Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

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

Rate 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 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 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: gains that come when people come together across race, to accomplish what we simply can't do on our own.

McGhee marshals economic and sociological research to paint a 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 a zero-sum game.

448 pages, Hardcover

First published February 16, 2021

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Heather McGhee

4 books438 followers
Heather Charisse McGhee is an American political commentator and strategist. She is a former president and currently a distinguished senior fellow of Demos, a non-profit progressive U.S. think tank. McGhee is a regular contributor to NBC News and frequently appears as a guest and panelist on Meet the Press, All In with Chris Hayes, and Real Time with Bill Maher.

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
11,544 (70%)
4 stars
3,930 (24%)
3 stars
705 (4%)
2 stars
92 (<1%)
1 star
47 (<1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,446 reviews
Profile Image for Liz.
2,143 reviews2,760 followers
January 6, 2021
The Sum of Us tackles the concept of racial zero sum - why so many whites believe that bettering the lives of racial minorities comes at their expense. In truth, it’s a concept usually put forth by the upper echelon “to escape accountability for the redistribution of wealth upward”.
McGee takes us back even before the founding of the country to explain how and why this theory came to be. She walks us through history giving us example after example of whites screwing themselves over rather than helping minorities. For example, rather than integrating public pools, they often closed the pools entirely, depriving everyone of the benefit.
I’ve always wondered why so many poor whites, especially in the south, vote against programs that would inevitably help them more than racial minorities. The Affordable Care Act springs to mind. McGee writes about last place aversion as one reason.
But it was an awakening for myself as well. How often had I used the phrase “fiscal conservative, social liberal”?
While she tackles big economic stories, like the decline in union jobs, the closing of rural hospitals because of the lack of health insurance or the subprime mortgage epidemic, the book is easy to read. She lays out her hypotheses in down to earth terms. She intermixes individual’s stories with research to keep the reader’s interest.
Like Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson, this is a necessary read. My first five star book of 2021, I’m betting it will land on many “best of” lists for the year. Having said that, I take exception with one of her arguments that racism is behind the white people’s climate change denial. I felt that argument was a stretch and that the truth is much more down to plain old stupidity and an anti-science/elite liberal bent. Still, that's a minor quibble and my advice is to read this book.
My thanks to netgalley and Random House for an advance copy of this book.
Aside - I finished reading this book just as the Capitol was breached. I can only hope that McGee’s plan for a Solidarity Dividend can take hold with a new, empathetic administration on January 20th
Profile Image for Raymond.
352 reviews256 followers
February 16, 2021
In the January/February 2009 issue of The Atlantic, the writer Hua Hsu wrote an article titled “The End of White America?”. It was displayed on the cover of the magazine beside a large picture of then-President Barack Obama. I don’t remember much about the article but I do remember it made the argument that America was changing into a majority-minority nation in just a few decades. For many White Americans, that is a fearful prospect. Heather McGhee, former president of the think tank Demos, starts off her new book showing how White Americans, regardless of their political ideology, became more conservative on issues when they were told that in a few years they would be in the minority. They tend to oppose policies that would benefit everyone because it might also benefit people of color. She reveals that this is a zero-sum game, Whites think that if Blacks and other minorities are doing better then White people must be losing out. This is simply not the case. In The Sum of Us, McGhee makes the argument that racism hurts everyone, including Whites. She does this by showing racism’s effect on Americans across a variety of policy areas such as education, health care, housing policy, residential segregation, unions, the environment, and more. She shows that racial resentment causes many Whites to have a negative opinion on policies that would benefit them. In each chapter McGhee uses a good mix of history, social science studies, and conversations with real people (whom she describes with vivid detail) to make her points. I personally loved her use of scholarly studies, she has a way to make them relatable to the reader. One example is in her chapter on residential segregation. In it McGhee presents studies that showed that Whites may say they want to live in an integrated neighborhood, but at the end of the day they tend to live in a segregated neighborhood that is at least 75% White. Other studies show that segregated neighborhoods brings more pollution to White people, more so than in integrated neighborhoods. In other words, racism can be a matter of life or death, even for Whites.

She closes her book by covering her five “discoveries” on how we can all prosper together. The zero-sum game that she opens the book up with does not have to be; all of us can address systemic racism together. I think this book will be especially eye-opening to White people who may not be aware of the disparities that they face because of racism. Racism is not just a minority problem it effects everyone negatively. McGhee persuasively closes her book by saying that demographic changes will not unmake America, instead it will fulfill America. Overall, Heather McGhee has written a powerful must-read book. It definitely belongs on the shelf alongside other popular anti-racist works.

Thanks to NetGalley, One World, and Heather McGhee for a free ARC copy in exchange for an honest review. This book will be released on February 16, 2021.

Review published on Ballasts for the Mind: https://medium.com/ballasts-for-the-m...
Profile Image for Jenna ❤ ❀  ❤.
810 reviews1,267 followers
April 28, 2021
"The zero sum is a story sold by wealthy interests for their own profit, and its persistence requires people desperate enough to buy it."

It's mind-boggling that many poor white people vote for a party that consistently works against their best interests. A party that works for millionaires and billionaires and corporations, lowering their taxes and paying for it by cutting programs that benefit everyone. 

What does it take to get someone to support politicians and policies that harm them? They do it by placing the blame on the people with the least amount of power and wealth, rather than where it belongs: on corporations that exploit workers, refusing to pay them a living wage or benefits. If you can convince people that people in even worse situations than them are responsible for keeping them down, then they fail to see who the real culprits are. And they don't fight for their rights.

In The Sum of Us, Heather McGee investigates the way that corporations and billionaires do this, and how from the inception of the United States, we've bought into a zero-sum paradigm. One group has to be exploited in order for others to benefit. One group has to be poor in order for others to have enough. 

Republican politicians and the wealthy play this game, railing against welfare queens and lazy immigrants who are stealing everything from the hard working white people who really deserve more. Poor white people could be rich if only the government wasn't taking all their tax dollars to support bums. They would have more if others weren't being given the jobs that should go to white people, preferably white males. 

It's almost funny how they paint minorities as hand-out grabbing loafers, getting everything for free.... and also as the ones who are stealing jobs from white people. Where is the logic?

With penetrating insight, author Heather McGee shows how racism keeps alive the zero-sum paradigm, and how it harms not just minorities but also white people. And yet the majority of white people vote for the party that works against their best interests. Time and again, white people show they would rather do without than to allow Black and brown people to share what they have. And if minorities suffer more (and they do), then whites can still feel superior.

From filling in public pools when they were ordered to be desegregated, to opposing universal health care because it means Black and brown people will also benefit, many white people vote to keep the wealth and power and goods in the hands of white people -- even though the wealth and power and goods are in the hands of only a few white people.... and the rest go without. 

Ms. McGee analyzes the mentality that allows this to happen and it is disgusting. I cannot at all understand how someone without access to health care would support a politician who opposes giving them health care. Or who doesn't support unions which would work for their rights as workers - better pay and benefits - because unions also help minorities. Why would someone not want affordable college education just because it's affordable to everyone and not just white people? 

This mentality is asinine!

And yet, even as they swear they're not racist, so many white people prefer to do without rather than allow minorities to share the goods. As Ms. McGhee says, "The majority of white voters have voted against the Democratic nominee for president ever since the party became the party of civil rights under Lyndon Johnson." The majority. 

This has allowed our middle class to shrink and the massive wealth of the US put in the hands of fewer and fewer people. It has allowed us to create the most expensive health care system in the world with many people, including whites, unable to afford to see a doctor or get treatment when they're sick. It means a college education is accessible to fewer and fewer young people. It allows corporations to poison our air and drinking water. It keeps workers down and unable to support their families. It means subprime loans and hundreds of thousands losing their homes. It means everyone suffering the disastrous consequences of climate change.

The sub-zero paradigm hurts us all.

Ms. McGhee shows that we have to change this all-or-nothing mentality, this belief that one group has to suffer in order for another to succeed. Hardly anyone succeeds when we think (and vote) this way. 

Instead, we need to see how we're all in this together and we need to see that minorities are not to blame for white people's problems. If you're poor, it's because of corporate and billionaire greed, not because immigrants have stolen a better paying job from you or because Black people have eaten up all the government's money. 

I don't know how we can convince people to abandon the zero-sum paradigm and yet we must if we are ever to move ahead and to make this country a true democracy and one that works for all instead of just the very wealthy.

The Sum of Us is highly readable and informative. In case you're worried, know that it doesn't bash white people, though it does ask us to look at how we support and benefit from racist ideas and policies. It also shows how those same racist ideas and policies harm us. 

White people need to stop fearing that Black and brown people will seize power and treat whites as we've treated them for so long. We need to stop thinking it's either "us" or "them". We need to see that we're all in this together and can all benefit from progressive policies and from ending white supremacy. 

My only complaint about this book is that the author paints the Democratic party (to which I belong) as all-good. It's not. There are many racist people among Democrats and there are Democrat politicians who create and support policies that harm minorities. It might be less than Republicans, but Democrats are not perfect and have a long way to go. We need to remember that when we are voting in primaries, and choose the candidates who display the least amount of racism and who at least profess to work for the good of all. 

This is a book I recommend to those wanting to learn more about historical and institutional racism in the US or anyone wanting to work on undoing their own racist conditioning. 

4.5 stars rounded up.

As Ms. McGhee says, "The fallacy of racial hierarchy is a belief system that we don’t have to have. We can replace it with another way of looking at each other as human beings." Terrific advice!
Profile Image for Julie .
4,077 reviews59k followers
May 13, 2022
The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee is a 2021 One World publication.

This is one of those books I think everyone should read. Sadly, though, it will probably only land in front of those who are the most receptive to hearing this message. That said, even if you have already had an idea, even without reading this book, the toll of racism in our society, I urge you to read this book. It is packed with example after example, with proof and research to back it up, how racism affects everyone.

McGhee began this journey after overhearing a conversation which propelled her to research racism in the world of finance. Her findings expose raw truths, but sadly, I wasn’t surprised by her findings.

The study on hospital closures is one I can personally attest to.
It puts everyone at risk- no matter what your income, social status, or race might be. In fact, the number of hospital closures in my state is at a crisis point and is a real issue in my neck of the woods.

People who allow racism to cloud their thinking tend to back policies that work against their own best interest, apparently unable to see how they are shooting themselves in the foot. We are talking about basic, reasonable things like education, safe work environments, health care, good neighborhoods and home ownership.

But the author doesn’t just expose the problems- she also offers solutions and hope. Instead of what helps you, hurts me- it is more like what helps you, also helps me- we all benefit from the right policies.

Though the task ahead looks and feels overwhelming, and the author doesn’t sugarcoat that in the slightest, the reader is nevertheless inspired to continue fighting the good fight.

Overall, though it may sound redundant, this is a book I wish everyone would read with an open, receptive frame of mind. Although the presentation can occasionally be a wee bit dry- the book is easy to read and digest, is well organized and researched, and is important, informative, and makes a whole lot of sense.

4+ stars

*Note: The text takes up only a little over half of the digital book- with the other half dedicated to notes-so just FYI- the book isn’t as long as it appears.
Profile Image for Cheri.
1,796 reviews2,389 followers
February 16, 2021

’The white citizens burned the edifice of their own government rather than submit to a multiracial democracy.'

The above quote references an election in 1872, but is, perhaps, more relevant today.

I began reading this on January 8th, two days after the attack on the Capitol, made for difficulty concentrating. I am pretty sure it took me as long to read this as it did to read Lonesome Dove, despite it being less than 450 pages - the essays comprise 61% of the book, the remainder including Acknowledgements and Notes - vs. 864 pages. This is an important, and impressive collection, and I wish I’d read it earlier, and not on the heels of the inexplicable destruction, mayhem and craziness that took place.

On the other hand, it made me appreciate this collection even more.

Racism exists, despite so many people not admitting that, and we all pay for it, one way or another. If we are not the target of racists, we all still pay for it in other ways. The history of racism still permeates virtually everything in the United States, although it is not the only country where it happens, but this covers racism in the U.S., with some focus on the racism targeting those who emigrated from other countries more recently.

This isn’t limited to the kind of racism that relates to day-to-day interactions, as much as the way that it is shown in more insidious ways, as well as tackling the history of racism in such areas as credit card debt, shady subprime mortgages targeting primarily Black, Hispanic families, or others, which varies from place to place, and personal hatred based on personal racist views. Throw in those Whites who believe that if non-White people have financial increase, it is at their own financial loss.

But the loss doesn’t stop at just a monetary loss.

’Racism actually has a dehumanizing aspect not only for those who experience racism, but [also for] those who perpetuate it… Jewish tradition articulates...that everyone is stamped in the image of God.’ - Rabbi Felicia Sol

Racism destroys every path to that promised land, for all of us. As Wendell Berry writes, “If white people have suffered less obviously from racism than black people, they have nevertheless suffered greatly; the cost has been greater perhaps than we can yet know.”’ (quote from Berry’s The Hidden Wound)

Racism has a cost, and it is one for which we all pay.

Published: 16 Feb 2021

Many thanks for the ARC provided by Random House Publishing Group - Random House / One World
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews601 followers
September 5, 2021
Audiobook read by the author Heather McGhee
….11 hours and 8 minutes

Packed with thoughts-facts-wisdom-and historical details about how racism is the root problem — the core dysfunction — of our democracy, financial crisis, student debts, the housing crisis, anti-government- and distrust…..
…..that racism is driving ‘all’ inequality for ‘all’ people.

American economy has been Heather’s field of study - her specialty since early adulthood.
The stories she includes - real stories - are eye-opening.
She shared how progressives and conservatives might be able to find common ground.
I finished listening to this highly qualified brilliant woman (with such sincerity and goodness in her voice), that I feel freshly reinvigorated.

“We’re all living at the bottom of the pool drain”.
“We ‘have’ to refill the pool”
Profile Image for Barbara.
285 reviews246 followers
December 18, 2021
"We are so much more when the "we" in 'We the People' is not some of us, but all of us. We are greater than, and greater for, the sum of us".

This thought-provoking work should be considered the companion book to Isabelle Wilkerson's Caste. Both authors do an excellent job of relating racial problems but from different perspectives. There is little redundancy. Heather McGhee is an economist, an economist who believes racism and white supremacy were "created by public policy and public policy should solve it."

What floats your boat also floats mine and the opposite, what hurts me hurts you too is McGhee's premise. How this idea has been sabotaged to divide us and benefit some at the cost of others is examined using many different examples. When a law required municipal pools to be integrated, many towns and cities drained them. Hurting everyone? No, only those who weren't wealthy enough to join swim clubs. Busing to integrate schools led to a huge increase of private schools, schools available only to the wealthier and whiter. Toxic waste sites and landfills are most often located in poor sections of cities. While the air may be more noxious in these locations, the unhealthy air blows over rich and poor neighborhoods. The benefits of the G.I. Bill did not benefit black veterans due to discriminatory housing restrictions. Redlining, marking maps by race to characterize the risks of lending money and providing insurance, was openly racist. The sub-prime mortgage fiasco, exclusion from training programs and many other examples are cited. But McGhee has hope.

She visited the city of Lewiston, Maine where an influx of Somalis and other African refugees revitalized this formerly flourishing industrial town. The influx resulted in the economic woes being reversed. Positive relationships between the newcomers and natives developed. Pride returned as the Lewiston Blue Devils soccer team, comprised of kids from six African nations, won the state championship three years in a row. (The book One Goal by Amy Bass tells this touching story). The author visited other cities that have had similar economic and interpersonal benefits in spite of politicians' harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric.

The "solidarity dividend" McGhee contends, would help us all, but it is being thwarted by elitist groups, political figures, and the right wing media. By perpetuating fear, the "them and us" myth prevails, the "divide and conquer" rather than "united we stand". Just as workers fought to be unionized, as suffragists fought for the right to vote, we, all of us, need to confront the injustices in our country and make it the"perfect union" it can be.

McGhee's book should be required reading. The message can make the reader uncomfortable (as it did me) at times. Often it was alarming. It is not a book to be skimmed nor read quickly. At the very least, it makes you think. At most, it may move you to become less complacent and heighten your awareness of the hidden compliance of injustice in our society. Four stars only because it is not an easy to digest book, but it is truly amazing. I highly recommend it.

"Yet I realize I pursue my professional calling not only to improve the economy, but also out of a belief in the unseen: a promised land of a caring and just society."
March 28, 2023
Heather McGhee gives us an eye-opening, easy-to-read, compelling, fresh look and something different to consider besides the treatment and discrimination against people of color. She challenges the idea that racism is a zero-sum game by examining the hidden cost of racism to everyone. Drawing on her personal experiences and extensive research, she argues while giving examples of how racism manifests itself in different areas, such as how it limits healthcare, education, the environment, housing, and other essential services and, in turn, costs money that harms all.

Heather McGhee arguments and things to consider/ My takeaways

Slavery was one of the most profitable economic models, built on free labor from captured African people at little to no expense of slaveholders. They were a "silent profit."

The "idea" that White people suffer due to the gains of people of color is a lie, and consider who benefits the most from this lie.

How do the disadvantages of people of color benefit middle-class or low-income white people, and how do racial resentment and dog whistle politics play into that?

The emotional cost to White Americans: feeling of hate, resentment, hate, and guilt leading to defensiveness, shame, and denial. Pitted against "them" and the cost and toll of living in a divided world with "us against them." Would a fairer economy benefit more white Americans emotionally?

Separating and pitting communities against communities robs us of contact that reduces anxiety. The more we interact with people who are different from us, enhances our ability to empathize and connect to other communities.

She uses "the drained swimming pool" as a metaphor to show us how racism has harmed us all. Grand public pools were drained and cemented so that no white or black people could enjoy them.

"We live under the same sky," McGhee writes. And she gives us plenty to think about and consider how we all can benefit together under that same sky. I highly recommend it!!

I received a copy from the publisher through NetGalley.
Profile Image for Brian Griffith.
Author 6 books239 followers
November 23, 2021
I’ve read lots of books on history and social issues, but I generally felt they were about “other people.” This one was about me. This one clarified the realities I’ve lived but never understood. How come the public swimming pool I played in as a child was closed down, buried, and left as an abandoned lot? How, in a free market, could it happen that almost everybody on my side of town (south Corpus Christi) was White, and the Blacks and Latinos were almost all residing in “their” sides of town? How come the schools I went to were almost all white long after the 1954 Supreme Court ruling against segregation, and the schools in east Austin had far less money than the schools in west Austin? Why were all of Houston’s garbage dumps located in Black neighborhoods?

McGhee explores the big story of how a range of invisible walls arose, how those walls continued to shape life even after some of them were removed, and how inequality has been more a function of policies than of personal attitudes. Her investigation explains the social boundaries I grew up in. She also shows how those boundaries have limited the opportunities for almost everybody, regardless of whether their skins are white, black, or brown. Finally, McGhee presents story after story of success in achieving a “solidarity dividend.” When people consider what’s best for the whole, undivided community, employment, investment, innovation, health, education, safety, and the environment can all improve. This book is the most effective refutation of the “zero-sum” story, where some have to lose for others to win, that I’ve seen.
Profile Image for Traci Thomas.
590 reviews10.5k followers
December 26, 2021
This book is major. The book aims to show that racism (and more specifically white supremacy) are why we can’t have nice things as a country. McGhee breaks down the systemic oppression in things like public education, student loans, environment justice and shows that the system is designed on a zero sum basis which hurts Black and brown people but actually hurts all Americans. It’s a pretty powerful book and the writing is top notch.
Profile Image for Julie.
Author 6 books1,855 followers
September 12, 2021
When I returned to the States in early 2008 after living in New Zealand, I was keenly aware of the impending financial disaster. The collapsing housing market had already hit the U.K., and by cultural, political, and economic extension, Australia and New Zealand, months before the first unsettling frissons were felt in the States. I became fascinated with the crisis and read every article and listened to every interview and syndicated show my liberal media mainstays like the NY Times and NPR offered. I knew all about subprime mortgages and credit default swaps.

Not once in those two+ years of following the wobble and ultimate collapse of the world economy did I hear talk of the true origins of the financial crisis in the United States: the introduction of subprime mortgages in Black and brown neighborhoods in the 1990s. This predatory lending was first tried out on vulnerable homeowners — those with the least access to fair capital and the least protected by consumer regulations — before the process was perfected and turned out to the wider public in the 2000s.

Why the omission of this vital aspect of our recent, shared, painful history? Whether deliberate or not, I think it points to the central premise of Heather McGhee's brilliant and illuminating book: white people — liberal or conservative — won't or can't conceptualize racism as a problem that affects them until they are shown how heavily they bear its costs.

McGhee uses the literal metaphor of the cemented-in swimming pool to show how far we (whites) have gone to cut off our nose to spite our face: swimming pools across the US were drained and even filled in with cement when municipalities were ordered to integrate in the 1950s. White America showed it was more willing to deny access to a city pool to everyone than to allow a Black body in its waters.

This ingrained racist myopia led to the election of Donald J. Trump in 2016, when millions of votes were cast in fear and anger by whites who felt left behind in a country increasingly Black and brown. They defaulted to racist scapegoating of the dreaded "other" for their job losses, income inequality, more expensive healthcare, impossible housing costs instead of placing responsibility where it belongs: on corporate America and tax, health, education, and economic policies that benefit an extremely select few: the wealthiest one percent.

McGhee targets issues that we all embrace as core values and shows how racism has corrupted our systems and harmed each and every one of us, including voting rights, Social Security, health care, education, and housing and advocates for a multi-racial approach to defeat the zero sum game that supporters of systemic racism have long promoted.

Although I believe that racism can be defeated on an individual level by integrating communities, I'm not so naive to believe that's ever going to happen on any meaningful level unless we focus on changing systems: laws, policies, practices. You can expend all the energy you want arguing Critical Race Theory, but until we make it a priority to work in solidarity — McGhee's Solidarity Dividend — to overhaul our legislation, crush corporate and big money lobbying and eliminate barriers to public goods and services, e.g. health care, housing, education, and the ballot, we'll be stuck in an endless loop of virtue signaling on social media.

Black and brown folk have carried the greatest burdens of the pandemic, with their limited access to quality health care, their predominance in "essential" jobs that make them physically vulnerable, and distrust of a public health system that has used and abused them so often in our history, and now public sentiment is once again "othering" those who are hesitant to be experimented on once again. Tragically, the pandemic has only widened the gap between the rich and poor of all colors - the laptop class that is free to lockdown at home and send their children to private schools vs those who service their needs- and I fear it will ratchet up the zero-sum game chatter to an even greater frenzy come the next election cycle. It's on liberal, white America who has benefitted the most in the weird, twisted turns of the pandemic to make certain this doesn't happen, but I don't hold out much hope that our increasingly-divided nation will find its footing before then.

This is an extraordinary book — engaging, fascinating and vital. It's a workbook, really — opening the possibility that with the macro issues that McGhee presents, we have the opportunity to take it micro- what are the zoning policies in our counties and municipalities? Who has access to transportation, to school busing, to the ballot box. We have it in us to question and change these policies. Will we?

A note: I was interviewed for and am briefly featured in The Sum of Us. It was honor, albeit humbling, to have shared my awakening to my own racism and continued work to unlearn that which does harm, and to learn and relearn positive action in my journey toward solidarity.
Profile Image for Maxwell.
1,172 reviews8,385 followers
February 13, 2023
My city's public library was offering this book to all Libby users in February with no wait, so I decided to pick it up for something a bit different—I'm so glad I did! This was the exact kind of non-fiction that works for me: a blend of research (citing real studies & experts) with personal investigation and experience of the author herself. All told, this was a thought-provoking, inspiring and compelling read that I would highly recommend.

In The Sum of Us, Heather McGhee argues that the 'zero sum game' of American economics and politics—the idea that for me to 'win' then someone else must lose, or vice verse—has only ended up hurting more people than it helps, and specifically that policies and practices that hurt poor Black communities also hurt the majority poor white communities too. However, if we take up a 'solitary dividend' mindset and cross racial barriers to work together, there will be more and more impactful change.

She covers a wide variety of topics with a good amount of depth in each chapter. From health insurance and housing, to public education and unionizing, McGhee looks at people across the socioeconomic spectrum, both Black and white, to make an argument for solidarity that doesn't rely solely on a moral obligation (because unfortunately, we know that morality has justified this hierarchical structure that enables racism in the U.S. for so long).
Profile Image for My_Strange_Reading.
533 reviews87 followers
April 24, 2021
Gosh, I learned so much from this book.

Everyone--no matter your race, creed, religion--loses when we allow prejudice to overtake us.
Thank you, McGhee, for explaining how historical policies and legislation have led to us to a place where we don't even understand what is helping and hurting us anymore.

This book was challenging, difficult at times to read, but oh so important.

I would highly encourage you to give it a read or listen.
Profile Image for Lawrence Grandpre.
115 reviews26 followers
February 26, 2021
A good attempt to point out some of the ways the seemingly race-neutral logic of austerity has deeply racialized undertones. Some of the arguments around white folks assuming they are hurting black people but really are hurting themselves as well are compelling, especially the "spillover effects" of environmental racism hurting white communities' health.

The text however is hindered by a lack of cohesion in its analysis and some glaring omissions. While austerity is critiqued, the text blames this solely on GOP race-baiting, ignoring the violent austerity of 3rd way Clinton-ism. Besides a light critique of Bloomberg the text seems to fit neatly within a Blue team good, Red team bad manachian thought system which simply does not map onto the reality of how racialized austerity has functioned at a local level, with Democratic mayors being a critical agent of racialzied austerity. The budding school of Afropessmism has been arguing for nearly 15 years much of what the author seems to have just discovered around the psychic wages of whiteness creating a libidinal anti-blackness that impacts public policy, yet none of those authors are cited. Other scholars who have done work on this issue, such as David Theo Goldberg and Randolph Hohle, are not cited, leading the author to adopt positions that a brief reference to their work would help them realize her arguments at times contradict themselves. she notes that integration was an economic boom for the south ignores Derreck Bells' analysis that this shows that Whites only grant concessions when it is in their economic self-interest and Hohle's analysis that the cost for this integration was the neoliberal austerity and policing the author critiques. The author seems to believe that if we only educated folks politics would change and has no analysis of political power. There is not a critique of finance capital besides noting their role in the mortgage crisis and campaign donations, a fact which leads her to adopt a dangerous YIMBY ("yes in my backyard")argument around rezoning being key to racial equity when it is well known some of the biggest advocates for residential rezoning are large real estate corporations looking to build more dense condos and apartment buildings on residential areas, a move know to create gentrification. The author's championing of multiracial coalitions ignores the logical argument that, if all redistributive policies trigger anti-black resentment, that a logical alternative strategy is to build black political power to protect the community from this pattern of backlash. Black power and Black organizing are not mentioned in the book except to tacitly be critiqued as "triggering the 0 sum response of white people", making the text about anti black resentment a subtle critique of independent black political organizing when it so easily could have been a full throated defense of building independent Black political power. After all, Robbert Bullard's analysis of environmental racism showed it was the lack the political power to fight the power plants and incinerators which led them to be placed in Black communities. This text shows all the reasons why white people won't be convinced by the argument "this is gonna hurt you", but then says "educating them is your only hope" and tried to double down on a tactic the entire book says has not worked. To her credit the author owns up to her emotional commitment to having hope in a multiracial America, basically saying the thought of this not being true is too painful to bear. Painful or not, I believe we must look unflinchingly at the reality of this situation and respond accordingly by building the power we need so that our lives are not subject to whether or not white people realize their humanity is tied up in mine, a realization this text flirts with but ultimately can not come to embrace.

Just because that realization is painful doesn't make it untrue.
Profile Image for La Crosse County Library.
571 reviews159 followers
December 22, 2021
4.5 stars out of 5 stars

"The narrative that white people should see the well-being of people of color as a threat to their own is one of the most powerful subterranean stories in America. Until we destroy the idea, opponents of progress can always unearth it and use it to block any collective action that benefits us all."--The Sum of Us, pg. 15

The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together (2021) features a comprehensive look at how we're all harmed by racism. Largely, anti-racism advocate Heather McGhee points out that, throughout history, those with power have used a "zero-sum narrative" to forestall systemic changes, as in one group's gain is a blow to the power of another group.

The cover of The Sum of Us features a swimming pool. McGhee uses the example of white communities purposely draining and then paving over their public pools rather than integrate in the Jim Crow era as a larger metaphor for how the larger collective of citizens has severely drained their resource pools--economic, social, and political--when enacting/perpetuating racist policies so that an Other won't benefit at their expense.

While reading this, I couldn't help but think about and draw from the ideas presented in Isabel Wilkerson's Caste (2020) about the corrosive affects on America that come from maintaining a racialized caste system--the shunting of resources to the top of the pyramid, people seen as more deserving of them, because they must be superior to everyone else if they're there. How else could they be at the top, if not for their hard work?

This conveniently ignores the institutionalized barriers that keep many people of color on the periphery of prosperity, and as McGhee argues, keeps many white working-class people as well from achieving a stable life. In other words, racist policies targeted at black and brown people have claimed collateral damage among the people taught since the founding of the country that they were better than people with darker skin.

Welfare reforms shot down because of a racist trope of "bums" and "welfare queens" taking the tax dollars of hardworking citizens while living the good life. Medicaid expansions nixed in some states because of a view that the government is subsidizing undeserving immigrants rather than those more deserving (read: white people). Electoral "reform" making it more difficult for people of color to vote in elections. (Examples of this cited are DMVs disproportionately closed in communities of color in states that require such photo ID as drivers licenses to vote and straight up purging of the voter rolls without adequate notice, forcing people to register to vote again.)

If McGhee uses the pool metaphor throughout The Sum of Us, I'm going to add one here just because: How are we to right the American ship, to keep it from capsizing? McGhee cites multiracial coalitions--when people of different backgrounds find common struggles to unite around and then fight to change their circumstances, resulting in a "Solidarity Dividend" that truly lifts the boats of all of us. (Okay, I'll stop with the cliched nautical metaphors now.)

Of course, to reap the benefits of such cooperation, we all first need to understand our history as it actually is, as it highlights the problems that need to be addressed to move forward to an America that really practices its democratic ideals in a more egalitarian fashion. That's a tall order on its own--it's been a difficult, ongoing reckoning on my part--because the narratives we were taught are well-ingrained, but they are the blinders we need to take off to see clearly (oops, another metaphor).

The pandemic has provided a useful backdrop to see visibly the contradictions and inequalities of our society and has made it easier to make bigger changes in how we live. Maybe this will be the first big step we take together?

The Sum of Us is important reading for all of us citizens trying to do good, and I am hoping that this invaluable work can be a book club selection for us next year.

Happy reading!


Find this book and other titles within our catalog.

See also:

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (2020) by Isabel Wilkerson
**This book will be discussed by our book club in November. Please visit our website to access a copy of Caste through our catalog, Hoopla, or Libby.**
Profile Image for Lisa (NY).
1,549 reviews604 followers
February 16, 2022
An excellent, well-researched and readable book that approaches racism from an economic and political perspective. It is a hopeful book - McGhee discusses how the US could be more than just the sum of its various parts. As GR friend Barbara says, this would be an excellent companion book to Wilkerson's Caste.

"We must challenge ourselves to live our lives in solidarity across color, origin and class; we must demand changes to the rules in order to disrupt the very notion that those who have more money are worth more in our democracy and our economy."
Profile Image for inciminci.
397 reviews72 followers
July 20, 2022
A fantastic book.
I have seldom read an author who can put up and examine an utterly upsetting, hurtful and harmful issue in a calm, professional way and then bring realistic solutions the way Heather Mc Ghee does. There are things in this book that left me speechless to learn as a non-American and it's really worrying.
I listened to the audiobook but I'm a fan now and will buy the physical book also, as I think it should be in every home library.
Thank you so much @Whitney for the recommendation, please keep recommending!
Profile Image for Michelle.
653 reviews183 followers
March 7, 2021
When I received this widget back in December I hadn't heard of Heather McGhee. Then I saw the accolades for this book from Ibram X. Kendi, Eddie Glaude and Alicia Garza. I took time to pull up her TED Talk. Instantly I was captivated by her message. She just wasn't conveying an idea but she had brought the receipts.

Every point made in The Sum of Us was founded in fact with numbers and human stories. It was obvious that The Sum of Us is the result of an incredible amount of research (See Notes pages 295-397)

What motivates people to put different policies in place is not necessarily for their own well being. Heather McGhee explains how many are moved by what she describes as a type of "end sum game". They believe that if someone else gains something that it must be at a loss to someone else. We cannot envision a win for someone else as better for all of us. Kind of like crabs in a barrel, those at the bottom do not want to see the person who is just above us gain ground. They would rather suffer themselves than lose their position one rung higher on the ladder.

Throughout the book McGhee gives several examples where policies and practices are put in place that hurt not only the intended party but everyone. In the Sum of Us we learn how these behaviors brought about the Housing Crisis of 2008, the Student Debt Crisis and voter suppression laws.

McGhee captures the human element in her thesis so that readers do not get lost in the statistics and research data. This book is immersive and reads fairly quick. I am glad that I bought a hard copy of The Sum Of Us. It is definitely a book that I will be coming back to read and to reference.
Profile Image for Desmond.
16 reviews
June 7, 2021
I picked up this book somewhat reluctantly. It was assigned for my job's racial equity and inclusion working group book club. I don't take book recommendations from just anyone, so I was reasonably skeptical when one of my white coworkers raved about the book and suggested it as our next read. But I decided to give it a chance if nothing else to be an informed participant during the book club discussion. (Evidently, I must love arguing with people of no color about racism in America.) I wasn't familiar with McGhee prior to reading her book and was pleasantly surprised to learn she's a fellow Chicagoan and Yalie. Most notably, McGhee led and transformed the progressive think tank, Demos, into the political powerhouse it is today. As a policy wonk whose professional career has focused on economic inequality, this book sits squarely at the intersection of my personal and professional interests.

McGhee starts with a simple question: Why can't we have nice things? Why can't we, the United States of America – the most powerful and wealthy country in the world – have a functioning healthcare system? Or reliable infrastructure? Or well-funded schools? The question has a simple answer: racism.

The underlying premise of the book is that racism prevents us from having nice things, prevents us from solving the solvable issues in our society. White society operates under a zero-sum paradigm where any advancement of people of color must come at their expensive. In an effort to maintain (real or perceived) white dominance, the white power structure willingly sacrifices the wellbeing, prosperity, and even lives of its own people in order to continue the subjugation of people of color. As long as their (perceived) relative position is above that of people of color, it doesn't matter what their absolute position is or could be. In the book, McGhee calculates the harm racism causes not just to people of color, but to white people too. "Racism has a cost for everyone."

The book takes us through McGhee's personal journey from childhood to her time at Demos to her cross-country tour she took to research the book. During that tour she interviewed scholars, organizers, and everyday people about race in America. McGhee provides illustrious example after example of how this zero-sum ideology is weaponized to the detriment of both white people and people of color. McGhee takes a deep look at the healthcare system during Medicaid expansion, labor organizing during the fight for $15, the environmental justice movement, the housing and financial crisis of 2009, and other key moments in modern politics. She lays bare how racism has played an insidious role in each of these policy issues even when race didn't seem to be an explicit factor. Truly, everything is about race.

While the book is heavy on the prognosis, McGhee does provide a vision for a way forward. Throughout the book, she gives examples of how we can counter this zero-sum framework and build cross-racial solidarities to forage paths toward progress. She calls this the solidarity dividend, the mutual benefits we can attain by crossing lines of race, building coalitions, and challenging the status quo. The final chapter explores this idea of the solidarity dividend and positions it alongside other frameworks like john a. powell's targeted universalism. McGhee eloquently structures her argument, but I was left wanting for further exploration of the last topic – how does this idea of a solidarity dividend manifest into the systems change we need to dismantle white supremacy. (Perhaps for a future book.)

This was a solid read. Not only did I learn a lot, I came away with critical frameworks for understanding public policy. Honesty, I wish I had read this earlier in my professional career. It would have proved foundational and certainly will going forward.
Profile Image for Wick Welker.
Author 6 books382 followers
June 7, 2021
We're all in this together.

McGhee achieves a beautiful summary of the racial ails of American culture, economy and politics with The Sum of Us. The main thrust of this work is that the racial history, racial resentment and political racecraft wielded by the powerful have a monolithic impact: all people of all colors are harmed. Of course, people of color are disproportionately harmed, but white people largely get swept up in the social harm of destroying social programs and fostering the false idea of zero sum racial games.

McGhee argues that while biological racism certainly exists, there was a post-civil rights shift from biological racism to cultural racial resentment. This was a concerted effort in the 1970-80s by plutocratic libertarians and think tanks to foster this image. Racist policies ensued including destroying unions and racist crime bills. By sanitizing racism as “fiscal responsibility'' and casting black Americans as a drain on the government, neoliberal policies were primed to take over. And yes, most white Americans bought the message.

Key question: who suffers most from cutting social programs? The answer is white people. Many white Americans unwittingly support politicians and policies that clearly harm them as well as their black and brown neighbors. This is a pattern we can see over and over again. The real agenda behind all of this is to blunt government power and concentrate wealth which becomes its own competing form of government. White people are hurt by these policies because it lowers their support for government actions that will help them out. Most white voters do not understand how political racecraft works.

The great irony is that white Americans have traditionally benefited from government social programs. From the Homestead Act, the GI Bill, free college, Social Security, Medicare The FHA, HOLC, redlining and racist convenes—the vast intergenerational wealth that white people enjoy is because of government policy that directly benefited them. The Black generation was born too late to take advantage of these programs because the federal government was basically a de jure apartheid. So what do politicians do today? They convince white voters that instead of social programs helping white people, they disproportionately only aid black and brown people who do not contribute to the workload. This racial resentment is then weaponized to subvert the federal government’s role in the overall good of the entire community of Americans.

With the Reagan policies that commoditized education, we now have soaring student loans (which earlier white generations never had to deal with) with outsized burden on POC but also on white people. White and Black people use drugs at the same rate, yet the racist crime bills of Reagan and Clinton put Black Americans in prison at 6x the rate. When GOP states refuse to accept Medicaid expansion money, it harms all people of all color who are basically in the wild west when trying to seek employer based health insurance.

Subprime loans and predatory financial products hurt black American most even when they qualified for normal loans. A re-enforcement of age-old racist logic was employed: Black people are credit risks. Subprime loans were designed to be unaffordable and were targeted onto credit-worthy Black Americans. Wells Fargo took prime loans and made them subprime to make more profit. Black and brown people were 8x more likely to be steered into subprime loans. The subprime loans were designed to drain equity as they were mostly for refinance and not for first time owners. The results? A global economic disaster that harms all people of all color.

White people are actually more segregated than POC. They live in neighborhoods that are 75% white. Cities that are more segregated have more industrial and toxin exposure which affects all people of all colors. White poor families can’t afford the “good schools” because of the racist policies put in place to protect white wealth. Shelby vs Holder has been an epic disaster for voting rights. Do policymakers who are reigning in voting believe that this will not impact their white constituents?

Public policy created this problem. Public policy needs to fix the problem. Social dominance theory explains a lot of this: the dominant racial cast only sees with zero sum eyes. The reality is that we are all part of the same sum and we are in this together. We can put up fake barriers all we want but public policy disasters affect everyone. White fear is a force that is constantly manipulated by dog-whistle politics and the result is more concentration of wealth and harm for all.

This book was outstanding. I wouldn’t say I heard any new information as many other books cover the same material (The Color of Law, New Jim Crow, One Person No Vote, Hood Feminism, Mediocre and others) cover everything here. What McGhee does well is take a lot of info out there and sums it up. If you haven’t read a book about race in America, this is a great place to start.
Profile Image for Kimba Tichenor.
Author 1 book115 followers
February 13, 2021
A thought-provoking read that will make you rethink everything that you thought you knew about racism.

Heather McGhee, political commentator and former President of Demos (a progressive think tank) has written a book with a deceptively simple premise: Racism costs everyone. The harm that racism does society, while disproportionately affecting people of color, also harms working- and middle-class white people. Sadly, too many white Americans have fallen for the lie propagated by wealthy white elites that if a minority group makes gains, it is at the expense of the dominant white race. The success of this zero-sum paradigm has resulted in a large portion of white Americans voting against their own best political and economic interests. As a result, the gap between the haves and have notes in this United States has skyrocketed since the 1980s; today, nearly two dozen companies have CEO-to-worker pay gaps of over 1.0000 to 1 and the richest 1 percent owns as much wealth as the entire middle class.

To show how this economic disparity arose, the McGhee documents multiple instances in the twentieth and twenty-first century in which racism diminished the lives of all Americans, including the mass closure of public swimming pools by states in the 1950s and 1960s to avoid federal laws requiring integration, the American Medical Association’s communist fear-mongering campaign in the 1950s to block Truman’s efforts to pass universal healthcare legislation, the subprime banking crisis in 2007, and the current Covid-19 pandemic.

This story of the disempowerment of working- and middle-class America can only be overcome, she concludes if we: 1) Recognize that we have reached the productive and moral limit of the zero-sum economic model that had driven US history from its inception. 2) Establish a social safety net for all, not one limited to any one racial or ethnic group 3) Accept that although racism has hurt all, it has disproportionately hurt persons of color; this means we must accept that there are different levels of need in different communities and address those needs accordingly. One size does not fit all. 4) Realize that we do in fact need each other, that is replace the zero-sum mentality with one of solidarity and 5) we must write a shared history that is not based on myths and lies.

I would like to thank the publisher, the author, and NetGalley for an advance copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.
Profile Image for Michael Perkins.
Author 6 books375 followers
February 23, 2021
The author's thesis is: “It is progressive economic conventional wisdom that racism accelerates inequality for communities of color, but what if racism is actually driving inequality for everyone?”

The author proceeds to prove her case with stats and many stories. I was familiar with much of the material already from other books.

The book linked below, which came out two years ago, has the same thesis, but is 100 pages shorter. It might be better to start with this one.

Profile Image for Barry.
900 reviews37 followers
October 16, 2021
2 stars (= “okay”). There are some good points here, but overall I found this book disappointing.

I was hoping that this would be a book that shows how racism harms everyone, including white people. A book that demonstrates how our entire country benefits when every segment of our society is given the chance to pursue the American dream. That if we could remove the barriers to success that impede those who have historically struggled the most, then we would all win — not just those who would seem to be the most obvious beneficiaries of making an unfair system more fair.

But this wasn’t that book. Instead this is just another Leftist political book that uses racism as a bludgeon against anyone who might oppose progressive policies. Apparently the subtitle actually means that we “can all prosper together” if we simply accept the socialist policies of the progressive Left, but unfortunately, racism is preventing us from achieving the promised socialist utopia.

Why would poor whites ever vote against government programs that are designed to help poor people? By McGhee’s reckoning, the reason must be that whites living in poverty are so racist that they would prefer to continue to suffer rather than to allow poor Black people to be helped. They are even willing to support positions that harm themselves as long as they know that some Black people will be harmed even more. Perhaps I’m just being naïve, but this explanation strikes me as exceedingly unlikely.

McGhee is unable to understand why anyone would otherwise vote for policies that don’t seem to immediately benefit themselves. Perhaps they don’t believe those policies would actually be beneficial? After all, there are many historical examples of programs that end up harming the very people they were intended to help. Or maybe they believe that different policies are better for the country overall even if they personally are impacted negatively? I would hope (or wish) that this is how most voters think, rather than just voting for any law—just or unjust—that gives themselves an advantage over others.

Are there truly no legitimate reasons why anyone should be skeptical regarding the touted benefits of raising the minimum wage, instituting government-run health care, or eliminating the Electoral College? Shouldn’t we be able to debate these issues without assuming that the opposition has the basest of possible motives?

To me, it seems that using racism in this way is merely a tactic— a political strategy to convince poor Black people that they are poor only because of racist whites therefore they should vote for progressives, and to try to convince those whites of good will that it is their own latent racism that is keeping some people poor, therefore they may absolve themselves only by voting for progressives.

This book is not without some merit. In fact, I agree with some of McGhee’s policy proposals, and she also does a decent job of showing how Black families were harmed by government policies that further entrenched segregated housing, contributing to a reduced average Black household wealth today. However, this subject is better covered in The Color of Law, and I would recommend reading that instead.
477 reviews151 followers
April 26, 2021
An extraordinary work, as I expected. I can think of no one I'd rather meet than Ms McGhee. (It's not impossible: Apparently her mother doesn't live very far away from me... OK, a guy can dream, right?) She's extremely smart, knowledgeable, generous, and has a gift for presenting information in an accessible and ingratiating way. I would have really enjoyed an opportunity to ask her questions about some of what she says.

Her argument is a compelling one. And original in its approach. America has long bought into a zero sum paradigm in its thinking about race, politics, and spending: 'If "They" get something, it means something is being taken away from me.' It's an emotionally powerful argumet on the face of it, but it's also completely wrong. In "The Sum of Us," Ms McGhee demonstrates convincingly how we all pay the price -- in wages, access to health care, productivity, quality of life, education for our children, college tuition, voting, and countless other ways. Not in any abstract way but directly, measurably, and in ways that become quite inescapable once one begins to see it. Countless decisions that elected officials make about money and policy are driven by a racial bias, and they end up costing White citizens far more than POC. The determination by southern towns that they'd rather drain or fill public pools rather than integrate them serves as a symbol for what has been going on in the country for a very long time. (McGhee's examination of Medicaid rules in southern states is a mind-boggling example of how this kind of cynical racial bias plays out.)

The publisher's description (above) summarizes the book well. There's nothing I will add.

I truly wish every American -- OK, every White American -- would read the book. Or listen to Ms McGhee speak. I'll leave it at this.

PS: Why 4 stars instead of 5? I guess it's partly because I've heard the author speak on several podcasts, so I was familiar with much of what she covers in the book. Also, I felt that the suggestions she makes at the end of the book were too... I don't know what word to use. I absolutely agree with every single one of them but I can't see much chance for them to be enacted in the real world, not to the extent that we need. I would be thrilled to be proven overly pessimistic.

Oh, and Ms McGhee does a splendid job narrating her book.
Profile Image for Dawn Michelle.
2,412 reviews
February 21, 2021
This is a book that will quickly become a "must-read" book as it is filled with some amazing information about the "zero-sum" phenomenon and takes a deep look at why white people continue to sabotage themselves just to make [what they deem] life harder for those who don't share the same skin color as them [Black people, Brown people, Asians, Immigrants etc]. This book is filled with story after story of the history of the "zero-sum" issues and how it has and continues to hurt everyone, not just the targeted group. This is, for the most part, a very easy [if not frustrating and angering] read, though there are parts that were, for me, very dense and a little above my pay-grade, but I will freely admit here that I know little about mortgages [the chapter I really struggled with] and so it became a tough read for me there.

The research here is top-notch; the author knows what she is talking about and this is written in a clear and concise way that almost anyone can understand. And it is much needed. Unless we understand what is going on around us, how can we change the damaging behaviors? This book is a good way to both learn and start. Very well done.

Thank you to NetGalley, Heather McGhee and Random House Publishing Group - Random House/One World for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Simone.
1,474 reviews45 followers
May 25, 2022
"According to authoritative American National Election Studies (ANES) survey, 65% of white people in 1956 believed the government ought to guarantee a job to anyone who wanted one, and to provide a minimum standard of living in the country. White support cratered for these ideas between 1960-1964 however, from nearly 70% to 35% and has stayed low ever since. The overwhelming majority of Black Americans had remained enthusiastic about this idea over 50 years of survey data."

Hmm. What was it that happened in August 1963? Oh that's right, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. You know the one where MLK Jr. gave that historic speech, and advocated for civil and economic rights. And so once the definition of who would be considered the "public" changed, so too did white support. When they could comfortably believe that white people would be the only beneficiaries of government support, they supported it whole-heartedly, but when non-white people started to suggest that some of that economic promise belonged to them as well? Well that's a horse of a different color.

That story is essentially what this book is about. Time and again you will learn in the variety of ways that given the option of sharing their toys with everyone, white people will instead pack of their toys and go home at the notion that they might be required to share those toys with non-white people. McGhee also deftly shows that this position doesn't come out of simple prejudice. Instead it's an idea sold to largely poor or working class white people at the benefit of the elites, who profit from under-investing in programs that would help everyone.

McGhee tallies 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. There's always money for millionaire tax breaks and never enough for medicaid expansion, when in truth there is money for it all. However, it might harm the millionaires, slightly, and we can't have that. That's where the fear and the racism come in handy.

This book is the answer to every time you have thought to yourself, while looking at an article about maternity leave or child care in Nordic countries, or subsidized health care in the UK, why can't we have nice things? I implore you to read this book. McGhee narrates the audiobook, and it's very well done. (Aside from making me want to scream in literal frustration).

Also don't believe me on the packing up their toys thing? Wait until you hear about how many cities literally drained their public pools rather than let non-white people swim in them. It kills me inside literally every time I hear it.

2022 re-read Re-read for a book club in the wake of the shooting in Buffalo from a gunman who followed the "great replacement" theory. As if we needed more proof that this zero-sum narrative is unproductive and dangerous. Read this book.
Profile Image for Andy.
1,452 reviews481 followers
August 2, 2022
The main message is important: racism is manufactured by those in power to divide the 99% against each other so those on top can get away with murder and laugh all the way to the bank. I saw something recently where someone called this "wealth supremacy."

Unfortunately, I don't like this style of writing where the author takes on a gigantic topic by telling us how she went to Toledo to talk to this person and then she went to Atlanta to talk to the other one and drove around and here's what they saw, and this is the anecdote from her own life that it brought up to her memory. Also, I found much of this to be old information, for example that the subprime crisis and the Great Recession were because of crooked bankers, not because of government mandates to give mortgages to first-time home buyers.

The recommendation at the end of the book is to have something like the Truth and Reconciliation process that happened in South Africa. This also seems like a good point, but without connecting the dots more about how and why that worked in S.A., it's not all that convincing that it could work in the U.S.A.. It doesn't seem to be something that would undo the mechanisms by which the wealth supremacists keep stoking racism; maybe the idea is that it would both cure people and immunize them against the disinformation. ?

Some related titles I enjoyed more:
How to Be an Antiracist
Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth
Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud
The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine
A People's History of the United States
Detroit: An American Autopsy

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi Dark Money The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer The New Jim Crow Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander Hoax Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth by Brian Stelter Crisis of Conscience Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud by Tom Mueller The Big Short Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis
A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn Detroit An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff
Profile Image for Mara.
456 reviews
March 5, 2021
The Sum Of US by Heather McGhee is truly one of the best books I have read on racism and social justice in America. McGhee does a phenomenal job synthesizing how history, public policies, and perspectives have fallen short for all of us. The core thesis is that the Zero Sum assumption has harmed all of us and that we are in fact much stronger when we work together for policies that benefit the public. Zero Sum assumes that resources/jobs/money are limited, so if another group gets some, you will get less. This line of thinking simply is not true and acting this way, actually damages the majority of Americans by denying/voting against services that would benefit all, such as health insurance/care, voting rights/access, public infrastructure/schools, labor unions, etc.

Each chapter is devoted to public services provided in all other wealthy Western countries, many that were once provided here to white citizens, that we no longer have vast access to. Some of the topics include: Public Parks/Pools, Home Ownership + Predatory Lending, Environmental Protection/Regulation, Voting Rights/Access, Labor Unions, Segregation, etc. As the country and public policy has supposedly become less racist, it has drastically cut many services that would benefit all and increase the wealth, stability, and fulfillment of the majority. Corporations have reaped the benefits of division and poor public policies, money has gone to the top, which has created ever-growing wealth inequity and disparity. McGhee posits that the solution is unifying and integrating ourselves for common purposes, which will help us find strength and community. She references multiple situations in which people have come together for a common goal and had dramatic successes. This is a remarkable book and should be read by all Americans!

Thank you Random House / One World and NetGalley for providing this ARC.
Profile Image for Jessica.
231 reviews9 followers
April 7, 2021
“White fear can exist only in a world turned upside down.”
~~Abraham Lateiner

What a stunning book by author Heather McGhee.
“America has lied to her white children for centuries, offering them songs of freedom instead of the liberation of truth.”

McGhee uses sociological data, historical anecdotes, and interviews to paint a picture of the zero sum narrative and its through line through all sectors of American life.
Succinctly put: the zero sum story tells us that if people of color have equitable access to education, healthcare, rights, or money, that white people always lose out when that happens.

Using this framework, she makes a strong case that contrary to what white people have been taught to fear, we all lose out when we propagate the zero sum story (then make policy off this model). Literally, we would rather drain the pool and fill with concrete rather than let everyone swim. White people would rather forgo public goods like transportation, healthcare, solid union jobs etc... if it meant that black people would benefit as well. When this happens we all lose out.
McGhee posits the “solidarity dividend” as the antidote to the zero sum story.

I listened to this via audiobook and enjoyed McGee’s cadence and structuring of the chapters.
Profile Image for Maureen Grigsby.
898 reviews
June 22, 2021
Definitely a 5 star book. This book brilliantly explains so much of our shared history, in ways that opened my eyes to new interpretations. McGhee’s fundamental premise is that we ALL get farther ahead and ALL benefit by supporting each other. And that shows me that white support of black businesses is something we can all do. There are at least two black owned bookstores in Kansas City, which I am interested in supporting. Anyway, this was an excellent book!
Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,446 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.