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“The Sum of Us” A Final Review

This is my last post on “The Sum of Us.” I’m sure I’ll reference it in future posts, but this is the last “official” book review.

Let me say this before I start, this is an excellent book. I recommend it to everyone.  If I had stars, I’d give it 5 stars.  That’s what I gave it on Amazon.

As you know I’ve already written a few reviews of this book already, a short one after the first few chapters, one when I was in the middle of the book, then one when I finished up. I’m not going to rewrite what I’ve already written, necessarily.  What I want to do is a summary of the book and why I Iike, no love it. I’m going to do a brief bit on Heather McGhee’s background because it is unique for an African American woman, in my opinion, then I’ll finish up this review with how we fix this mess.

Why I Love This Book

What Heather McGhee did was to crisscross the country,  from New York to California to Austin to Chicago and a bunch of other places in between, talking to and interviewing people.  She talked to people, people including local government officials to people in labor unions, and just everyday people,  about situations where race impacted their circumstances and or their decision-making.  The openness of their thought processes, in real-time, was not necessarily surprising but the impact those decisions have had on ‘all of us’ was a bit breathtaking.

This is a history book.  From the Introduction and throughout “The Sum of Us” Ms. McGhee integrates the history of the United States including key events, significant legislation, and court decisions,  as well as movements into current policies and attitudes of ‘all of us.’ Both while you’re reading the book and after you finish, you will hear the news differently.  Your perspectives will be forever changed or they should be with facts under your belt.

The premise or recurring theme or thesis behind Heather McGhee’s book, “The Sum of Us: How Racism Costs Everyone And How We Can Prosper Together” is that we, the United States, adopted this ‘zero-sum’ paradigm at its inception, particularly around race, and how it is been to the detriment of ‘all of us.’  What she does throughout the book, from beginning to the last chapter, is give example after example of how some White people and their politics are driven off this theme if they win, we lose, irrespective of the damage to the country. The last chapter proposes a plan for “reconciliation.”  It’s hard to appreciate the thesis and how she proves it without reading the book.  After you read it you will hear the narratives put forth by Republicans differently, even if you already are disgusted by what they put out there. 

If they, non-White people or the politics that support non-White people win, we lose, or “you” lose!  If “they” are for it, we have to be against it. What we have in this country is not a partisan divide, we have a racial divide.  The only people that benefit from this divide are the wealthiest 1%.  Race is used as a lever to influence public policy and invariably the beneficiaries are the wealthiest 1%, not White people in general, the wealthiest 1%.  Unfortunately, the poorest White people, because of racial hate, have bought into the paradigm, if it benefits ‘them’ I’m against it, even if it hurts me.

There are a few examples that I will summarize but I would encourage you to read the book (obviously) to appreciate the significance and the full context of these examples.

First, what was highlighted in most of the press coverage (release) of “The Sum of Us” is the closing of public pools in the 50s.  Local governments chose to close public pools rather than integrate them as was required by a change in the “separate but equal” policies of Jim Crow. Not only were the pools closed, but they were also filled in to become gardens or park space.  So the resource that was enjoyed by White people, was removed, denied because of the refusal of local governments to allow Black folks access to the pools.   This happened all over the country which led to the expansion of “private clubs” that included swimming pools “for a fee” that limited who could swim, both Black and White. This ‘drain the pool’ narrative is referenced throughout “The Sum of Us.”  It has been a consistent theme in American life since, well, forever.

One of the chapters of the book is entitled, “Never a Real Democracy.”  The title of the chapter speaks volumes. The content in the chapter should make every American angry.

No person in this country or even around the world can argue that the US was NOT formed to include every person in the country, not even all White people and most definitely women. The preamble to the constitution, the part that starts, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union….,” that part is a lie, kinda! Non-White, non-land owning, non-male people, were excluded from the “We the People of the United States” part. The founding documents of the country defined who was included in the democracy.  The founding documents of the country defined who was included in the democracy.  I wrote that twice, on purpose.  The country was never intended to be a “real democracy,” that included everybody.   What Ms. McGhee lays out in this chapter is the slow, painful evolution of our attempts to be more inclusive. She shows what it has taken and what needs to be done to bring truth to the “We the People of the United States” part, of those founding documents.  

From 1619 to 1965 (the passage of the Voting Rights Act), the process has been deadly for many including Native Americans, Black folks 3/5ths of a person), Hispanics, Asian Americans, and many others.  Her narrative of the expansion of who should count as “White” to dilute the voting of non-Whites should be a wake-up for ‘all of us.’ 

Since “The Sum of Us” was published earlier in 2021, before the Georgia “mess” it does not reference how this attempt to limit participation in democracy is nothing new.  This is why I say, after reading the book you will hear the news differently.

What Heather McGhee points out in the early chapters of “The Sum of Us” is the inherent conflict between democracy and capitalism.  You do know that capitalism and democracy are not the same, right? I’ll deal with that in a different post.  What we, the United States, have evolved into is an oligarchy.  An oligarch is where wealth is concentrated in the hand of a few. In the United States, almost 40% of the nation’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of less than 1% of the population. In “The Sum of Us” Ms. McGhee brilliantly points out that the 1% desires to prevent the 99% from demanding they, the 1%, broadly support democracy.  By support, I mean to use any of their wealth to provide for things like public schools or infrastructure by being taxed to support these items. I’m sure you thought I was heading down a “socialist” path.  That discussion goes into a different post.

What the book does, is show how the oligarchs use race to leverage public policy to achieve their goal of not just, “not sharing in the responsibilities of democracy” but enacting policies, including tax policy to ensure that is not the case.  This is not theoretical. It is documented in the book by Nancy McLean, “Democracy in Chains: The Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America.”  The effort to “separate” America is led by people and organizations like the Koch brothers and the Mercers, billionaires, and ardent supporters of the far rightwing of the Republican party.   What Ms. McGhee lays out in “The Sum of Us” is frightening.  What Ms. McLean lays out in “Democracy in Chains” will lead to the death of democracy in the US, for ‘all of us.’  It seems hyperbolic and it would be, if it were not documented and playing out before us, in real-time.

Let me give just a little more insight into the content of “The Sum of Us” and finish the review with “How We Can Fix This Mess.”

There is an area of “The Sum of Us” that reminded me how things have been, particularly in the housing market where I have spent a significant part of my professional career.  This content was not new to me but looking at it through the lens of Ms. McGhee and from a policy perspective made me angry.  It might not make you angry but it should make your view of “the haves and the have nots” and the way doors close when, ‘all of us,’ might have the opportunity to participate in benefits that have been reserved for ‘some of us.’

“Socialism” is a dog whistle. It is an economic policy embraced by some countries as well but when used by White folks in the United States, particularly those in governmental leadership, it is a dog whistle. In his book, “Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class” Ian Haney-Lopez talks about many of the dog whistles used by White, mostly Republican politicians, to influence elections and public policy.  “Socialism” is one of those dog whistles.  Unfortunately, socialism is not only a dog whistle for White folks but also non-White folks and Black folks, in particular. We have been conditioned to think that “socialism” is giveaways for undeserving people or government giveaways for lazy people.    

Throughout “The Sum of Us” Heather McGhee discusses the many “programs” that benefited White folks, almost exclusively, but when Black people got the opportunity to participate in these same programs, they were deemed as “socialism.”  I won’t discuss all of them, otherwise, it would be a rewrite of an outstanding book. However, I feel a couple of these areas are too important to not mention for fear that many of you, most of you, won’t read the book.  

First, let’s talk about housing. 

Most people know about redlining or at least have heard about it, the policy or practice of not lending in some areas, particularly minority, low-income areas.  The historical narrative is not 100% accurate.  Ms. McGhee gets it right and the truth is a bit numbing. Let me explain, briefly, what she says and what happens in practice now.

Redlining was not, originally, a “bank-driven” policy.  Redlining was a government, a federal government-driven policy.  The federal government created suburbs with low-cost, easy to access mortgages via the “Home Ownership Loan Corporation. The limitations on the program were not directed at White folks but Black folks.  The government dictated where the loans could be used and “redlined” those areas where they couldn’t be used.  The redlined areas were primarily urban areas or areas where Black people lived. As abhorrent as that is, even more, abhorrent is that the White areas, the ‘not redlined’ areas were deed-restricted against Black buyers.  In short, this was one housing “giveaway,” exclusive to White folks, created by the federal government.  

The other housing “giveaway” was included in the GI Bill, the program that provided or now provides support for veterans.  As some may not know, the VA provides 100% home loans for veterans. Before you go there let me help you out.  When this program was conceived, Black veterans were not intended to be participants in this program.  Many reasons were given for them to not be “eligible” for the program and even if there was a way for them to be “eligible” they could not buy homes in the “non-redlined” areas. Millions of White veterans took advantage of this “giveaway.” Is that a surprise to you? It shouldn’t be.  The government tried to prevent Black soldiers from participating in wars, why wouldn’t the government try to prevent Black folks from participating in programs created with White ‘men’ in mind?  

Between the FHA program and the Veterans, GI benefits, millions and millions of White Americans were enriched by these “socialist” programs.  Enriched in this context means that the wealth creation process for many White folks was aided and abetted by the federal government.

That was then, this is now?  Hmmm, not so fast. One of the chapters in “The Sum of Us,” ‘Ignoring the Canary’ discusses the origins of subprime lending for housing.  The subprime mortgage business started in the late 1990s in African American communities in North Carolina.  There was a class-action lawsuit after many African Americans lost their homes and wealth as a result of these “new loans.”  The banks that provided the loans lost the lawsuit and paid millions to settle.  Ms. McGhee interviewed the lead plaintiff of the lawsuit to get details on how it started and how that lawsuit should have ended the subprime mortgage industry.

As a mortgage veteran and long-time participant in the mortgage industry, I was stunned. I had no idea this happened or was happening when I first came to the industry. Here’s the part that shocked me even more.

The subprime industry should have ended with the settlement of the class-action lawsuit. This was the canary in the coalmine.  No one paid attention to the practice or the lawsuit because those harmed, the communities that were harmed were African Americans.  Rather than the industry being stopped, it expanded, taking a disproportionate toll on African Americans and more broadly on the US economy.  This devastation costs, ‘all of us.’  Only, if only, the racist practices had stopped when the dangers were first revealed.

Racism is still happening in housing and commercial lending.  It’s not even subtle.  I had a banker tell me that he would not do a loan for a client that was trying to buy an apartment complex in a low-income area.  I quote, “I don’t think I want to lend in that area.  It seems kind of dangerous.”  Why do you think low-income areas stay low income? Why do you think there are “food deserts” in low-income areas?

Here is the last point I want to make then let’s talk about Ms. McGhee and the fix.

You do know the government provided “free college” to White America, right?  Free or near-free college was available well into the late 70s. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and others “shocked” the country with this radical, alleged “socialist” agenda that included “free college” and forgiveness of college debt.  What they were advocating was not new.  It may have been “socialistic” in nature but that wasn’t’ the problem, not in reality. The real problem was who would benefit.  Let me explain with just two examples.  You can read more in the book.

The GI Bill, which I mentioned above relative to housing, provided free college to veterans, millions of veterans.  I know your question or thought is the same as it was with housing, “that was available to Black veterans.” The response is the same with a bit more emphasis.

First, Black veterans were told they were not eligible for “free college” and when it was determined they might be eligible, many, most were steered to trade school instead. Nothing wrong with trade schools but four-year college degrees provide an opportunity for higher-earning, “White men’s jobs.”  I used “men’s jobs” purposefully.  You know women were not necessarily included in the military and the related military benefits until very recently, right?

There is so much more included in “The Sum of Us” but I will leave the area of “free college” with this. California provided free college, including bachelor’s degrees at its public colleges, for all California residents until around 1978. In 1978 California passed Proposition 13, limiting the increase in property taxes. The argument given by proponents (mostly White people) of Prop 13 was that California provided benefits to too many Brown people.  At the time the population growth of California was projected to make California the first minority-majority state in the US, which it has since become.  White people didn’t want to pay for college for Brown people.  It’s the “drain the pool” effect.

A final thought on “free college.” College in general, up to the late 1980s was primarily paid for with federal grants.  I was the beneficiary of federal grants. Remember the BEOG (Basic Education Opportunity Grant program) Grant? Me and many of my college friends benefited from grants that paid for tuition, housing, books, and most of the “expense” of going to college.  As Black, Brown, and other non-Whites begin to take advantage of these programs, their availability diminished, for ‘all of us.’  The cost of college now is almost prohibitive unless your family is wealthy enough to self-fund OR you deprive yourself of future wealth by borrowing to pay to go.  This is to the detriment of ‘all of us.’

The Sum of Us is the best non-fiction book I have read, thus far.  There is so much that Heather McGhee covers.  It’s impossible to cover and my related opinions in a very long book review.  It is a must-read.  Here’s more.

Who is Heather McGhee?

A friend of mine asked me, “Who is she?” Ms. McGhee is a 40 something-year-old social scientist.  I don’t know if that’s her official role but that is what she does.  She’s incredibly smart.  She doesn’t say this in her book, but she reveals enough information to let you know she is “privileged.” How many people do you know that have attended boarding school? Although boarding school is not rare, it is rare for Black folks.  Not every Black person attending Yale or Cal Berkeley is privileged. To think that would be absurd. If we’re privileged enough to have that opportunity, chances are we would be the only Black person not only in our class but in our school.   She was both. Heather McGhee went to undergraduate school at  Yale, then law school at Cal Berkeley.  Ivy League schools are nothing new for African Americans.

Heather McGhee

After Yale one of her employers was an organization named ‘Demos.’  She is a former president of Demos. Demos is a “policy think tank,” for liberal policies. You probably don’t keep up with this stuff but there are a ton of “policy think tanks” for right-wing or Republican issues, like The Heritage Foundation which you may have heard of. What think tanks do is research and analyze various public policy issues and then seek, primarily legislative, solutions to intact laws favorable in the interest of the causes they champion. Right-wing think tanks seem to get more press than organizations like Demos, in part because they have much, much larger budgets. As I mentioned in an earlier post,  She’s also an author and TV commentator.

The thing that comes across to me in “The Sum of Us” is that she’s a little naive, not in a bad way but yet, naive.  I think her youth and her privilege are huge contributors to her naivete. Her naivete does not in any way inhibit her ability to effectively talk through how race has and continues to divide us, Americans.

How Do We Fix This Mess?

My short answer is, I don’t know.  There is no easy answer. 

Race has been an issue in the United States since 1619 before it was an independent country.  It can be argued that race is the central issue of the United States.  You can make the argument that of all of our “other” issues, race is at its root.  Some progress has been made over the last 400-plus years but there is a concerted effort to erase many of the gains that have been achieved over the last 50-60 years and those gains didn’t “fix” the problems with race relations.  It’s baked into our DNA as a country.  So how do we fix it?

Derrick Bell, a Harvard Law professor and scholar on race makes the argument that “Progress in American race relations is largely a mirage, obscuring the fact that whites continue, consciously or unconsciously to do all in their power to ensure their dominion and maintain control.”  It’s hard to disagree with his assessment.  He was also of the belief that we will never, ever solve the issue of race in America.  That seems so, “disheartening, hopeless,” if those are the right words.  Mr. Bell sheds no or little light on the question of how can we fix this mess?

The last three books that I have read, Robert Reich’s, “The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It;” Ian Haney-Lopez’s, “Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism & Wrecked the Middle Class,” and Heather McGhee’s, “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone And How We Can Prosper Together” all layout in vivid detail the current problems we face in this country.  Each author attempts to provide a solution to get us to where we can “prosper” together.  Let me summarize each and perhaps collectively they present a path forward for us.

In “The System,” Reich details how we got to this place on inequality. Not just race-based inequality but the wealth gap between the 1% of the richest people and the rest of us. We, as a country, don’t call ourselves an oligarchy but given the distribution of wealth, that’s what we are. Reich details the money in politics; the legislative agenda, and economic policies that have gotten us to where we are. He touches slightly on how race has been leveraged into a policy and economic agent that continuously benefits the wealthiest 1%. 

Reich, like the others, spends all but one chapter detailing how we got here.  Like the others, the last chapter is reserved for “the fix.”  Reich’s proposed fix for the inequality is primary legislative.  He suggests Congress pass legislation to take the money, PACs out of politics.  That would help but that is not a “correction.” That doesn’t’ close the wealth gap and I’m not sure it will do much to keep the gap from widening.  We would need a major overhaul of our tax policy and governess to make any progress in closing the gap.  This would take generations, even though it didn’t take generations to get here.  Reich’s “fix” does nothing for racial inequality.

In “Dog Whistle Politics” Ian Haney-Lopez proposes two fixes to deal with the “coded appeals” that are negatively impacting the middle class and Black people more broadly.  Haney-Lopez’s centers around leadership in the Black Community.  He proposes that “strong” leadership work to craft policies and galvanize Black people to vote, despite the noise. 

Keep in mind that “Dog Whistle Politics” was published in 2013-2014, just after the start of President Obama’s 2nd term.  That’s obviously before the bullhorn used by Trump to promote White Supremacy.  The galvanizing of the black vote and pressing for a more centrist or left policy agenda didn’t happen in the lead-up to the 2016 election. Trump and his administration couldn’t have provided a more perfect example of what NOT to do as part of Haney-Lopez’s “fix.”

The other thing that resonated with me is the “fix” in “Dog Whistle Politics” of calling out racism and pointing to racism whenever we see it.  In the book, Haney-Lopez makes the argument that most White people will reject racism when they can see it as an appeal to influence them.  Again, remember this book was written or published in 2013-2014.  I don’t think Haney-Lopez could have imagined that 74 million Republicans, about 98% of them White, would fully embrace a racists president, racist appeals, and a racist policy agenda.  However, I do think that Haney-Lopez is right, we must never, ever be silent in the face of racism.  We can’t let racists be comfortable being racists, regardless of who they are or where they are.

Finally to the fixes proposed by Heather McGhee in “The Sum of Us.” McGhee titles her final chapter, the chapter where she proposes fixes, ‘The Solidarity Dividend.’ Clever, yes? It is as the title implies, we all benefit when we work together.

I’m only going to address a couple of things because I trust you’re going to read the book.

Before I get to my points, I want to remind you that Ms. McGhee’s background is in public policy.  She’s a social scientist so it should come as no surprise that her fixes are rooted in changes in public policy, particularly those policies that have hurt non-White people.

The fix I want to address first is housing.  In “The Sum of Us” Ms. McGhee goes into detail about how we got the wealth gap.  Homeownership is the biggest wealth builder for most families.  Heather details how we got to the homeownership gap the resulting wealth gap between White and Black families in this country.  Not only is this an important topic, but it is also one of the many fantastic discussions in “The Sum of Us.”

What Heather McGhee proposes is that we, as a country, use the redlines that the government created to provide down payment assistance, targeted investment, to create wealth in these communities that were deprived of wealth generation during the 50s. The relined maps still exist, literally. Those communities are still devastated as a result of the public policy that deprived them. 

The last thing I will highlight as one of the fixes presented in “The Sum of Us” is the “Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation” or TRHT project.  In short, TRHT calls for the true recognition of the origins of hate within our country, within our states, within our counties within our cities, etc.  The recognition of these truths is important before we can begin the reconciliation and healing necessary for us to prosper together.  It seems idealist but many of these efforts have begun in large and small communities throughout the country, with entities focused on TRHT.  One such group is in Dallas. The Dallas group’s initial report is included below.  It is too early to appreciate the success or benefit that TRHT will have on our communities but Ms. McGhee in “The Sum of Us” holds out hope these THRT will have a lasting impact on ‘all of us.’

Here are my final thoughts on fixing this mess, long-term and on “The Sum of Us.”

Focus and commitment!  When we got through the 1960s, the legislative end of Jim Crow, I think we relaxed.  It’s difficult to separate the end of Jim Crow, the assassinations of Martin Luther King III and Robert Kennedy, and our collective exhale as a nation.  That is probably worded awkwardly and reads like the assassinations of MLK and RFK allowed us to breathe.  That’s not what I’m saying.  What I am saying is that the convergence of all of these events, in the same year may have caused us to lose our focus and commitment to fixing or continuing to fix the issues related to race in America.

The hate that lies within people most likely will never go away. Unfortunately, hate is not resigned to individual people but many people within a certain race of people.  Damn, that sounds horrible to write and to say but in 2021, after the presidential election of 2020, 74 million people voted for not just hate speech but hateful policies. 97% of those people were White.  That is not to condemn White people since the 84 million people that voted the other way included large numbers of White people in combination with non-White people.

The solutions provided by Reich, Haney-Lopez, and McGhee all require commitment and focus on a legislative agenda, a long-term legislative agenda, that puts into place fixes for the policies and programs that prevent “us” from being our best, programs that benefit, ‘all of us.’  Democrats, if that is the party that is going to be committed to these solutions must have strategies that extend beyond the next presidential elections.  The Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s was born from strategies that extended decades, centuries before 1960. If we are going to “prosper together,” political, social, and legislative strategies must be developed and implemented to extend for the next four years, the next 10 years, and the next 100 years.  Hate does not go in presidential cycles and neither should our strategies to combat it go in presidential cycles.

Finding or identifying “leadership” to get us there is a challenge, cohesive leadership and that can extend beyond a presidential cycle.  None of the solutions proposed by Reich, Haney-Lopez, or McGhee indicated the solutions would be easy.  The issues we face as a country have been going on since 1619. Why would we think they would be easy to fix?

As the title, “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together” implies, there is a cost to racism, a huge cost.  A Citi Group study published in September 2020 suggests that racism has cost the US $16 trillion in GDP over the last 20 years and will cost us $5 trillion over the next 5 years. 

What is clear from “The Sum of Us” many people don’t care what racism costs, even when it costs them directly financially or their health or their lives.  Their thought process is tied to the paradigm that says, “if they win, I lose.”  We can do better than that. We can prosper together, and we must stay focused on how we make that happen.

Again, “The Sum of Us” is a great book.  However you decide to read it, as an audiobook or by flipping the pages, I promise you will be engaged and enjoy the read.

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