- Expected Feb 16, 2021
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.
“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 to rising student debt to collapsing public infrastructure, she found a common root problem: racism. 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 Mississippi to California to Maine, 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: gains that come when people come together across race, to accomplish what we simply can’t do on our own.
The Sum of Us is a brilliant analysis of how we arrived here: divided and self-destructing, materially rich but spiritually starved and vastly unequal. McGhee marshals economic and sociological research to paint an irrefutable story of racism’s costs, but at the heart of the book are the humble stories of people yearning to be part of a better America, including white supremacy’s collateral victims: white people themselves. With startling empathy, this heartfelt message from a Black woman to a multiracial America leaves us with a new vision for a future in which we finally realize that life can be more than zero-sum.
Political commentator McGhee argues in her astute and persuasive debut that income inequality and the decline of the middle and working classes in America are a direct result of the country's long history of racial injustice. Many white Americans, McGhee claims, center their political beliefs and actions often to their own detriment on the false premise that social and economic gains for one race result in losses for another. She traces the history of race relations in America from slavery through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the dawn of neoliberalism, documenting instances in which racism against Black Americans has diminished everyone's quality of life and forestalled social progress, including the mass closure of public swimming pools in the 1950s and '60s to avoid integration, and the American Medical Association's "racist red-baiting campaign" to undermine President Truman's efforts to pass universal health-care legislation. McGhee holds up a recent economic turnaround in Lewiston, Maine, as an example of how communities can thrive thanks to immigrants and people of color, driving home the point that racial inclusivity benefits all Americans. McGhee marshals a wealth of information into a cohesive narrative that ends on a hopeful note. This sharp, thorough, and engrossing report casts America's racial divide in a new light.