Why can’t we have nice things? Depending on your lot in life, you may ponder this from time to time. Things like easy access to health care, fair public utilities, unions that provide job security and protect worker rights—these are all societal gains that many other nations have achieved. So why can’t the United States, the wealthiest nation on the planet, provide these and other amenities to every citizen?
This is the question that Heather McGee, former director of the think tank Demos, asks in The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. She ably moves through some of the largest infrastructural deficiencies in the U.S. and explains how a zero-sum mindset, combined with the constant plague of systemic racism, have led to fewer amenities for all.
McGhee’s anecdotes about the past read like cautionary parables for the future. For instance, throughout the 1920s, the Works Progress Administration built hundreds of public swimming pools across the nation to provide relief from the summer sun. But after federal courts ruled that segregated swimming was unconstitutional, many cities opted to fill their grandest pools with concrete rather than allow Black swimmers to use them. And so no one got relief from the heat.
McGhee unpacks how this kind of thinking shows up in every sector of society. Businesses have stoked racial mistrust to divide unions in their factories, using social capital to turn workers against collective bargaining. Years of accumulated racial resentment have kneecapped attempts to provide universal healthcare coverage, from Harry Truman’s era to Barack Obama’s. State-subsidized college tuition and affordable housing were vilified as handouts for the undeserving poor, which led to absurdly high tuition rates and the housing market crash of 2008.
Supported by remarkable data-driven research and thoughtful interviews with those directly affected by these issues, McGhee paints a powerful picture of the societal shortfalls all around us. There is a greater, more just America available to us, and McGhee brings its potential to light.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: The Sum of Us is excellent on audiobook, read by the author.