The Sum of Us | Heather McGhee

Summary of: The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together
By: Heather McGhee


Welcome to the fascinating summary of ‘The Sum of Us’ by Heather McGhee, where we explore the intricate intersection of racism and systemic issues in the United States. Unravelling the zero-sum paradigm and its influence on various aspects of American society, from public services to democracy, this book challenges our perception of the racial divide. Delve into the erosion of public services, voter suppression, and the impact of racial resentment on unions and climate change as we examine the costs of racism and explore the potential for solidarity dividends through integration and cross-racial organizing.

The Zero-Sum Paradigm

The zero-sum paradigm has fooled white Americans into believing that gains for Black people come at a cost to them. Psychologists have explored how racial resentment affects white people’s political views. People who see changing demographics as a threat are more likely to adopt conservative views. The fear of being attacked makes no sense as white households have 13 times as much wealth as black households. The zero-sum paradigm originated from the racial hierarchy invented by European colonists who enslaved African people and stole indigenous land to found a new country. White people are scared of losing out as they made their fortunes on Black loss.

Racism and Erosion of Public Services

Montgomery, Alabama’s public pool was destroyed after a 1959 court ruling requiring desegregation. Rather than integration, officials chose to destroy publicly funded pools, lease pools to private clubs with whites-only membership, or let pools deteriorate. This action is an example of how racism has eroded public services. Though white Americans overwhelmingly supported public programs like the New Deal in the 1950s, Black citizens were excluded through legal clauses or policies like redlining. The result was a thriving white middle class. However, when Black people fought for equal opportunity during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, white Americans withdrew support for public programs that had once benefited them. This abandonment was due to fear of losing economic privilege. The artificial racial hierarchy sustains this fear.

Racism vs Democracy

The US has always had a problem with racism, and this problem has an undeniable impact on democracy. Racist voter suppression laws today echo older tactics such as poll taxes and literacy tests that were used to prevent Black people from voting. This situation is still ongoing and targets other non-white voters through confusing voter registration laws and other bureaucratic hurdles. The result is clear: democracy is in danger when a particular group of people is prevented from having a say in how their country is run.

The Cost of Racial Resentment

The book discusses how racial resentment undermines unions and causes workers to vote against their own interests. It explains how the fear of opportunities for Black workers coming at the cost of white workers created a divide at the Nissan car manufacturing plant in Canton, Mississippi, leading to the rejection of unionization by white workers. This fear was exploited by corporate lobbyists who used race politics to sow dissent in unions during the civil rights protests of the 1960s. It resulted in the drop of union membership from one in three American workers in the 1950s to only one in 16 today. However, the author also shares a hopeful example of the “Fight for 15” movement that emphasizes racial unity and has achieved success in raising the minimum wage to $15. The book concludes that working together can overcome racial divisions and improve working conditions for everyone.

Fighting Climate Change through Multiracial Organizing

Climate change and racism are intertwined, and you can’t fight one without the other. Many wealthy white men who oppose climate action also hold racist beliefs, making it a zero-sum game between the environment and the economy. However, the effects of pollution disproportionately affect Black people. The only way to combat climate change is through multiracial organizing, such as the Green New Deal and Standing Rock protests, which have united activists of all races against the fossil fuel industry.

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