Have you ever wondered why the American economy seems to consistently fail its citizens?
Heather McGhee, an expert in the field, has found a surprising common denominator: racism.
In her book “The Sum of Us,” McGhee explores the ways in which racism affects not only people of color but also one those are white. From collapsed infrastructure to rising student debt, racism has become the core dysfunction of our democracy and the root cause of many of our most pressing problems.
But amidst the bleakness, McGhee also uncovers the Solidarity Dividend i.e, the gains that come when people of all races come together to accomplish what they cannot achieve alone.
In this guide, we’ll have a look at some book discussion questions for The Sum of Us and why it’s a must-read for anyone looking to understand how racism is not only a core dysfunction of our democracy but also a source of moral and spiritual crises in this country.
The post might contain affiliate links. For more information, read our disclosure. Also, these questions contain spoilers.
The Sum of Us Book Club Questions
- The “zero-sum hierarchy” is a social construct that creates a perception that gains by one group in society eventually result in another one’s loss. This framing is deeply embedded in many white Americans, partly beacuse of this country’s early days when the nation was highly dependent on catastrophic losses for certain groups. One among them was the theft of land from Indigenous groups and the enslavement of Black people.
What’s your take on this?
- Public pools were once an attempt to level the playing field by providing goods accessible to everyone. After that, Black people were included due to legislation requiring the desegregation of pools. This led to communities chosing to drain and fill in their public pools rather than having white and Black residents swim together. This decision was rooted in racism and perpetuated the racial segregation of public spaces, demonstrating how racism can impact public policy decisions.
What’s your take on this kind of loss in our country?
- Racism has created a perception of undeserving racialized people resulting in many white Americans being reluctant to support government programs that could potentially help non-white Americans. This perception is based on racist beliefs that non-white Americans are lazy, uneducated, or otherwise unworthy of assistance. As a result, public benefits programs have been cut back, impacting middle- and working-class Americans of all races, and perpetuating racial inequality.
- McGhee argues that when white people live in communities where racialized people are impacted by pollution. This will result in them being more vulnerable to the effects of environmental contaminants than living in a community where everyone fought for a healthier environment.
- Challenging the zero-sum hierarchy requires a multifaceted approach that addresses both the systemic and individual aspects of racism. This includes acknowledging the historical and ongoing impact of systemic racism, investing in programs and policies that address racial disparities, promoting diversity and inclusion, and confronting individual biases and prejudices. It also requires a commitment to centering the experiences and perspectives of marginalized communities in policy discussions and decision-making processes.
Do you agree?
- The book challenges the framing of issues in American life that serves the interests of elites by examining the stereotypes that portray Black people as lazy and undeserving. For instance, regulators and legislators responding to the 2008 financial crisis suggested that the problem was that mortgages had been granted to borrowers—many of them Black—who were irresponsible or too inherently risky to have reasonably been given a loan. McGhee challenges this framing, noting that many borrowers were specifically targeted for subprime loans that increased the likelihood they would default.
- The erosion of public goods has disproportionately affected Black citizens, as they have historically been excluded from these benefits due to systemic racism. For example, the GI Bill paid tuition and living expenses for white World War II veterans, but Black veterans were largely excluded from these benefits due to discriminatory policies. As a result, white veterans were able to attend college, buy homes, and build wealth, while Black veterans were largely shut out of these opportunities. However, the loss of public goods has also impacted white citizens, particularly those who are low-income or working-class. For example, the erosion of unionization has led to the decline of well-paying jobs with benefits, which has hurt many white workers.
As a citizen of this country, how has it personally affected you or your ancestors?
- Ongoing segregation negatively affects white people by limiting their exposure to diverse perspectives and experiences. When white Americans choose to live in largely white neighborhoods and send their children to all-white schools, they miss out on the problem-solving skills, creativity, and cross-cultural fluency necessary for building a diverse society.
Coming to diversification, how important a role does it play in creating a much more equitable society?
- The book talks about how ignorance and indifference to the challenges facing Black Americans have also harmed white people in other contexts. For instance, Black people were the first victims of the predatory subprime mortgages that contributed to the 2008 financial crisis. While homeownership increased for Black individuals following the civil rights movement, discriminatory lending practices persisted.
Discuss in the context of the 2008 crisis.
- When white people participate in or benefit from a system that is based on racial hierarchy, they may feel guilty, ashamed, or complicit in the harm that is being done to people of color leading to isolation, anxiety, and depression. Additionally, when white people perpetuate racism, they may be met with anger, resentment, or distrust from people of color, which can create further emotional distress.
What’s your take on this ongoing existence of racism harming white people not just on an emotional level but also on a psychological level?
- The book challenges the idea that people are rational self-interested actors by examining the voting patterns of many white Americans who support policies like government healthcare and increased taxes on the wealthy, yet elect politicians whose policies are opposed to their own interests. McGhee argues that this can be explained by the distorting effect of racism, which powerful groups and people use to advance their own interests.
- McGhee challenges the framing of climate action resistance that is popular among many big environmental non-governmental organizations, who see greed and corruption as the main culprits. She argues that understanding racism’s role in exacerbating the challenges of the present moment, such as rising sea levels, worsening wildfires and extreme weather, biodiversity loss, and increased risk from disease, is essential to addressing climate change.
Do you think that linking climate change with racism has been done in the right manner?
If you liked this set of questions, here are some other options for you to explore.
Black Cake: In present-day California, two siblings are left with a puzzling inheritance: a black cake and a haunting voice recording. As they delve into their mother’s tumultuous past, they must confront family secrets, lost identities, and the power of choice in shaping their own destinies.
It Starts With Us: In the highly anticipated sequel to the bestselling novel “It Ends with Us,” Colleen Hoover delves into the complex lives of Lily, Ryle, and Atlas. With a new chance at love, Lily must navigate the challenges of coparenting and a jealous ex-husband. Will she find her happily ever after?
It Ends With Us: A gripping tale that delves into the complexities of love, heartbreak, and personal strength. This emotionally charged story will leave you captivated as it explores the power of breaking the cycle and finding the courage to rewrite your own destiny.
Apples Never Fall: In a seemingly perfect family, the Delaneys’ golden years turn bleak when their mother goes missing and their father becomes the prime suspect. As the four siblings grapple with their loyalties, dark secrets and hidden truths emerge, igniting a high-stakes battle within their tight-knit clan.
West With Giraffes: Step into a world of wonder and courage as Depression-era America embraces the incredible journey of two giraffes. Inspired by true events, West with Giraffes is a captivating tale of friendship, love, and the power of stories that must be shared before time runs out.