The Sum of Us Book Summary - The Sum of Us Book explained in key points
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The Sum of Us summary

Heather McGhee

What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together

4.2 (72 ratings)
30 mins

Brief summary

"The Sum of Us" by Heather McGhee is a compelling and timely exploration of how racism harms everyone in society, including white people. McGhee shares stories and data to reveal the toll racism takes on economics, health, and politics and offers solutions for a more equitable future.

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    The Sum of Us
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    White Americans have been fooled into believing in a zero-sum paradigm.

    Imagine a bucket full of crabs desperately trying to escape to freedom. If the crabs climbed onto each other’s backs, they could easily scale the walls of the bucket. But, instead, they keep pulling each other down in a blur of thrashing pincers, going absolutely nowhere.

    In today’s America, many people find themselves in as desperate a situation as those crabs. Trapped by economic insecurity, crumbling public facilities, and environmental crises, most Americans are under strain. And, yet, the vast majority of white Americans voted for an unapologetically pro-rich, climate-change denier in the last election cycle, who’s demonstrated that he’ll only exacerbate these problems. Why on earth would white people act against their own interests in this way? Because they believe that gains to Black people come at a cost to them.

    The key message here is: White Americans have been fooled into believing in a zero-sum paradigm.

    Psychologists Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson have explored how racial resentment affects white people’s political views. As part of a study, they presented respondents with newspaper articles about how racial minorities would reach the majority by 2042. People who saw these changing demographics as a threat to their own status were much more likely to adopt conservative views on hot-button political issues like raising the minimum wage or banning fossil fuels. 

    Conservative politicians have understood this psychology for a long time. They’re expert at evoking racial fears and resentment in their electorate. For example, funding for benefits is framed as hand-outs for Black people who can’t be bothered to work. Green energy bills are framed as forsaking white miners.

    Objectively, fears that white people are under attack make no sense. White households have, on average, 13 times as much wealth as Black households. White people outnumber Black people in homeownership and are vastly overrepresented in government and high-status jobs. So, why are they so scared of losing out?

    To really understand the zero-sum paradigm, you need to trace a line right back to the founding of the US – to the European colonists who enslaved African people and stole indigenous land to found a new country. They needed a moral rationale for their behavior. So, they invented a racial hierarchy, with Black people at the bottom. That hierarchy allowed them to justify slavery, which funded the creation of modern America. White people literally made their fortunes on Black loss. The idea of equality so unnerves white people because they’re scared that this zero-sum paradigm will be reversed, and they’ll be the ones losing out this time. But, as you’ll see in the next blink, nothing could be further from the truth.

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    What is The Sum of Us about?

    The Sum of Us (2021) is a searing analysis of how white supremacy has devastated the American middle class. Public services have been decimated, millions of Americans have no healthcare, and lobbyists control political decision-making. But white Americans keep voting for politicians who make things worse while blaming immigrants and people of color for the nation’s problems. Only by tackling racism head-on can we begin to fight for economic equality for all Americans.

    The Sum of Us Review

    The Sum of Us (2021) by Heather McGhee explores how racism and inequality harm the entire society, not just marginalized groups. Here's why you should give this book a read:

    • With compelling research and real-life stories, the book vividly illustrates the costs of racism, making it impossible to ignore the impact on our shared future.
    • McGhee offers a solutions-oriented approach, providing practical ideas to dismantle systemic racism and create a more equitable society.
    • The book's examination of the intersectionality of race and economic inequality offers a fresh perspective, challenging our assumptions and widening our understanding.

    Best quote from The Sum of Us

    The advantages white people had accumulated were free and usually invisible, and so conferred an elevated status that seemed natural and almost innate.

    —Heather McGhee
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    Who should read The Sum of Us?

    • White people wanting to educate themselves about the real costs of racism
    • Activists looking for inspiration about how to create powerful multiracial coalitions
    • Anyone wanting to deepen their knowledge of US history and how it affects politics today

    About the Author

    Heather McGhee is the former president of Demos – a think tank focusing on inequality. She’s helped to draft legislation, testified before Congress, and advised presidential candidates. She’s also a regular contributor to news programs like NBC’s Meet the Press, and the chair of Color of Change, the nation’s largest online organization devoted to racial justice.

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    The Sum of Us FAQs 

    What is the main message of The Sum of Us?

    The main message of The Sum of Us is that when we come together and invest in public goods, we all benefit.

    How long does it take to read The Sum of Us?

    The reading time for The Sum of Us varies depending on the reader's speed. However, the Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is The Sum of Us a good book? Is it worth reading?

    The Sum of Us is a worthwhile read that sheds light on the true cost of racism and offers a hopeful vision for a more inclusive future.

    Who is the author of The Sum of Us?

    The author of The Sum of Us is Heather McGhee.