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The Sum of Us
Cover of The Sum of Us
The Sum of Us
What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together
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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...
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...
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  • 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

    Look for the author’s new podcast, The Sum of Us, based on this book!

    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

Excerpts-

  • From the book Introduction


    “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...

About the Author-

  • Heather McGhee is an expert in economic and social policy. The former president of the inequality-focused think tank Demos, McGhee has drafted legislation, testified before Congress, and contributed regularly to news shows including NBC’s Meet the Press. She now chairs the board of Color of Change, the nation’s largest online racial justice organization. McGhee holds a BA in American studies from Yale University and a JD from the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.

Reviews-

  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from January 4, 2021
    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.

  • Kirkus

    January 15, 2021
    A head-on consideration of the costs of American racism. Former Demos president McGhee undertook her first project for the organization by studying credit card debt--which, by the early 2000s, was far more likely to affect Black and Latinx families than White ones. When the subprime mortgage bubble burst, that problem became ever more urgent. However, as the author notes, Congress made it worse when it caved to the demands of the credit industry, after which "many of my fellow advocates walked away convinced that big money in politics was the reason we couldn't have nice things." One senator she overheard in the halls of the Capitol railed that the cause was the irresponsibility of minorities themselves, which set her on a diligent investigation of coded racism in the financial sector, which hinges on the zero-sum assumption that any gain for Blacks, say, would mean a concomitant loss for Whites. Not so. To this day, throughout the old Confederacy, the counties most dependent on slavery are the poorest today. "When slavery was abolished," writes McGhee, "Confederate states found themselves far behind northern states in the creation of the public infrastructure that supports economic mobility, and they continue to lag behind today. These deficits limit economic mobility for all residents, not just the descendants of enslaved people." Compassionate but also candid about the tremendous challenges we face, the author clearly shows how Southern racism extends throughout the country today. Those most opposed to unions, public education, and integration are mostly those at the top of the financial ladder; those lower down, of whatever ethnicity, wind up paying richly. In Chicago, McGhee estimates the cost of segregation is $4.4 billion in income and $8 billion in GDP. Restoring public goods is only a start in addressing those costs; the larger task, she writes provocatively, is getting Americans of all ethnicities to believe that "we need each other." An eye-opening, powerful argument for working ever harder for racial equity.

    COPYRIGHT(2021) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Booklist

    February 1, 2021
    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, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    Starred review from March 1, 2021

    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, LLC Used with permission.

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What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together
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