps there's been a time when you've pondered exactly this question. And by nice things, you weren't thinking about hovercraft or laundry that does itself. You were thinking about more basic as-pects of a high-functioning society, like adequately funded schools or reliable infrastructure, wages that keep workers out of poverty or a public health system to handle pandemics. The "we" who can't seem to have nice things is Americans, all Americans. This includes the white Americans who are the largest group of the uninsured and the impoverished as well as the Americans of color who are dispropor-tionately so. "We" is all of us who have watched generations of Amer-ican leadership struggle to solve big problems and reliably improve the quality of life for most people. We know what we need-why can't we have it?"

Why can't we have nice things?" was a question that struck me pretty early on in life-growing up as I did in an era of rising in-equality, seeing the wealthy neighborhoods boom while the schools and parks where most of us lived fell into disrepair. When I was twenty-two years old, I applied for an entry-level job at Demos, aresearch and advocacy organization working on public policy solutions to inequality. There, I learned the tools of the policy advocacy trade: statistical research and white papers, congressional testimony, litigation, bill drafting, media outreach, and public campaigns.

It was exhilarating. I couldn't believe that I could use a spread-sheet to convince journalists to write about the ideas and lives of the people I cared most about: the ones living from paycheck to paycheck who needed a better deal from businesses and our government. And it actually worked: our research influenced members of Congress to introduce laws that helped real people and led to businesses changing their practices. I went off to get a law degree and came right back to Demos to continue the work. I fell in love with the idea that information, in the right hands, was power. I geeked out on the intricacies of the credit markets and a gracefully designed regulatory regime. My specialty was economic policy, and as indicators of economic inequality became starker year after year, I was convinced that I was fighting the good fight, for my people and everyone who struggled.

And that is how I saw it: part of my sense of urgency about the work was that my people, Black people, are disproportionately ill served by bad economic policy decisions. I was going to help make better ones. I came to view the relationship between race and inequality as most people in my field do-linearly: structural racism accelerates inequality for communities of color. When our govern-ment made bad economic decisions for everyone, the results were even worse for people already saddled with discrimination and disadvantage.

Take the rise of household debt in working-and middle-class families, the first issue I worked on at Demos. The volume of credit card debt Americans owed had tripled over the course of the 1990s, and among cardholders, Black and Latinx families were more likely to be in debt. In the early 2000s, when I began working on the issue, bankruptcies and foreclosures were rising and homeowners, particularly Black and brown homeowners, were starting to take equity out of their houses through strange new mortgage loans-but the problem of burdensome debt and abusive lending wasn't registering on the radar of enough decision makers. Few politicians in Washington knew what it was like to have bill collectors incessantly ringing their phones about balances that kept growing every month. So, in 2003, Demos launched a project to get their attention: the first-ever comprehensive research report on the topic, with big, shocking numbers about the increase in debt. The report included policy recommenda-tions about how to free families from debt and avoid a financial melt-down. Our data resulted in newspaper editorials, meetings with banks, congressional hearings, and legislation to limit credit card rates and fees.

Two years later, Congress took action-and made the problem of rising debt worse. Legislators passed a bankruptcy reform bill sup-ported by the credit industry that made it harder for people ever to escape their debts, no matter how tapped out they were after a job loss, catastrophic medical illness, or divorce. The law wasn't good for consumers, did nothing to address the real problems in family finances, and actually made the problem worse. It was a bad economic policy decision that benefited only lenders and debt collectors, not the public. This was a classic example of the government not doing the simple thing that aligned with what most Americans wanted or what the data...