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  • Writer's pictureRobert Birdwell

Acknowledging Racism and Empowering Everyone: A Review of Heather McGhee's: "The Sum of Us"

Heather McGhee’s book The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can

Prosper Together (New York: One World, 2021) changes the conversation about racial and

economic inequality in America. McGhee, a lawyer, chair of the board of Color of Change and

former president of the think tank Demos, argues that racism hurts everyone, including most

white people. She challenges all of us, but particularly white people—whether conservative,

moderate, or progressive—to change our thinking about what divides us and begin re-

envisioning the benefits of solidarity. She takes a fresh approach, neither downplaying the

continuing history of white supremacy in America (3–15), nor predicting that this history is our

inevitable future. Instead, McGhee urges that people work together to make possible a “solidarity

dividend,” enabling, for the first time, the American dream for all (255–89).

In Chapter 1, McGee observes that we have all been conditioned to buy into a “zero-sum” story

of social goods: “there’s an us and a them, and what’s good for them is bad for us” (6). A

conservative version of this story holds that any gain for people of color in jobs, healthcare,

education, etc., comes at the expense of white people. A more progressive version of this story is

that racism benefits white people in the form of white privilege (xix).

The Sum of Us acknowledges the kernel of truth in this zero-sum ideology. McGhee traces the

roots of the notion to colonial America, and the racial hierarchy established by slaveholders and

the legislators and officials who supported slavery. The chattel status of permanent property was

uniquely reserved for black people, while white indentured servants were granted substantially

better status and rights within early America (10). The zero-sum story was constructed and

confirmed through the abandonment of Reconstruction 1 , the enforcement of Black Codes, Jim

Crow segregation and disfranchisement, redlining and racially exclusive homeownership

programs, and a labor movement that was segregated early on and continues to be divided by the

color line.

McGhee’s analysis shows how the New Deal and mid-century public investments in common

goods, which heavily favored whites, were rolled back for everyone as people of color made

progress towards recognition, civil rights, and integration (Chapter 2). She demonstrates that

policies premised on promoting white dominance are now holding everyone back: in healthcare

(Chapter 3), homeownership (Chapter 4), labor organizing and securing decent jobs (Chapter 5),

elections and people’s voices (Chapter 6), education (Chapter 7), and the environment (Chapter


McGhee tells inspiring stories of how some communities are working to abolish their color lines.

These stories alone make her book worth reading. She concludes that the zero-sum story doesn’t

have to be the case: we can abandon racist assumptions and policies. We can imagine new

assumptions and policies, working together to achieve prosperity for all—not just for the super-

rich. This shared prosperity McGhee calls the “solidarity dividend” (255–89).

McGhee’s analysis sheds light on the power of Donald Trump’s “populism.” The American

dream is indeed dead, increasingly so, for Trump’s base of white working-class and struggling

white middle-class voters. This populism, however, gave them nothing but flattery. America

does need to be made great—for the first time activating the full, diverse potential of its people.

This populism does nothing but fragment, and hence weaken, even its proponents.

McGhee argues convincingly for reparations made to descendants of enslaved people. This is a

matter of repaying what is justly due—overdue. This is the fundamental reason for reparations:

“Wealth is where history shows up in your wallet, where your financial freedom is determined

by compounding interest on decisions made long before you were born. That is why the black-

white wealth gap is growing despite gains in black education and earnings, and why the typical

black household owns only $17,600 in assets” (277). Yet McGhee reframes reparations as being

in everyone’s interest: “Just imagine the possibilities if—in addition to rebuilding the pathways

for all aspirants to the American Dream—we gave millions more Black Americans the life-

changing freedom that a modest amount of wealth affords. A 2020 Citigroup report calculated

that ‘if racial gaps for Blacks had been closed 20 years ago, U.S. GDP could have benefitted by

an estimated $16 trillion’” (277).

Some democratic socialists such as Bernie Sanders have rejected reparations and favored, on

principle, “universal” solutions. McGhee argues that this universality reinforces existing

inequalities. She also suggests how reparations and universalism are consistent. Citing legal

scholar john a. powell, McGhee proposes a “targeted universalism,” which involves “set[ting] a

universal policy goal and then develop[ing] strategies to achieve the goal that take into account

the varied situations of the groups involved” (275). What if reparations were one major aspect of

a universal solution, part of an American Dream New Deal that considers the specific needs of

communities, including refugees, immigrants, and rural whites? The zero-sum paradigm is small,

stale, and toxic thinking. Heather McGhee clears the air, then challenges us to think big together

and envision a repaired America and world.

1 Reconstruction (1863–1877) was meant to return the South to the Union and ensure the emancipation and civil rights of newly freed black people. It ended in a deal struck between Republicans and Democrats that sold out black people—and, in turn, poor whites. For an analysis of the legacy of Reconstruction for American politics today, see Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (New York: One World, 2017). For a recent history of Reconstruction, see Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy,

and the Rise of Jim Crow (New York: Penguin, 2020). See also Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (New York: History Book Club, 2005).

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Read my latest essay on repairing society by healing the hatred we carry, published in Tikkun, here.

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