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The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together Kindle Edition
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“One of the most fascinating things about The Sum of Us is how it challenges the assumptions of both white antiracism activists and progressives who just want to talk about class.”—The New York Times, “The Book That Should Change How Progressives Talk About Race”
“Required reading to move the country forward . . . Every so often a book comes along that seems perfectly timed to the moment and has the potential to radically shift our cultural conversation. [The Sum of Us] is one of those books. . . . It is a sometimes angry or frustrated book, rooted in McGhee’s long career at Demos trying and mostly failing to secure legislation that would benefit the public. But in the end, it’s a hopeful book because McGhee’s vision is so clear and so convincing.”—Chicago Tribune
“If everyone in America read this book, we’d be, not only a more just country, but a more powerful, successful, and loving one. A vital, urgent, stirring, beautifully written book that offers a compassionate roadmap out of our present troubled moment.”—George Saunders, New York Times bestselling and Booker Prize winning author of Lincoln in the Bardo
“Supported by remarkable data-driven research and thoughtful interviews with those directly affected by these issues, McGhee paints a powerful picture of the societal shortfalls all around us. There is a greater, more just America available to us, and McGhee brings its potential to light.”—BookPage
“[McGhee] takes readers on an intimate odyssey across our country’s racial divide to explore why some believe that progress for some comes at the expense of others. Along the way, McGhee speaks with white people who confide in her about losing jobs, homes, and hope, and considers white supremacy’s collateral victims. Ultimately, McGhee—a Black woman viewing multiracial America with startling empathy—finds proof of what she terms the Solidarity Dividend: the momentous benefits that derive when people come together across race. A powerful, singular, and prescriptive blend of the macro and the intimate.”—O: The Oprah Magazine, “20 of the Best Books of February 2021 to Fall in Love With”
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
“Why can’t we have nice things?”
Perhaps there’s been a time when you’ve pondered exactly this question. And by nice things, you weren’t thinking about hovercraft or laundry that does itself. You were thinking about more basic as-pects of a high-functioning society, like adequately funded schools or reliable infrastructure, wages that keep workers out of poverty or a public health system to handle pandemics. The “we” who can’t seem to have nice things is Americans, all Americans. This includes the white Americans who are the largest group of the uninsured and the impoverished as well as the Americans of color who are dispropor-tionately so. “We” is all of us who have watched generations of Amer-ican leadership struggle to solve big problems and reliably improve the quality of life for most people. We know what we need—why can’t we have it?“
Why can’t we have nice things?” was a question that struck me pretty early on in life—growing up as I did in an era of rising in-equality, seeing the wealthy neighborhoods boom while the schools and parks where most of us lived fell into disrepair. When I was twenty-two years old, I applied for an entry-level job at Demos, aresearch and advocacy organization working on public policy solutions to inequality. There, I learned the tools of the policy advocacy trade: statistical research and white papers, congressional testimony, litigation, bill drafting, media outreach, and public campaigns.
It was exhilarating. I couldn’t believe that I could use a spread-sheet to convince journalists to write about the ideas and lives of the people I cared most about: the ones living from paycheck to paycheck who needed a better deal from businesses and our government. And it actually worked: our research influenced members of Congress to introduce laws that helped real people and led to businesses changing their practices. I went off to get a law degree and came right back to Demos to continue the work. I fell in love with the idea that information, in the right hands, was power. I geeked out on the intricacies of the credit markets and a gracefully designed regulatory regime. My specialty was economic policy, and as indicators of economic inequality became starker year after year, I was convinced that I was fighting the good fight, for my people and everyone who struggled.
And that is how I saw it: part of my sense of urgency about the work was that my people, Black people, are disproportionately ill served by bad economic policy decisions. I was going to help make better ones. I came to view the relationship between race and inequality as most people in my field do—linearly: structural racism accelerates inequality for communities of color. When our govern-ment made bad economic decisions for everyone, the results were even worse for people already saddled with discrimination and disadvantage.
Take the rise of household debt in working-and middle-class families, the first issue I worked on at Demos. The volume of credit card debt Americans owed had tripled over the course of the 1990s, and among cardholders, Black and Latinx families were more likely to be in debt. In the early 2000s, when I began working on the issue, bankruptcies and foreclosures were rising and homeowners, particularly Black and brown homeowners, were starting to take equity out of their houses through strange new mortgage loans—but the problem of burdensome debt and abusive lending wasn’t registering on the radar of enough decision makers. Few politicians in Washington knew what it was like to have bill collectors incessantly ringing their phones about balances that kept growing every month. So, in 2003, Demos launched a project to get their attention: the first-ever comprehensive research report on the topic, with big, shocking numbers about the increase in debt. The report included policy recommenda-tions about how to free families from debt and avoid a financial melt-down. Our data resulted in newspaper editorials, meetings with banks, congressional hearings, and legislation to limit credit card rates and fees.
Two years later, Congress took action—and made the problem of rising debt worse. Legislators passed a bankruptcy reform bill sup-ported by the credit industry that made it harder for people ever to escape their debts, no matter how tapped out they were after a job loss, catastrophic medical illness, or divorce. The law wasn’t good for consumers, did nothing to address the real problems in family finances, and actually made the problem worse. It was a bad economic policy decision that benefited only lenders and debt collectors, not the public. This was a classic example of the government not doing the simple thing that aligned with what most Americans wanted or what the data showed was necessary to solve a big problem. Instead, it did the opposite. Why?
Well, for one thing, our inability to stop bankruptcy reform made me realize the limits of research. The financial industry and other corporations had spent millions on lobbying and campaign donations to gin up a majority in Congress, and many of my fellow advocates walked away convinced that big money in politics was the reason we couldn’t have nice things. And I couldn’t disagree—of course money had influenced the outcome.
But I’ll never forget something that happened on the last day I spent at the Capitol presenting Demos’s debt research to members of Congress. I was walking down the marble hallway of the Russell Senate Office Building in my new “professional” shoes—I was twenty-five years old—when I stopped to adjust them because they kept slipping off. When I bent down, I was near the door of a Senate office; I honestly can’t remember if it belonged to a Republican or a Democrat. I heard the bombastic voice of a man going on about the deadbeats who had babies with multiple women and then declared bankruptcy to dodge the child support, using the government to avoid personal responsibility. There was something in the senator’s invective that made my heart rate speed up. I stood and kept moving, my mind racing. Had we advocates entirely missed something about the fight we were in? We had been thinking of it as a class issue (with racial disparities, of course), but was it possible that, at least for some of the folks on the other side of the issue, coded racial stereotypes were a more central player in the drama than we knew?
I left Capitol Hill, watching the rush hour crush of mostly white people in suits and sneakers heading home after a day’s work in the halls of power, and felt stupid. Of course, it’s not as if the credit card companies had made racial stereotypes an explicit part of their communications strategy on bankruptcy reform. But I’d had my political coming-of-age in the mid-1990s, when the drama of the day was “ending welfare as we know it,” words that helped Bill Clinton hold on to the (white) political center by scapegoating (Black) single mothers for not taking “personal responsibility” to escape poverty. There was nothing explicit or conclusive about what I’d overheard, but perhaps the bankruptcy reform fight—also, like welfare, about the de-servingness and character of people with little money—was playing out in that same racialized theater, for at least one decision maker and likely more.
I felt frustrated with myself for being caught flat-footed (literally, shoe in hand!) and missing a potential strategic vulnerability of the campaign. I’d learned about research and advocacy and lobbying in the predominantly white world of nonprofit think tanks, but how could I have forgotten the first lessons I’d ever learned as a Black person in America, about what they see when they see us? About how quick so many white people could be to assume the worst of us . . . to believe that we wanted to cheat at a game they were winning fair and square? I hadn’t even thought to ask the question about this seemingly nonracial financial issue, but had racism helped defeat us? --This text refers to the hardcover edition.
- ASIN : B0871KZQ3G
- Publisher : One World (February 16, 2021)
- Publication date : February 16, 2021
- Language : English
- File size : 8524 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Enabled
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Print length : 395 pages
- Lending : Not Enabled
- Best Sellers Rank: #5,671 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
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Heather McGhee uses her experience as an expert in economy and law in this deep and personal research journey into the foundations and continuation of the racist policies that still govern the US, to portray how these policies affect all of us negatively. She talks about the zero-sum paradigm, the idea that one group must progress at the expense of others, and shows exactly what is at stake when we accept this paradigm. I really appreciate how the author brings her deep knowledge of the American economy and pairs it with sociological research and history from around the country to prove just how much we have lost and will continue to lose because of racism and white supremacy. I also really appreciated the stories that the author gathers from around the country, they really help to illustrate the main arguments of the story.
My review really cannot do justice to this book - it is full of so much important information through a lens that will have you thinking and reacting long after you put the book down.
An absolute anti-racist must read!
By mr on February 17, 2021
I thought I understood the subprime mortgage crisis until I was introduced to the Tomlins, who could have qualified for any mortgage but instead were sold one whose fee structures were difficult for even legal specialists to decipher. (They had never missed a payment.)
I will have a new understanding of environmental justice because I will remember Torm, the Laotian refugee racing through his neighborhood to translate emergency directives to the immigrants living near the Chevron plant in Richmond, California whose pipes degraded. (Attention wasn’t paid until an ill wind blew toxic chemicals into the rich side of town.)
Heather McGhee is an exceptional writer and communicator, and her book feels like a conversation between the people who deserve better from this country, and the fighters trying to tease out answers to these issues (with the kind whispers of a history teacher connecting the dots of the past for the rest of us).
It’s an engrossing and enlightening read whose time is now.
As McGhee explicitly acknowledges (page 300), her primary source for describing the zero-sum thinking of certain comparatively economically well-off white Americans is white professors Michael I. Norton and Samuel R. Sommers’ article “Whites See Racism as a Zero-Sum Game that They Are Now Losing” in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, volume 6, number 5 (May 2011): pages 215-218.
Even though McGhee sees zero-sum thinking as connected with our contemporary American winner-take-all economy in the United States, she does not happen to refer explicitly to the 2010 book Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class by the white American professors Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson.
However, despite this relevant omission from McGhee’s new book, I am not intimating that her book is under-researched, as her detailed “Notes” (pages 295-397) and her impressive alphabetized “List of Interviews” and dates of interviews (pages 399-400) show. According to the dates listed, she conducted her earliest interviews in June 2017, and her most recent in September 2020. She conducted interviews of more than 50 individual persons.
Now, McGhee interviewed two persons at three different times each: (1) May Boeve in August 2018, February 2020, and August 2020, and (2) Ben Chin in June 2017, May 2018, and June 2020. McGhee also interviewed four other individual persons each at two different times: (1) Julie Christine Johnson in August 2017 and June 2020; (2) Angela King in June 2017 and August 2017; (3) Torm Nompraseurt in March 202 and April 2020; and (4) Ali Takata in March 2019 and August 2020. In addition, she interviewed an unspecified number of Nissan workers in Mississippi in August 2017.
See the “Index” (pages 401-415) for specific page references to each of the 52 individual persons listed in the alphabetized “List of Interviews.”
More significantly, in my estimate, McGhee is not familiar with the terminology about catastrophizing thinking that the late white American psychologist Albert Ellis (1913-2007) developed. But what she refers to as zero-sum thinking tends to produce what Ellis refers to as catastrophizing thinking as a byproduct. In short, zero-sum thinking tends to be accompanied by catastrophizing thinking – in, for example, comparatively economically well-off white Americans who see Black Americans as advancing economically at the supposed expense of white Americans. This is a salient example of what McGhee refers to as zero-sum thinking at work (esp. pages 5-15 and 124-125).
Unfortunately, McGhee is not the only recent author who is not familiar with Ellis’ terminology about catastrophizing thinking. For example, in the 2020 book translated into English as Humankind: A Hopeful History, translated from the Dutch by Elizabeth Manton and Erica Moore (orig. Dutch ed., 2019), the white Dutch journalist Rutger Bregman repeatedly reviews how certain famous psychological studies were received in ways that I see as manifestations of what Ellis refers to as catastrophizing thinking.
But McGhee’s 440-page book is essentially an extended exploration of why and how we need to develop a systemic an alternative to zero-sum thinking, as her main title intimates – despite what Hacker and Pierson refer to as winner-take-all politics in Washington. Because I am generally hopeful about the new Biden administration and the Democrats in Congress, I can only hope that people in the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress benefit from McGhee’s efforts to explore developing a systemic constructive alternative to zero-sum thinking.