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A Turning Point: A conversation with 'The Sum of Us' author Heather McGhee

McGhee's work explores issues ranging from politics to education that ripple through cross sections of Americans — and asks why we aren't working together.

CLEVELAND — Author Heather McGhee shows us the math: Together is better.

But in her New York Times bestselling book "The Sum of Us," she explains how in America, we aren't buying into the equation.

In a recent conversation with 3News anchor Sara Shookman, McGhee discussed the essential messages of her book, starting with what she calls the "zero-sum paradigm."

"This zero-sum idea [is] the idea that there's a fixed pie of well-being," she explained. "'If we get a bigger slice, they must get a smaller slice' is a really dominant world view in America, and it's actually racialized. It's the sense that there's a racial competition."

McGhee argues that, at its heart, this idea is driven by racism. That is, the idea that progress for some of us must come at the expense of others. McGhee uses the world of sports as a metaphor.

"We end up rooting against our own teammates," she said. "You think of the economy as a game. You want all your best players on the field scoring points for your team. You don't want any sidelined, but the zero-sum lie tells you that we're not all on the same team."

Watch our full "Turning Point" special in the player below:

McGhee first saw these issues in her work heading the Washington, D.C. think tank Demos, and wanted to learn why. So, in 2018, she hit the road — traveling the country to explain through the stories of everyday Americans, including here in Northeast Ohio.

In the book, she recounts an earlier experience in Cleveland's Mount Pleasant neighborhood that foreshadowed the foreclosure crisis. 

"I am [as] emotional about it as I was on that fateful day in 2007, when I walked the neighborhood, saw all of the homes that were in foreclosure that didn't have to be, that shouldn't have been," McGhee said. "I also was so upset because it felt like 'When would America learn its lesson that you can't just exploit people for so long and not recognize that our fates are linked?'"

In her words, while many Americans ended up in dire financial straits, the experiences of homeowners here in Mount Pleasant were simply the first, easy targets for subprime lenders.

"And here's why for me: It's very clear that without racism, we would not have had the financial crash of 2008 and lost trillions of dollars in wealth in 8 million jobs," she explained. "It's because Black families like those in Mount Pleasant were the canaries in the coal mine early on."

McGhee's work also explores issues of politics, unions, education, and others that ripple through cross sections of Americans — and highlights why we're all struggling. She says she was frustrated to see Americans working against one another, instead of together — the opposite of the age-old idea that a rising tide lifts all boats.

"[My goal was] to try to answer a simple question, but that was a vexing one, which was, 'Why does it seem like we can't have nice things?'"
By nice things, McGhee says she's not talking about luxury goods. She means universal healthcare, a living wage, well-funded public schools.

"These are the types of things that we as Americans should have and that used to be as part of a set of an American dream," she told us. "That it feels like the lights are being turned out on."

To fix it, McGhee outlines the moments she sees as "solidarity dividends" — our hope for a path forward. 

"It's this idea that there can be gains that we can unlock, but only when we come together across lines of race," she said. "It's things where there are solutions to common problems, and if we come together, the power of the many can take over the few who are standing in our way."

McGhee is back on the road now, seeking out these stories of hope that will be told in a podcast spinoff of "The Sum of Us" that will be out this summer. But first, the paperback version of the book will be released on Feb. 8. It includes her thoughts on the Jan. 6insurrection, President Biden's first year in office, and questions to spark discussion in your group. She wants people to read this together, see the mutual interest, and see a way into the solution for themselves.

"The Sum of Us," won numerous awards last year and was often referred to as one of the best books of the year.

It got a lot of people talking, and that's why 3News is partnering with Cuyahoga County Public Library to host a virtual community conversation with author Heather McGhee in the spring. Sara Shookman will conduct the Q&A.

Stay tuned for updates on that event, and if you'd like to read the book, Cuyahoga County Public Library has made that easy for you. Call or visit your local Cuyahoga County Public Library branch to check out a copy of the book or visit www.cuyahogalibrary.org/wkyc to access the ebook or audio version.