The sum of us What racism costs everyone and how we can prosper together

Heather C. McGhee

Book - 2021

"Heather C. McGhee's specialty is the American economy, and the mystery of why it so often fails the American public. As she dug into subject after subject, from the financial crisis to declining wages to collapsing public infrastructure, she found a common problem at the bottom of them all: racism, but not just in the obvious ways that hurt people of color. Racism has costs for white people, too. It's the common denominator in our most vexing public problems, even beyond our econ...omy. It is at the core of the dysfunction of our democracy and even the spiritual and moral crises that grip us. Racism is a toxin in the American body and it weakens us all. But how did this happen? And is there a way out? To find the way, McGhee embarks on a deeply personal journey across the country from Mississippi to Maine, tallying up 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 collects the stories of white people who confide in her about losing their homes, their dreams and their shot at a better job 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. It's why we fail to prevent environmental and public health crises that require collective action. But in unlikely places of worship and work, McGhee also finds proof of what she calls the Solidarity Dividend: gains that come when people come together across race, to the benefit of all involved"--

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Subjects
Published
New York : One World [2021]
Edition
First edition
Language
English
Physical Description
xxiii, 415 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm
Bibliography
Includes bibliographical references (pages 295-397) and index.
ISBN
9780525509561
0525509569
Main Author
Heather C. McGhee (author)
  • An old story : the zero-sum hierarchy
  • Racism drained the pool
  • Going without
  • Ignoring the canary
  • No one fights alone
  • Never a real democracy
  • Living apart
  • The same sky
  • The hidden wound
  • The solitary dividend.
Review by Booklist Reviews

*Starred Review* Why can't a wealthy, developed country like the U.S. achieve adequate healthcare, infrastructure, school funding, and wages above poverty? For her first book, McGhee, Trustee Emeritus on the Demos Board, traveled all over the country and had hundreds of conversations, revealing the answer: "zero sum" logic. This logic claims if one person or group advances, another loses; five dollars in my pocket equals five dollars out of yours. Poisonously pervasive in U.S policy, zero sum compels white citizens to relinquish benefits rather than see Black and Brown Americans gain. In one startling example of many, public pools, once considered community crown jewels, were closed rather than integrate. McGhee offers a mountain range of evidence that zero sum is a falsehood. While Black Americans are disproportionately affected, the majority of benefit receivers are white, meaning the majority of people losing denied benefits, like expanded Medicaid, are white. In actuality, the "solidarity dividend" proves that everyone's lives are improved when anyone advances. McGhee's book is required reading, a true work of courage and intellectual rigor. Readers have likely asked: Why is this so hard for a country that has so much? By unearthing and exposing the faulty why, McGhee illuminates the path to actual change. Copyright 2021 Booklist Reviews.

Review by Choice Reviews

Ed. Note: Choice considers racial justice a cornerstone of its mandate to support academic study. Accordingly, Choice is highlighting select racial justice titles through the creation of long-form reviews such as the one featured here. Though the scope of these reviews will be broader than those applied to our standard 190-word reviews, many of the guidelines regarding what to focus on will remain the same, with additional consideration for how the text under review sheds light on racist systems and racial inequities or proposes means of dismantling them. Our intent is to feature important works on racial justice that will be of use to undergraduates and faculty researching racism and racial inequalities from new perspectives.This timely study essentially concerns the state of racialized relations in the US and the economic harm it does not only to designated people of color but to most white people too. McGhee is an expert in economics as well as a journalist and political commentator for MSNBC. Her book is profound but not overly unique as she tackles a fundamentally age-old problem: white fear and flight in the face of a growing perceived threat to white people's social status. This remains an important topic to address as there is a persistent, deep-seated anxiety among many white Americans that African Americans and Latinx, in all their complexity, will become a collective majority population by the early 2040s. This theme has been the foundation for the culture wars that have engendered the far-right politics of yesterday and today. Donald Trump's presidency (2017–21) may have brought forth the vituperative viciousness of white enmity, but it has manifested in the body politic since the inception of the republic.What is both refreshing and pertinent about McGhee's analysis is that she points out the fallacy of institutional racism because of its harm to white America. The idea of lost status is merely a tool in the divide-and-rule armor of those hell-bent on creating division among working-class Americans, whose common economic interests clearly outweigh their differences (i.e., race). This perpetually racialized "zero-sum paradigm" with a winner-take-all outcome only benefits the very wealthy in society. The persistent notion that a gain for people of color is a loss for white people has undergirded the American body politic for quite some time, and one could argue that this sentiment has currently reached an all-time high in society. The far right have bamboozled millions of white Americans into believing their health care and economic well-being are under threat from Black and brown people. McGhee investigates the reasons why this notion is so prevalent and insuperable in terms of its essence. She ponders, for example, "why white people would view the presence of more people of color as a threat to their status, as if racial groups were in a direct competition, where progress for one group was an automatic threat to another" (p. xviii). By maintaining this position, white people resist any social policies that could benefit them largely because supporting them would also benefit people of color. For McGhee this "self-defeating trap" is a conundrum that needs to be encountered with urgency and vitality by those who genuinely care for the welfare of all Americans.She acknowledges the power of conservative media as a massive assault on the way forward for a truly multiracial democracy. That is, a democratic society that embraces the real America as bound up in an inescapable human interdependency, even if certain hate groups and right-wing media fail to accept this. McGhee subtly unpacks this hypocrisy, not wanting to alienate potential white readers. Indeed, her study has an auto-ethnographic, participant-observer approach, whereby she embarks on a personal trek across the nation from Maine to Mississippi to California, endeavoring to comprehend what is lost by this continuous "them and us" backwardness that harms everyone. Again, there is nothing profoundly new here; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed out the essence of what McGhee ponders decades ago. He was prescient in his outlook and espoused the need for the nation to rise above its pettiness, vindictiveness, and downright unfairness in order to pursue the universal needs for health care for all, fair wages, and an end to poverty. It is the latter that hurts all Americans, but white people tend to hang on doggedly to the age-worn delusion that "I may be poor, but at least I'm white," which stifles the possibility that they may comprehend their chance to create a better America that moves beyond racialized thought and practice. McGhee is a keen observer of this error among white Americans—she deserves credit for bringing the discussion to the forefront in a manner that tries to embrace all sides. However, like any sensible thinker, McGhee notes that among the main victims of white supremacy are the majority of white Americans. Is this finding going to be embraced by those who profit from the status quo? No. Indeed, right-wing politicians in Georgia, Texas, and other states are currently setting up ways to suppress the votes of people of color in future elections, simply because they fear losing their power over those very people. This for McGhee is a myopic assault on the fundamentals of democracy that will only do great harm to all Americans in the long-term. What is needed is not further division and a move backward into the crude age of white supremacy. Instead, Americans are much better off embracing an open society that allows for diversity of opinions and people. Stifling those who would want to vote does not bode well for a nation that prides itself on being "free and democratic," even if it does fall short in its practice of such.Moreover, issues such as student debt, healthcare, workers' rights, imbalanced taxation that favors the wealthy, and money and lobbying in politics, to name a few, are universal matters that impact almost all Americans. Yes, racism can be involved in these areas too, but the fact remains that most people in the US are not wealthy, nor do they benefit from the policies that favor the rich. So why does so much ignorance exist? McGhee's book offers an incisive analysis for anyone interested in comprehending the negative cost of racism, which does little to improve the lives of the vast majority of white Americans. Racism, in other words, fails to offer anything of substance to those who rally behind its evil. McGhee is concerned that this continued path of racialized animosity in society will only lead to a "dog-eat-dog race war" as demographic changes inevitably create a minority white America (p. xxi). Crucially, there needs to be a wake-up call among those who continue to ply dubious racial theories that have no veracity or worth other than to continue to divide those who should unite.In being upfront with her main audience, as it could be contended that McGhee is ultimately endeavoring to appeal to white people, she states: "For white people to free themselves from the debt of responsibility for racism past and present would be liberating. But there isn't an established route for redemption; America hasn't had a truth-and-reconciliation process like other wounded societies" (p. 223). The main thrust of McGhee's treatise is to explain that there is no benefit to white America any longer playing a "zero-sum-game" when it comes to racialized hierarchy. That method did not succeed in the past, and it will not succeed in the future. What is required is a continued effort to come to terms with a racist past and present, while offering a multiracial coalition that is grounded in what is best for all to thrive in the richest nation on earth. There should not be, echoing the civil and human rights leaders of the past, poverty in a vast ocean of material wealth. There is plenty of opportunity for all to prosper if only the best of humanity is accentuated and encouraged in all the people.McGhee covers a lot of ground in her poignant, personal interaction with this sensitive subject matter. Her outlook is arguably a tad too sanguine, yet hopeful for the future if indeed the multiracial coalition that voted a racist out of office can build beyond its seven million voter majority. She is, however, concerned about growing social inequality, which could lead to a catastrophe if not addressed. McGhee believes the US is currently in a crisis with a number of related salient tentacles. Without engaging positively with the immense diversity of the nation and its innate power, this current social malaise will continue to produce negative outcomes for solidarity. Essentially, wealthy conservative white men continue, with the aid of lobbyists, right-wing media, and unscrupulous politicians, to peddle nefarious ways of dividing and conquering the vast majority of Americans. Unfortunately, without a rise in critical consciousness that is cognizant of the ways of political manipulation and misinformation, Americans cannot expect significant change in the social order.One could argue that McGhee is ultimately assessing about 40 percent of the voting population who are die-hard in their misplaced beliefs in whiteness. Indeed, over Trump's four years in office, this majority-white cohort was an immovable obstacle that directly or indirectly ingrained racism more deeply into the body politic. Moreover, they could not see the strength in letting go of such a fundamental attachment to a false ideology that created only enmity rather than social solidarity. Yes, the US is in crisis in the 2020s, and McGhee offers a study that is compassionate without losing sight of the ultimate goal embedded in the American credo: uniting the "We" in "We the People." Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels.--M. Christian, Lehman College, CUNYMark ChristianLehman College, CUNY Mark Christian Choice Reviews 58:11 July 2021 Copyright 2021 American Library Association.

Review by Library Journal Reviews

In this highly anticipated debut, political commentator McGhee, board chair of Color of Change and former president of the inequality-focused think tank Demos, uses her economic and social policy expertise to argue that structural racism and white supremacy harm everyone, not only people of color. From California to Mississippi to Maine, the narrative follows McGhee as she interviews dozens of people working in low-wage industries across the United States. Her well-researched and well-documented reporting brings their experiences together in order to fully illuminate the detrimental societal costs of racism. Balancing these personal stories with an examination of the root causes of racial and social inequality in the country, McGhee shows that solutions are not and cannot be one-size-fits-all. And the author makes a convincing case that in finding common ground with each other and rejecting the zero-sum structures ingrained in American culture, we can move forward toward mutual understanding for the betterment of everyone. The inclusion of bibliographical references is an added bonus. VERDICT Essential reading for everyone working on incorporating more anti-racist thought leaders and perspectives into their collection.—Venessa Hughes, Denver Copyright 2021 Library Journal.

Review by Library Journal Reviews

In this highly anticipated debut, political commentator McGhee, board chair of Color of Change and former president of the inequality-focused think tank Demos, uses her economic and social policy expertise to argue that structural racism and white supremacy harm everyone, not only people of color. From California to Mississippi to Maine, the narrative follows McGhee as she interviews dozens of people working in low-wage industries across the United States. Her well-researched and well-documented reporting brings their experiences together in order to fully illuminate the detrimental societal costs of racism. Balancing these personal stories with an examination of the root causes of racial and social inequality in the country, McGhee shows that solutions are not and cannot be one-size-fits-all. And the author makes a convincing case that in finding common ground with each other and rejecting the zero-sum structures ingrained in American culture, we can move forward toward mutual understanding for the betterment of everyone. The inclusion of bibliographical references is an added bonus. VERDICT Essential reading for everyone working on incorporating more anti-racist thought leaders and perspectives into their collection.—Venessa Hughes, Denver Copyright 2021 Library Journal.

Review by Library Journal Reviews

McGhee posits that U.S. disinvestment in civic infrastructure stems from a zero-sum mindset among white people—that if Black people benefit, white people lose. She travels the country to investigate the impact on public hospitals, parks, and schools. Copyright 2021 Library Journal.

Review by PW Annex Reviews

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. (Feb.) Copyright 2020 Publishers Weekly Annex.

Review by Publisher Summary 1

"Heather C. McGhee's specialty is the American economy--and the mystery of why it so often fails the American public. As she dug into subject after subject, from the financial crisis to declining wages to collapsing public infrastructure, she found a common problem at the bottom of them all: racism--but not just in the obvious ways that hurt people of color. Racism has costs for white people, too. It's the common denominator in our most vexing public problems, even beyond our economy. It is at the core of the dysfunction of our democracy and even the spiritual and moral crises that grip us. Racism is a toxin in the American body and it weakens us all. But how did this happen? And is there a way out? To find the way, McGhee embarks on a deeply personal journey across the country from Mississippi to Maine, tallying up 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 collects the stories of white people who confide in her about losing their homes, their dreams and their shot at a better job 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. It's why we fail to prevent environmental and public health crises that requirecollective action. But in unlikely places of worship and work, McGhee also finds proof of what she calls the Solidarity Dividend: gains that come when people come together across race, to the benefit of all involved"--

Review by Publisher Summary 2

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.WINNER OF THE PORCHLIGHT BUSINESS BOOK AWARD • ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: Time, The Washington Post, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Ms. magazine, BookRiot, Library Journal “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.LONGLISTED FOR THE ANDREW CARNEGIE MEDAL