The cover of Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together depicts a boy jumping off a diving board into a swimming pool. An unusual image for a book about racial inequity, it neatly captures McGhee’s central point–racism hurts everybody, white and Black–by referring to a 1950s effort to integrate whites-only public swimming pools. In town after town, white residents chose to close their pools rather than swim with Black neighbors.
The Sum of Us recounts McGhee’s three-year journey across the country documenting her discovery that, “Contrary to how I was taught to think about economics, everybody wasn’t operating in their own rational economic self-interest.” Instead, “white people would resist policies that could benefit them just because they might also benefit people of color.” Along the way, she also encounters a few bright spots, such as Lewiston, Maine, where immigrants of color have given a dying city new life.
As the subtitle indicates, The Sum of Us approaches the long-standing evil of structural racism in a positive way, focusing not only on root causes but potential solutions. Employing research data, McGhee shows that while some of the nation’s white power brokers “warn that demographic changes are the unmaking of America….[w]hat I’ve seen…is that they’re the fulfillment of America.”
McGhee calls the potential payoff of overcoming racism the Solidarity Dividend and urges the nation to work toward it: “We have not allowed our diversity to be our superpower, and the result is that the United States is not more than the sum of its its disparate parts,” she writes. “But it could be.”
-Review by Shelley Stanfield
Visit Heather McGhee’s website.
Watch Heather McGhee’s TED talk:
Listen to Heather McGhee’s conversation with Dave Davies on Fresh Air: