The Sum of Us

Title: The Sum of Us

Author: Heather McGhee

Completed: July 2021

Overview: Another book that brings together different ideas that I have into one cohesive message. We’re taught that everything in life is a zero-sum game, especially our rights. This is simply not true. When one group gains access to the rights others in that society have had, society as a whole benefits.


  • It is progressive economic conventional wisdom that racism accelerates inequality for communities of color, but what if racism is actually driving inequality for everyone?
  • Black writers before me, from James Baldwin to Toni Morrison, have made the point that racism is a poison first consumed by its concocters. What’s clearer now in our time of growing inequality is that the economic benefit of the racial bargain is shrinking for all but the richest.
  • A Pennsylvania county recreation director said, “Let’s build bigger, better and finer pools. That’s real democracy. Take away the sham and hypocrisy of clothes, don a swimsuit, and we’re all the same.” Of course, that vision of classlessness wasn’t expansive enough to include skin color that wasn’t, in fact, “all the same.” By the 1950s, the fight to integrate America’s prized public swimming pools would demonstrate the limits of white commitment to public goods.
  • The council decided to drain the pool rather than share it with their Black neighbors. Of course, the decision meant that white families lost a public resource as well. “It was miserable,” Mrs. Moore told a reporter five decades later. Uncomprehending white children cried as the city contractors poured cement into the pool, paved it over, and seeded it with grass that was green by the time summer came along again. To defy desegregation, Montgomery would go on to close every single public park and padlock the doors of the community center. It even sold off the animals in the zoo. The entire public park system would stay closed for over a decade. Even after it reopened, they never rebuilt the pool.
  • (We could eliminate all poverty in the United States by spending just 12 percent more than the cost of the 2017 Republican tax cuts.)
  • In railing against welfare and the war on poverty, conservatives like President Reagan told white voters that government was the enemy, because it favored Black and brown people over them—but their real agenda was to blunt government’s ability to challenge concentrated wealth and corporate power.
  • Many of the country’s biggest and most respected public colleges were tuition-free, from the City University of New York to the University of California system. This massive public investment wasn’t considered charity; an individual state saw a return of three to four dollars back for every dollar it invested in public colleges. When the public meant “white,” public colleges thrived.
  • at Demos, we researched the causes of rising tuition and linked them squarely to the withering government commitment to public funding. The federal government for its part slowly shifted its financial aid from grants that didn’t have to be repaid (such as Pell Grants for low-income students, which used to cover four-fifths of college costs and now cover at most one-third) to federal loans, which I would argue are not financial aid at all. Yes, student loans enable Americans to pay their college bills during enrollment, but the compounding interest means they must pay at least 33 percent more on average than the amount borrowed.
  • white high school dropouts have higher average household wealth than Black people who’ve graduated from college.
  • In 2016, the number of arrests for marijuana possession exceeded the total number of arrests for all violent crimes put together.
  • A common misperception then and now is that subprime loans were being sought out by financially irresponsible borrowers with bad credit, so the lenders were simply appropriately pricing the loans higher to offset the risk of default. And in fact, subprime loans were more likely to end up in default. If a Black homeowner finally answered Mario Taylor’s dozenth call and ended it possessing a mortgage that would turn out to be twice as expensive as the prime one he started with, is it any wonder that it would quickly become unaffordable? This is where the age-old stereotypes equating Black people with risk—an association explicitly drawn in red ink around America’s Black neighborhoods for most of the twentieth century—obscured the plain and simple truth: what was risky wasn’t the borrower; it was the loan.
  • as everybody knows that manufacturing jobs are the iconic “good jobs” of the American middle class. But the truth is factory jobs used to be terrible jobs, with low pay and dangerous conditions, until the people who needed those jobs to survive banded together, often overcoming violent oppression, to demand wholesale change to entire industries: textiles, meatpacking, steel, automobiles. The early-twentieth-century fights to make good jobs out of dangerous ones—the fights, in fact, to create the American middle class—could never have been waged alone.
  • Labor experts call this kind of stratification a tactic: create a sense of hierarchy and you motivate workers to compete with one another to please the bosses and get to the next category up, instead of fighting together to get rid of the categories and create a common, improved work environment for everyone.
  • the Knights of Labor. Their motto was “That is the most perfect government in which an injury to one is a concern of all.” When the Knights began organizing in the volatile years of Reconstruction, they recruited across color lines, believing that to exclude any racial or ethnic group would be playing into the employers’ hands. “Why should working men keep anyone out of the organization who could be used by the employer as a tool in grinding down wages?” wrote the official Knights newspaper in 1880. With Black workers in the union, white workers gained by robbing the bosses of a population they might exploit to undercut wages or break strikes; at the same time, Black workers gained by working for and benefiting from whatever gains the union won. The Knights also included women in their ranks. A journalist in 1886 Charleston, South Carolina, reported on the Knights’ success in organizing members in that city: “When everything else had failed, the bond of poverty united the white and colored mechanics and laborers.”
  • Norton and his colleagues used games where they gave participants the option to give money to either people who had more money than they had, or those who had less. In general, people gave money to those who had less—except for people who were in the second-to-last place in the money distribution to begin with. These players more often gave their money to the people above them in the distribution so that they wouldn’t fall into last place themselves. The study authors also looked at real-world behaviors and found that lower-income people are less supportive of redistributive policies that would help them than logic would suggest. Even though raising the minimum wage is overwhelmingly popular, people who make a dollar above the current minimum “and thus those most likely to ‘drop’ into last place” alongside the workers at the bottom expressed less support.
  • There was no drop in employment in places with wage increases, and in fact, many places have found the opposite.
  • Some of the voter manipulation tactics of the post–Civil War era remain in full force today. The requirement that we register to vote at all before Election Day did not become common until after the Civil War, when Black people had their first chance at the franchise. Throughout its history, writes legal scholar Daniel P. Tokaji, “voter registration has thus been a means not only of promoting election integrity, but also of impeding eligible citizens’ access to the ballot.”
  • Candidates had to promise to deliver something of value to southern families, white and Black. In Sharing the Prize, Wright writes that “after the Voting Rights Act…southern…gubernatorial campaigns increasingly featured nonracial themes of economic development and education.”
  • White people are the most segregated people in America. That’s a different way to think about what has perennially been an issue cast with the opposite die: people of color are those who are segregated, because the white majority separates out the Black minority, excludes the Chinese, forces Indigenous Americans onto reservations, expels the Latinos. Segregation is a problem for those on the outside because what is good is reserved for those within.
  • Marisa Novara, a Chicago housing official, put it this way: “I think as a field, we use the word segregation incorrectly. I think we tend to use it as if it’s a synonym for places that are low-income, where Black and brown people live. And we ignore all of the places that are majority white, that are exclusive enclaves, as if those are not segregated as well.”
  • contrary to our collective memory, segregation didn’t originate in the South; nor was it confined to the Jim Crow states. Segregation was first developed in the northern states before the Civil War. Boston had a “Nigger Hill” and “New Guinea.” Moving west: territories like Illinois and Oregon limited or barred free Black people entirely in the first half of the 1800s. In the South, white dependence on Black labor, and white need for physical control and access to Black bodies, required proximity, the opposite of segregation. The economic imperative set the terms of the racial understanding; in the South, Blacks were seen as inferior and servile but needed to be close. In the North, Black people were job competition, therefore seen as dangerous, stricken with a poverty that could be infectious.
  • The best research of the day concluded that “confusion, conflict, moral cynicism, and disrespect for authority may arise in [white] children as a consequence of being taught the moral, religious and democratic principles of justice and fair play by the same persons and institutions who seem to be acting in a prejudiced and discriminatory manner.”
  • It turns out that white people in America are much less likely than people of color to rank environmental problems as a pressing concern. Public opinion surveys show that Black and Latinx people are more supportive of national and international climate change solutions than white people are. In fact, if it were up to only white people, we might not act at all. According to the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, fewer than 25 percent of white people said they were willing to join a campaign to convince government to act on climate change. The majority of white Americans fell into the categories the researchers called “Cautious,” “Disengaged,” “Doubtful,” or “Dismissive,” meaning they don’t know enough, don’t care, or are outright opposed to taking action. By contrast, 70 percent of Latinx and 57 percent of Black people are either “Alarmed” or “Concerned.” Like so many issues in public life, race appears to significantly shape your worldview about climate change.
  • If a set of decision makers believes that an environmental burden can be shouldered by someone else to whom they don’t feel connected or accountable, they won’t think it’s worthwhile to minimize the burden by, for example, forcing industry to put controls on pollution. But that results in a system that creates more pollution than would exist if decision makers cared about everyone equally—and we’re talking about air, water, and soil, where it’s pretty hard to cordon off toxins completely to the so-called sacrifice zone. It’s elites’ blindness to the costs they pay that keeps pollution higher for everyone.
  • IN THE EARLY 2000s, Richmond activists representing different causes and ethnic communities joined together to make a plan to take on Chevron—but they had a lot of mistrust and division to overcome. Chevron had polluted the politics of the city, both by controlling the city council and by cultivating relationships with local groups in ways that activists called cynical and racially divisive. Torm and Miya said that Chevron lobbyists had learned how to pit community groups against each other for small funding grants and scholarships, which Torm likened to Chevron’s “throw[ing] candy on the floor to get a kid fighting.”
  • Color-blind racism is an ideology that “explains contemporary racial inequality as the outcome of nonracial dynamics…[W]hites rationalize minorities’ contemporary status as the product of market dynamics, naturally occurring phenomena, and blacks’ imputed cultural limitations.” Such explanations “exculpate [white people] from any responsibility for the status of people of color.”
  • The belief that the United States is a meritocracy, in which anyone can succeed if only they try hard enough, also supports the notion that anyone who is financially successful is so because they’ve worked harder or are somehow more innately gifted than others. Both ideas operate as a justification for maintaining our profoundly unjust economic system. Recent research from social psychologists at Yale and Northwestern finds that “Americans, on average, systematically overestimate the extent to which society has progressed toward racial economic equality, driven largely by overestimates of current racial equality.” Wealthy white Americans, they find, have the most unrealistic assessment of how much progress the United States has made in terms of economic equality (and thus how fair the competition has been that they seem to have won).
  • As Ronald, a middle-aged white man from Buffalo, New York, told the Whiteness Project, “I think affirmative action was nice. It had its time, but I think that time is over with. Are we going to keep this up another one hundred fifty years? ‘Oh, we gotta have so many Asians in the fire department, we gotta have so many Blacks in the fire department.’…The white guys will never have a chance to be a fireman or a cop anymore.” Although using such numerical quotas to achieve affirmative action in employment was outlawed in 1978 by the Supreme Court, Ronald’s grievance is evergreen, as is his certainty that white guys getting all the public service jobs was the natural order of things, not its own form of white affirmative action.
  • The perception was that violence was as common as ordinary protest, but the most complete record of the summer 2020 racial justice protests shows that 93 percent of the events were peaceful, with no conflict, violence, or property destruction.
  • Suicide attempts with a gun have an 85 percent success rate, compared to a 3 percent rate for the most frequently used suicide method, drug overdose. White men are now one-third of the population but three-quarters of the gun suicide victims. And twice as many people die from gun suicides in America each year as from the gun homicides people have been so conditioned to fear.
  • White fear can exist only in “a world turned upside down,” writes Abraham Lateiner, a white man born into wealth who has become an activist for equality. “Because white people stole two continents and two hundred years of the backbreaking labor of millions, race reassures us that Blackness is related to thievery,” he wrote. “Because white men have raped Black and Brown women with impunity for centuries, race comforts us with the lie that it’s Black masculinity that is defined by hypersexual predation. Because white people penned Black people in the ‘ghetto’ via redlining, race tells us that this ‘ghetto’ is an indictment of Black pathology. People of color weren’t the ones who created whiteness or violated my spirit with it. That was my own people. That is my peers. That is me, too.”
  • Low-paid farm and food processing work is what draws foreign-born people to these small towns at first, for sure. But once there, immigrants have, as European immigrants did a century ago, started businesses, gained education, and participated in civic life (though the Europeans’ transition to whiteness offered a glide path to the middle class unavailable to immigrants of color today). Even in the face of anti-immigrant policies and the absence of vehicles for mobility such as unions and housing subsidies, today’s immigrants of color are revitalizing rural America. A study of more than 2,600 rural communities found that over the three decades after 1990, two-thirds lost population. However, immigration helped soften the blow in the majority of these places, and among the areas that gained population, one in five owes the entirety of its growth to immigration.
  • Refilling the pool will require us to believe in government so much that we hold it to the highest standard of excellence and commit our generation’s best and brightest to careers designing public goods instead of photo-sharing apps.
  • After decades of research, Dr. Phillips made the conclusion that it’s the mental friction that creates diversity’s productive energy. “Members of a homogeneous group rest somewhat assured that they will agree with one another; that they will understand one another’s perspectives and beliefs; that they will be able to easily come to a consensus. But when members of a group notice that they are socially different from one another, they change their expectations. They anticipate differences of opinion and perspective. They assume they will need to work harder to come to a consensus. This logic helps to explain both the upside and the downside of social diversity: people work harder in diverse environments both cognitively and socially. They might not like it, but the hard work can lead to better outcomes.”