“I’m a white male, and I am prejudiced.” In August 2016 on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, public policy expert Heather McGhee, answered the challenge presented by Garry, a caller from North Carolina. He asked, ”What can I do to change, you know, to be a better American?” The video went viral due to McGhee’s reasoned, compassionate response. Thanking the caller for being honest while acknowledging we all have prejudices, McGhee proceeded to offer advice including, “In order to be a demos that is united across lines of race and class and gender and age, we have to foster relationships. We have to get to know who one another actually is.” When McGhee’s book, The Sum of Us, was published, I was curious to learn more from her. After reading it, I especially appreciate McGhee’s insight into how the mentality of “us and them” was built and how we can break it down.
The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together describes how all ethnic and class groups suffer when racism influences government policy. McGhee researched the roots of economic disparity in the United States and explored causes and solutions from a perspective of unity rather than division. She argues that many problems with wage distribution, education, health care, housing, and environmental policy arise from the concept of a zero-sum game. When citizens perceive one racial group’s gain as another group’s loss, we cannot work for a common good. She documents how everyone loses out when racial hierarchy guides legislation. When public pools are filled with cement to circumvent enforcement of desegregation legislation, all the kids whose parents can’t afford private pools can’t go swimming. Using the concept of the public pool as a central metaphor, McGhee deconstructs how the US reached today’s level of political division and how American society can move forward, allowing all races, ethnicities, and classes to thrive.
Of course, the idea of “what helps you, hurts me,“ goes beyond kids not being able to cool down in a pool in the summertime. The Sum of Us carefully traces trade union busting, healthcare access gaps, rising costs of public colleges, and the sub-prime mortgage crisis back to racial profiling. The resulting wage stagnation, benefit cuts, student debt, and foreclosures affected all racial groups.
McGhee’s empathy raises The Sum of Us to a higher level than some other books I’ve read on similar topics. For example, as a self-proclaimed data nerd, she clearly explains the economics of the 2007-2010 financial crisis but then goes beyond the numbers to show, “what was risky wasn’t the borrower; it was the loan.” I gained understanding not only of the economics of the crisis, but the societal toll. Although predatory loan practices were initially targeted at low-income Blacks, later, the loans were pitched to everyone, regardless of their credit status. Many borrowers were eligible for prime mortgages but were manipulated to accept sub-prime mortgages because of the financial bonanza for the lender. McGhee presents this as yet another situation where racism eventually hurt everyone.
McGhee has coined the phrase “Solidarity Dividend” for the benefits arising from communities collaborating across the racial divide. From minimum wage increases to investment in affordable housing development to improvement in air and water quality, the Solidarity Dividend boosts the economy while enhancing quality of life. “Getting white support to address those different levels of need, and to acknowledge the racism that caused these differences, is never easy – particularly when the zero-sum mental model turns every concession into a threat of loss,” McGhee writes. The Sum of Us demands to be read both for the well-researched documentation of the past and the message for our future.
By the way, Heather and Garry, a disabled Navy veteran, built a friendship. Garry continues to work on understanding racism and realigning his own thinking.
Cherise Tasker is an Adult Instructor and Research Specialist at the Central Branch. When not immersed in literary fiction, Cherise can be found singing along to musical theater soundtracks.