Book notes: The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee

The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee book summary review and key ideas.

Get the audiobook on Audible 👇 (affiliate link)

The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee


One of today’s most insightful and influential thinkers offers a powerful exploration of inequality and the lesson that generations of Americans have failed to learn: Racism has a cost for everyone – not just for people of color. 

“This is the book I’ve been waiting for.” (Ibram X. Kendi, number-one New York Times best-selling author of How to Be an Antiracist)

Heather McGhee’s specialty is the American economy – and the mystery of why it so often fails the American public. From the financial crisis to rising student debt to collapsing public infrastructure, she found a common root problem: racism. But not just in the most obvious indignities for people of color. Racism has costs for White people, too. It is the common denominator of our most vexing public problems, the core dysfunction of our democracy and constitutive of the spiritual and moral crises that grip us all. But how did this happen? And is there a way out? 

But in unlikely places of worship and work, McGhee finds proof of what she calls the Solidarity Dividend: gains that come when people come together across race, to accomplish what we simply can’t do on our own. The Sum of Us is a brilliant analysis of how we arrived here: divided and self-destructing, materially rich but spiritually starved and vastly unequal. McGhee marshals economic and sociological research to paint an irrefutable story of racism’s costs, but at the heart of the book are the humble stories of people yearning to be part of a better America, including White supremacy’s collateral victims: White people themselves. With startling empathy, this heartfelt message from a Black woman to a multiracial America leaves us with a new vision for a future in which we finally realize that life can be more than zero-sum.” -Audible

~If you enjoy my summary, please consider buying me a coffee via my Ko-Fi link (click the button below) or support this blog in one of several ways! 📖 🎓

I appreciate every donation as it goes directly to the maintenance costs of my blog and creation of new content. 😊

Buy Me a Coffee at

Opening thoughts:

I forgot how I found this book but it was probably on someone’s recommended reading list or maybe it was mentioned somewhere by another author. But I think it’s good to read books like these when it’s so call culturally relevant today

Key notes:

  • Structural racism accelerates inequalities
  • Laws are merely expressions of a society’s dominant beliefs
    • It’s the beliefs that must shift in order for outcomes to change

Chapter 1: an old story: the zero sum hierarchy

  • White people see race issues as a zero sum game
  • Colonizers shaped their racist ideologies to justify their genocide and enslavement against black and brown people
    • They set up a zero sum relationship between master and slave
    • The formula for profit = revenue – cost
    • Stealing lands and enslaved people were seen as lucrative investments for building wealth
  • The exploitation, enslavement, and murder of African and indigenous American people turned blood into wealth for the white power structure
    • Those who profited made no room for the oppressed to share in the rewards from their lands or labor
    • Whatever others had, they took. The racial zero sum was crafted in the cradle of the new world
  • The colonists in America created their concept of freedom largely by defining it against the bondage of the Africans among them
  • You can imagine how, whether or not you owned slaves yourself, you might willingly buy into a zero sum model to gain the sense of freedom that rises with the subordination of others
    • Racial hierarchy offered white people the reprieve from the class hierarchy and gave white women an escape valve from gender oppression
  • Citizenship meant freedom. And freedom meant whiteness
  • The zero sum story of racial hierarchy was born along with the country
    • But it is an invention of the worst elements of our society
      • People who gained power through ruthless exploitation and kept it by sowing constant division
      • It has always optimally benefitted only the few while limiting the potential of the rest of us, and therefore the whole
  • The zero sum is a story sold by wealthy interests for their own profit and its persistence requires people desperate enough to buy it 
  • The majority of people receiving government assistance are white
    • The zero sum myth is a lie that white impoverished people bought in to

Chapter 2: racism drained the pool

  • Counties that relied more on slave labor in 1860 had lower per capita income
    • Societies that began with relatively extreme inequality tended to generate institutions that were more restrictive in providing access to economic opportunities
  • These deficits in infrastructure limited economic mobility for all residents
  • White society had repeatedly denied people of color economic benefits on the premise that they were inferior
    • Those unequal benefits then reenforced the hierarchy, making white actually economically superior
    • What would it mean to white people, both materially and psychologically, if the supposedly inferior people received the same treatment from the government?
  • Once segregation was deemed unconstitutional, public parks and swimming pools were closed down because white people didn’t want to share with black people
  • Before 1960, why Americans were strongly for government assistance in providing quality job and the standard of living
    • After 1960, white American support for those dropped significantly
  • After the Civil Rights Movement, racism evolved from overtly biological to cultural and behavioral
  • Although white support for the principles of equality have increased, white support for the policies designed to bring equality about have actually decreased
  • The Reagan ideology was that if you cut government benefits, black would get hurt the most

Chapter 3: going without

  • As the ethnic makeup of a community became less white, public funding also decreased
    • Tuition and student debt skyrocketed
  • Despite higher education, student loan debt is not decreasing the wealth gap between whites and minorities
  • The racist nature of our mass incarceration system has been well documented
  • There is a huge disparity of arrest rates and sentencing between whites and blacks
  • Racism is one of the biggest reasons why our country has not figured out how to fix the healthcare system despite most of our industrial peers doing so
    • Just like community pool, public health care was a benefit that white people didn’t want to share with Black people
  • Even immigrant families are resistant to public benefit because of the stigma it has gotten over the years
  • The lack of social solidarity with those of other groups is what causes harm to people’s own communities

Chapter 4: ignoring the canary

  • Housing and lending discrimination hit communities of color the hardest, especially during the Great Recession and housing crisis
  • Red lining and government subsiding of housing development promoted discriminatory housing practices which largely contributed to the racial wealth gap we see today
  • The financial sector soon be came the largest industry in the nation and the largest contributor financially to politics
  • This led to a deregulation of the financial sector which fueled more profit
  • The banks were aggressively trying to reach out and sell aggressive loans that black and brown leads couldn’t afford which made it more likely for them to default on the subprime loans they were being peddled
    • What was risky wasn’t the borrower but the loan
    • This predatory business practice was perpetuating the stereotype of black and brown people as risky borrowers when it wasn’t true
    • A Wells Fargo sales officer explained that their incentive system was based on selling subprime loans to customers even if they qualified for a better priced prime loan
  • Financial people may say it was greed not racism. But she says history might counter: what is racism without greed?
    • Racism fuels the greed because people think they can get away with targeting people of color with their unethical practices
  • Mortgage securitization was the reason why this predatory and financially irresponsible practice kept continuing
    • The lenders would sell the loans to investment banks, who bundled them and sold shares of them to investors, creating mortgage backed securities
    • The driver was the limitless demand from Wall Street for new investments
      • Unscrupulous financial companies could sell predatory mortgages they knew would sink the home owner, package them up and sell them to banks or investment firms, who would then sell to investors, and whom could resell to others
      • Each would collect fees and interest, and pass the risk down the line.
        • IBGYBG was an acronym to refer to this hot potato investment scheme = I’ll be gone you’ll be gone
        • Securitization cut the tie of mutual interest between the borrower and lender
  • There is no question that the financial crisis hurt people of color first and worst
    • And yet the majority of people it damaged were white
      • This is the dynamic we’ve seen over and over again
  • In order to expose others for your own gain, you have to first sever the tie between yourself and them in your mind
    • Racist stereotypes are an ever ready tool for such a task
  • So much of American wealth was created from racism traced back to slavery
  • Lehman Brothers is a reminder that society can be run on a zero sum game for only so long

Chapter 5: no one fights alone

  • In the 200 year history of American industrial work, there has been no greater tool against collective-bargaining than employers ability to divide workers by gender, race, or origin
  • The benefit of unionization spreads beyond just the workers
    • Having a higher standard in any industry forces employers to compete upwards for labor
  • For a lot of white people, “union people” is code for “Black people”
  • There were no minimum wage or other protection in the south and the conditions for labor workers were terrible

“There probably are not today in the world two groups of workers in the world with practically identical interests who hate and fear each other so deeply and persistently, and are kept so far apart that neither sees anything of common interest”

WEB Debois on the black and white southern workforce in late 19th century
  • While white workers had similar economic wages, they had addition social wages in the form of public deference and treatment, a type of social status above blacks and people of color
  • The Irish immigrants also aligned with the whites and terrorized the black in order to gain favor in society
  • In a hierarchical system, like the American economy, people often show more concern about their relative position in the hierarchy rather than their absolute status
  • Last place aversion suggests that low income individuals might oppose redistribution because they fear it might differentially help a lease place group to whom they can currently feel superior

Chapter 6: never a real democracy

  • America has never been a real democracy. Its drive towards its ideals helped it break free from the monarchy of Great Britain, but they compromised their own ideals from the start
    • Since then, in the interest of racial subjugation, America has repeatedly attacked its own foundations, from voter suppression to the return of a virtual property requirement
    • A segment of our society has fought against democracy in order to keep power in the hands of a narrow, white elite
  • If you unlearn the ideals of democracy taught in grade school, you realize that the framers of the constitution left a lot of holes in order to leave room for slavery
    • An electoral college built to protect slavery has sent two recent candidates to the White House: George W. Bush and Donald Trump
    • The electoral college still over-represents white people, but not all white people benefit
    • The advantage accrues to white people who live in whiter, less populated states
      • White people who live in larger states that look more like America are the ones underrepresented today
  • Ohio had a purge process that unregistered 1.2 million people
    • This is one of many voter suppression acts active in America
  • This is where racism becomes strategically useful
    • Politicians are comfortable with deploying strategic racism because popular stereotypes can help move unpopular ideas, including limiting democracy
    • To them, democracy infringes upon economic liberty for the wealthy elites and corporations
    • Voter suppression, an age of racist tactic, has been re-animated in recent years by subtlety anti-black and anti-brown propaganda, but ban also be used at white and young people
  • Some activists believe that slowly more people are being engaged and realizing that we are all bound to one another
    • When one of us is hurting, that’s going to come along and hurt everyone. There is a solidarity dividend that can be unlocked when we band together

Chapter 7: living apart

  • Centuries old lie: in a zero sum racial competition, white spaces are the best spaces
  • No governments in modern history save South Africa’s apartheid and Nazi Germany, have segregated as well as America has
  • There is no such thing as de-facto segregation. All segregation is the result of public policy past and present
  • Diversity has become a commonly excepted good despite its elusiveness
    • People seem to know that the more you interact with people who are different from you, the more commonalities you see and the less they seem like the other
  • Studies show that a greater contact is associated with lower prejudice and contact reduces our anxiety in relation to other groups and enhances our ability to empathize with other groups
  • Because of our deliberately constructed racial wealth gap, most black and brown families can’t afford to rent or bye in the places white families are
    • A study in Chicago showed higher black-white segregation is correlated with billions in lost income, lost lives, and last potential 
    • Districts are locally segregated so that schools that serve majority colored students are underfunded because of lower wealth and property taxes in those districts
  • The dividends to diversity in education pay out over a lifetime
    • Cultural competency is a necessity today’s multi-cultural professional world 
  • There is a similar story across the country of predominately white school districts drawing narrower boundaries to serve far fewer children than a majority of color lower income districts serving a greater number of students
    • It is a hoarding of resources by white families who wouldn’t have such an wealth advantage if it weren’t for generations of explicit racial exclusion and predation in the housing market

Chapter 8: the same sky 

  • The opposition of the American Conservative Political Movement is the primary reason the United States has not taken stronger legislative action to reduce greenhouse gases
    • Our inaction is one of the main reasons the world has continued to warm
  • The key players waging war against environmental protection were reliably white men
    • From the industry executives, to the politicians, to the media commentators
  • White people are much less likely than colored people to rank environmental concerns as a high priority
    • They are also the most likely to deny science
  • Racism increases the likelihood of opposing climate action
  • Identity protection cognition and a system justification worldview which makes them resistant to change
    • Conservative white males are likely to favor protection of the current industrial capitalist order which has historically served them well
  • Social dominance orientation influences people to prefer to keep the status quo in order to maintain the existing hierarchy to which they benefit
  • Unlike other countries, America seems to have cut their empathic cord since its his birth because of its history with genocide and slavery 
    • A study showed that race was the most important predictor for proximity to hazardous waste facilities America
  • Environmental racism is also bad for the well off white people
  • It’s the leaders’ blindness to the cost they pay that keeps pollution higher for everyone
  • The cost to improve the quality of the environment for everyone is so small and logically a no brainer

Chapter 9: the hidden wound

  • Ultimately we are all paying for the moral conflict of white Americans
  • Whichever store you choose to believe, nobody wants to be the villain
    • So there’s an available set of justifications for why your view is morally right
  • White supremacy offered a means to shift the blame to someone else
  • We are all socialized into a society where racism is normal, and it’s built into every aspect of our democracy, our government and social systems
    • There are so many white people who have no clue, and when you try and give them a clue they become defensive 
  • No one wants to think that they’re benefiting from a system that hurts other people
    • It’s much easier just to pretend like you don’t know
  • White supremacy gives people something they desperately need to feel better about themselves: scapegoats
    • Scape goats make it easy for politicians to distract the public and not make progress on things that would actually make people‘s lives better
  • We now know that color blindness is an aspect of racial denial 
    • The idea of color blindness when put into practice in a still racist world results in more racism
  • White fear is a social force that can be manipulated through the media and politics to change voting and economic behavior
  • Fear mongering conditions people to want to buy more guns
    • However, white males are twice as likely to die from gun suicide then from homicide
  • It’s hard to understand why white people live in fear of Black people when in reality a white person could do so much harm to a black person and not face any consequences
    • So in reality, Black people have far more to fear of white people than the opposite
  • Scholars believe that white people fear Black people will do to them what they’ve been doing to Black people for centuries
    • This fear of putting your worst attributes on another is called projection
  • A study showed that white Christians are 30% more likely to hold racially resentful for racist views than religiously unaffiliated white people
    • Some believe it’s because the white Christians historically justified their slavery by labeling black and brown people as non-human

Chapter 10: the solidarity dividend

  • Social isolation is just as detrimental to your health as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day
  • There’s something about the mentality of degrading others in your same position that can make you unable to see a better life for yourself either
  • Activists see that redirecting the blame to people who actually set the rules is liberating
    • Finding a potential sea of allies in the people who worked alongside them was empowering. That is the solidarity dividend
  • Diversity in groups is what promotes creativity and innovation
    • We need each other. Our differences have the potential to make us stronger, smarter, more creative, and fairer
    • Once we abandon the false idea of zero sum competition, the benefits of diversity become evident
  • Who is an American and what are we to one another?
    • Either we are simply competitors, or we are forced to see the common humanity in each other 
  • We must challenge ourselves to live our lives in solidarity across color, origin, and class
    • We must demand changes to the rules in order to disrupt the very notion that those who have more money are worth more in our democracy and our economy
  • Since this country’s founding, we have not allowed our diversity to be our super power
    • And the result is that the United States is not more than the sum of its disparate parts
    • But it could be, and if it were, all of us would prosper

Closing thoughts:

This was a fantastic book. I think it really tackled the issue of race in America from different aspects and areas such as housing, the wealth gap, common goods, mortgages, the workforce, and polarization in politics. It really shows you how racism and this false “zero-sum” narrative has brought down all of us collectively.

I think the strong theme and call to action in this book is also what makes it great. I feel like compelling to the white perspective is important to enact change. Instead of saying “hey, things are bad for us minorities” it is saying “look, this racism thing we keep promoting is actually costing everyone, not just black and brown people.” I think this perspective is much more persuasive.

Overall, I highly recommend this book for pretty much all American citizens, as well as people who are curious as to how we got to where we are today, and how racism has affected so many aspects of our society.

One Takeaway / Putting into practice:

The biggest, overarching takeaway from this book seems to be:

  • Diversity and increased exposure between groups will slowly debunk the zero-sum myth and improve the well being of everybody

Basically, this zero-sum myth is what pits people against each other, especially since communities of color are being used as the scapegoats instead of the white men in power actually solving problems that impact everyone.


Racism in America has a hidden cost that impacts all communities. The zero-sum myth is used by white supremacy thinking to keep the status quo and use communities of color as scapegoats.

Similar books:


Rating: 4 out of 5.


Subscribe for More Summaries👇

Success! You're on the list.

Try Audible for audiobooks 📚🎧

Personal recommendation: For the last 6 years, I’ve used Audible to listen to all of my favorite books. It’s easy to use, cost-effective, and they have the best library of audiobooks.

If you use my affiliate links below, not only will you get a special offer, but it’ll help support the costs to maintain this blog! 😊👇

Try Audible and Get Two Free Audiobooks

Audible Gift Memberships 

Please donate! 🙂

Please consider a small donation to help support my blog ^_^ I love providing free book notes and other content. Any donations help me maintain my website and create content consistently. Thanks everyone for the continued support!


One thought on “Book notes: The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: