53 pages 1 hour read

Heather McGhee

The Sum of Us

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2021

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Summary and Study Guide


The Sum of Us (2021) is a nonfiction book by public policy researcher and author Heather McGhee. McGhee draws on insights gleaned from travel across the United States, work at public policy and advocacy organization Demos, and life experience as a Black American woman to examine why racism is harmful to all Americans, not just the people who are most affected by it. In the process, she demonstrates why it is in everyone’s best interest to dismantle racial hierarchies. Upon release, the book became a New York Times best seller. This study guide refers to the Penguin Random House edition.

Plot Summary

McGhee begins the book by expressing her frustration with the conventional view on economic policymaking, which ignores the role of race: “contrary to how I was taught to think about economics, everybody wasn’t operating in their own rational economic self-interest” (xvii). Seeking a more comprehensive answer—and a solution—McGhee decided to travel across the United States, digging into public policy through the lenses of identity, status, and race.

The journey begins with an explanation of the zero-sum hierarchy, which creates a perception that gains by one group in society inevitably result in losses for others (specifically the dominant group: white people). McGhee notes that Black people do not share this framing and do not see their gains as coming at the expense of white citizens. But this understanding of the world is deeply embedded in many white Americans’ psyches, in part because it dates back to the early days of America, when the nation depended on catastrophic losses for certain groups, like the theft of land from Indigenous groups and the enslavement of Black people. What’s more, this understanding has been perpetuated for generations by wealthy individuals with something to gain from dividing the public into a racial hierarchy.

From here, McGhee explores what this zero-sum hierarchy has cost Americans, starting with the loss of public pools over the 20th century. Public pools, which once hosted hundreds if not thousands of (white) Americans, were an attempt to level the playing field by providing a good that was equally available to everyone. But once “everyone” came to include Black people, due to legislation requiring the desegregation of pools, many communities chose to drain and fill in their public pools rather than have white and Black residents swim together. In a parallel way, over the latter half of the 20th century, conservatives cut back public benefits in general, with consequences for middle- and working-class Americans, regardless of skin color. Racism played a role in this, in that it made white Americans reluctant to support government programs, lest these programs help “undeserving” racialized people as well.

In subsequent chapters McGhee examines the role of racism in influencing policy on issues like postsecondary tuition, health care, banking regulation, and unionization. While these systems have broad public benefits, and once helped establish a robust, white middle class through policies like the GI Bill, which paid tuition and living expenses for white World War II veterans, they were undermined and eroded throughout the 20th century, in tandem with the rise of the civil rights movement. The loss of these public goods has disproportionately affected Black citizens, but most of the people impacted are white. In seeking answers for how to address the situation, McGhee looks at campaigns that specifically address racial divisions and, in doing so, advance policies in the public interest.

In Chapters 7, 8, and 9, McGhee considers how ongoing segregation (which still exists by virtue of white Americans choosing to live in largely white neighborhoods and sending their children to all-white schools) and environmental degradation negatively affect white people, even if they consider themselves immune from the consequences. Segregation stifles the problem-solving skills, creativity, and cross-cultural fluency required to live in an increasingly diverse America, meaning that parents who send their children to white schools, thinking these schools will be better, are actually doing their children a disservice. Similarly, white people living in communities where racialized people are impacted by pollution are more vulnerable to the effects of environmental contaminants than they would be if they lived in communities where everyone fought for a healthier environment for all.

In the book’s final chapters, McGhee explores how the ongoing existence of racism harms white people on an emotional and psychological level, due to the consequences of living within and perpetuating an unjust system, and how working together to dismantle racial hierarchies can address the suffering that all Americans experience due to racism and create a healthier, fairer society.