The Fallacy of Lost Status: Heather McGhee Examines Racism’s Universal Harm

In The Sum of Us, McGhee offers a compassionate study of racism's damaging effects on all of society—including white America.

By Mark Christian

The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, by Heather C. McGhee. One World, 2021. 578p index, 9780525509561 $28.00, 9780525509578

Ed. Note: Choice considers racial justice a cornerstone of its mandate to support academic study. Accordingly, Choice is highlighting select racial justice titles through the creation of long-form reviews such as the one featured here. Though the scope of these reviews is broader than those applied to our standard 190-word reviews, many of the guidelines regarding what to focus on will remain the same, with additional consideration for how the text under review sheds light on racist systems and racial inequities or proposes means of dismantling them. Our intent is to feature important works on racial justice that will be of use to undergraduates and faculty researching racism and racial inequalities from new perspectives.

Cover of The Sum of Us

This timely study essentially concerns the state of racialized relations in the US and the economic harm it does not only to designated people of color but to most white people too. McGhee is an expert in economics as well as a journalist and political commentator for MSNBC. Her book is profound but not overly unique as she tackles a fundamentally age-old problem: white fear and flight in the face of a growing perceived threat to white people’s social status. This remains an important topic to address as there is a persistent, deep-seated anxiety among many white Americans that African Americans and Latinx, in all their complexity, will become a collective majority population by the early 2040s. This theme has been the foundation for the culture wars that have engendered the far-right politics of yesterday and today. Donald Trump’s presidency (2017–21) may have brought forth the vituperative viciousness of white enmity, but it has manifested in the body politic since the inception of the republic.

What is both refreshing and pertinent about McGhee’s analysis is that she points out the fallacy of institutional racism because of its harm to white America. The idea of lost status is merely a tool in the divide-and-rule armor of those hell-bent on creating division among working-class Americans, whose common economic interests clearly outweigh their differences (i.e., race). This perpetually racialized “zero-sum paradigm” with a winner-take-all outcome only benefits the very wealthy in society. The persistent notion that a gain for people of color is a loss for white people has undergirded the American body politic for quite some time, and one could argue that this sentiment has currently reached an all-time high in society. The far right have bamboozled millions of white Americans into believing their health care and economic well-being are under threat from Black and brown people. McGhee investigates the reasons why this notion is so prevalent and insuperable in terms of its essence. She ponders, for example, “why white people would view the presence of more people of color as a threat to their status, as if racial groups were in a direct competition, where progress for one group was an automatic threat to another” (p. xviii). By maintaining this position, white people resist any social policies that could benefit them largely because supporting them would also benefit people of color. For McGhee this “self-defeating trap” is a conundrum that needs to be encountered with urgency and vitality by those who genuinely care for the welfare of all Americans.

She acknowledges the power of conservative media as a massive assault on the way forward for a truly multiracial democracy. That is, a democratic society that embraces the real America as bound up in an inescapable human interdependency, even if certain hate groups and right-wing media fail to accept this. McGhee subtly unpacks this hypocrisy, not wanting to alienate potential white readers. Indeed, her study has an auto-ethnographic, participant-observer approach, whereby she embarks on a personal trek across the nation from Maine to Mississippi to California, endeavoring to comprehend what is lost by this continuous “them and us” backwardness that harms everyone.

Indeed, her study has an auto-ethnographic, participant-observer approach, whereby she embarks on a personal trek across the nation from Maine to Mississippi to California, endeavoring to comprehend what is lost by this continuous ‘them and us’ backwardness that harms everyone.

Again, there is nothing profoundly new here; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed out the essence of what McGhee ponders decades ago. He was prescient in his outlook and espoused the need for the nation to rise above its pettiness, vindictiveness, and downright unfairness in order to pursue the universal needs for health care for all, fair wages, and an end to poverty. It is the latter that hurts all Americans, but white people tend to hang on doggedly to the age-worn delusion that “I may be poor, but at least I’m white,” which stifles the possibility that they may comprehend their chance to create a better America that moves beyond racialized thought and practice. McGhee is a keen observer of this error among white Americans—she deserves credit for bringing the discussion to the forefront in a manner that tries to embrace all sides. However, like any sensible thinker, McGhee notes that among the main victims of white supremacy are the majority of white Americans. Is this finding going to be embraced by those who profit from the status quo? No. Indeed, right-wing politicians in Georgia, Texas, and other states are currently setting up ways to suppress the votes of people of color in future elections, simply because they fear losing their power over those very people. This for McGhee is a myopic assault on the fundamentals of democracy that will only do great harm to all Americans in the long-term. What is needed is not further division and a move backward into the crude age of white supremacy. Instead, Americans are much better off embracing an open society that allows for diversity of opinions and people. Stifling those who would want to vote does not bode well for a nation that prides itself on being “free and democratic,” even if it does fall short in its practice of such.

Moreover, issues such as student debt, healthcare, workers’ rights, imbalanced taxation that favors the wealthy, and money and lobbying in politics, to name a few, are universal matters that impact almost all Americans. Yes, racism can be involved in these areas too, but the fact remains that most people in the US are not wealthy, nor do they benefit from the policies that favor the rich. So why does so much ignorance exist? McGhee’s book offers an incisive analysis for anyone interested in comprehending the negative cost of racism, which does nothing to improve the lives of the vast majority of white Americans. Racism, in other words, fails to offer anything of substance to those who rally behind its evil. McGhee is concerned that this continued path of racialized animosity in society will only lead to a “dog-eat-dog race war” as demographic changes inevitably create a minority white America (p. xxi). Crucially, there needs to be a wake-up call among those who continue to ply dubious racial theories that have no veracity or worth other than to continue to divide those who should unite.

The main thrust of McGhee’s treatise is to explain that there is no benefit to white America any longer playing a ‘zero-sum-game’ when it comes to racialized hierarchy.

In being upfront with her main audience, it could be contended that McGhee is ultimately endeavoring to appeal to white people, she states: “For white people to free themselves from the debt of responsibility for racism past and present would be liberating. But there isn’t an established route for redemption; America hasn’t had a truth-and-reconciliation process like other wounded societies” (p. 223). The main thrust of McGhee’s treatise is to explain that there is no benefit to white America any longer playing a “zero-sum-game” when it comes to racialized hierarchy. That method did not succeed in the past, and it will not succeed in the future. What is required is a continued effort to come to terms with a racist past and present, while offering a multiracial coalition that is grounded in what is best for all to thrive in the richest nation on earth. There should not be, echoing the civil and human rights leaders of the past, poverty in a vast ocean of material wealth. There is plenty of opportunity for all to prosper if only the best of humanity is accentuated and encouraged in all the people.

McGhee covers a lot of ground in her poignant, personal interaction with this sensitive subject matter. Her outlook is arguably a tad too sanguine, yet hopeful for the future if indeed the multiracial coalition that voted a racist out of office can build beyond its seven million voter majority. She is, however, concerned about growing social inequality, which could lead to a catastrophe if not addressed. McGhee believes the US is currently in a crisis with a number of related salient tentacles. Without engaging positively with the immense diversity of the nation and its innate power, this current social malaise will continue to produce negative outcomes for solidarity. Essentially, wealthy conservative white men continue, with the aid of lobbyists, right-wing media, and unscrupulous politicians, to peddle nefarious ways of dividing and conquering the vast majority of Americans. Unfortunately, without a rise in critical consciousness that is cognizant of the ways of political manipulation and misinformation, Americans cannot expect significant change in the social order.

One could argue that McGhee is ultimately assessing about 40 percent of the voting population who are die-hard in their misplaced beliefs in whiteness. Indeed, over Trump’s four years in office, this majority-white cohort was an immovable obstacle that directly or indirectly ingrained racism more deeply into the body politic. Moreover, they could not see the strength in letting go of such a fundamental attachment to a false ideology that created only enmity rather than social solidarity. Yes, the US is in crisis in the 2020s, and McGhee offers a study that is compassionate without losing sight of the ultimate goal embedded in the American credo: uniting the “We” in “We the People.”

Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels.
Interdisciplinary Subjects: African and African American Studies , Latin American & Latina/o Studies , Racial Justice
Subject: Social & Behavioral Sciences

Mark Christian, Ph.D., is a professor in the City University of New York. He is a prolific writer in the fields of Africana studies and Sociology.