‘The Sum of Us’ by Heather McGhee – The Somerville Times

Posted: November 17, 2021 at 12:57 pm

*Review by Off the Shelf Correspondent Ed Meek

Heather McGhee makes the argument that racism has hurt all of us and continues to harm the country as a whole. In doing so, she updates and expands on positions taken by Martin Luther King among others that the way the wealthy and powerful maintain their status is by dividing the poor, the working class and the middle class into camps at war with each other often on the basis of race. McGhee claims racism is a weapon the Republican party has used to divide us, lower taxes on the rich, and transfer wealth upward.

The Sum of UsBy Heather McGhee.Penguin.2021395 pages|$20.90.

McGhee does great research tracing the closing of public swimming pools in the US once Blacks were allowed. She travels to sites and speaks with people who were there when it happened. This movement serves as an emblem of the loss of support for community programs during the years following the 1960s when civil rights legislation was passed by Lyndon Johnson. Robert Putnam covers some of this territory in Bowling Alone.

Nonetheless, reading The Sum of Us can be frustrating since McGhee often reduces complex issues to racism. According to McGhee, whites support Republicans solely due to racism. Like the argument that Trump was elected because of racism, this is only partly true. Were Blacks who voted for Trump racist? Trump attacked Hispanics, Muslims as well as Blacks. Republicans promote libertarianism and equate the belief in it with what it means to be real Americans. This has been so effective during the pandemic it has resulted in millions of Americans reacting to vaccines and masks as an assault on their freedom. Republicans would rather risk sickness and death for themselves and the rest of us rather than go along with what Democrats recommend.

Do whites who consider themselves victims, those who think that Blacks getting Food Stamps (SNAP) are takers and moochers as Romney put it, think that way because they are racist or because they are ignorant of the facts or because they are libertarians who dont believe in government handouts? The Republican Party seems to operate in large part by playing on the fears of the uninformed. Of course, some of those elected to office (Marjorie Taylor Greene for example) seem to know as little as their constituents. On the other hand, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Mitch McConnell and Ron DeSantis know better but will apparently do whatever it takes to maintain power.

In The Sum of Us, all issues are viewed through the prism of race. McGhee says, When college meant white public colleges thrived. Government invested in college, covering much of the cost. When Blacks began attending public universities and community colleges, McGhee points out that state and federal resources dried up. Yet, contrary to what McGhee claims, it wasnt racism that was responsible for that. In the 1990s studies began coming out with evidence that college grads earned much more than high school grads. Why should we fund college if those who go will make a lot more money than those who dont? Congress asked. Instead of funding, the government would provide low interest loans to students.

As a result, colleges raised tuition to cover costs. In addition, public colleges began competing for students by building beautiful gyms and stadiums and cafeterias. New technology added more costs. Colleges with strong sports programs drew alumnae who contributed to endowments. So, colleges recruited athletes and great students who would contribute in the future. At the same time, lawsuits and a growing awareness of mental health and disabilities prompted colleges to provide support services. Finally, theres an argument that allowing students access to open-ended loans provides colleges with the opportunity to keep raising prices. All of these factors drove up the cost of college. Oh wait, did I forget about paying stars like Elizabeth Warren 400K to teach a class?

The college arms race ties into some of the advantages and drawbacks of our meritocracy. Once professional and upper middle-class parents realized the financial benefits of a college education, particularly a degree from a select institution, they began investing in their childrens future by sending them to private schools and public schools in tony suburbs with schools financed by property taxes. Private SAT tutors helped win admission and scholarships to the best colleges. When that wasnt enough, Hollywood stars and business tycoons bought admission. Under the aegis of equal opportunity, all Americans have an equal chance, but is that really fair to those without the means to compete those whites, Hispanics and Blacks who are less well off? In addition, those kids whose parents havent attended college dont necessarily know the ropes. As McGhee points out, these are problems that cross racial lines.

McGhee goes on to consider housing, the economy, our unrepresentative democracy, climate change and community. In each of these cases she does laudatory research combining facts and heartbreaking stories of the role of racism that hurts minorities primarily but working class and poor whites as well. In each case she emphasizes the role of racism often ignoring other factors. Nonetheless, she makes a strong case for the outsize role racism plays in each of these areas, especially when it comes to voting rights a compelling issue given the current attempts by Republicans to disenfranchise Black voters.

Despite my criticism, The Sum of Us is one of a number of must-read recent books about race including The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. McGhees take is unique because she has a law degree and she is an activist and a scholar. Her research in The Sum of Us brings together the role of economics and politics to use race to divide Americans into tribes caught up in a zero-sum game fighting over whats left after the top 1% take 40% of the wealth. All that money gives that elite group a lot of power to fund and influence politicians and to employ media to sway the public. Fortunately for us, there are excellent writers like Heather McGhee writing and acting in the best interests of the country.

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'The Sum of Us' by Heather McGhee - The Somerville Times

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