Heather McGhee on Why America Needs to Be Better Than the Sum of Its Parts

In 2018, Starbucks commissioned Heather McGhee to design its anti-bias training. The author and NBC News contributor spent three years traveling the U.S., researching how racism keeps us all from being great. This week on The Carlos Watson Show, she sits down to discuss the origins of her book, The Sum of Us, finding herself abroad and her thoughts on resetting America. The following are some of the best cuts from the full conversation, which you can find on the show’s podcast feed.


The Place the Book Was Born

Carlos Watson: Hey, I want to talk a little bit about you. I don’t even know where you grew up. Where did you grow up?

Heather McGhee: So, I was born on the South Side of Chicago and I was born in 1980. That means that this whole era of economic inequality, where the job quality is getting worse, the good manufacturing jobs are being shipped overseas, the schools and the parks and the libraries are losing funding, and there’s just a sense of we’re pulling apart from each other economically, that’s been my whole life.

That experience of seeing what was going on, on the South Side of Chicago when I was growing up, really propelled me into public service and into questions about the economy. Why is it that so many people work so hard and take home so little and are always so stressed? And why does it seem like the political conversation doesn’t see them, vilifies them, either neglects them at best or abuses them and scapegoats them at worst?

So, that’s how I got into the work that I do, really trying to ask big “why” questions about the economy, and then getting into research and advocacy around solutions to inequality. In some ways, Carlos, I feel like I just ran up against a wall. I was bringing data and research and advocacy into a fight where, because I wasn’t seeing how racism was strengthening the hand that was beating us on all of these economic fights, that frankly, if we won, would have been good for everybody. Including the majority of white people.

Because I wasn’t seeing how racism was strengthening the hand that beat us, I wasn’t coming to the fight with both hands. I wasn’t coming in as armed as I needed to be. And so, that’s why I set out on this journey to write the book, because I realized that if you don’t understand how racism in our politics and our policy structures the economy, then you can’t understand how to fix it.

An American Out of America

Watson: I’ve heard introverts say that I’m an introvert who’s mastered how to be in public and to be around, but I’m still an introvert. But you’re saying that you actually crossed over, that you went from introvert to extrovert. When did that happen?

McGhee: So, I used to hide a lot, just socially and all of that. I became a theater nerd in middle school, and then I realized that if I was onstage, I could take up space, and I could sing, and I could dance, and I could do all these things. But actually, it wasn’t until I left the country for the first significant amount of time my junior year in college, and I spent my junior year abroad in Italy, where I finally just saw myself. And I actually remember a very specific moment. It was in a bathroom at a restaurant, and I was washing my hands and I looked up and saw this person in the mirror, and I thought, “She’s beautiful.” And it hadn’t hurt that I’d had 20 men telling me I was beautiful in the streets in Italian on my way to that restaurant.

But it was not just like I was physically beautiful, but just I was seen, I was somebody. I had a life outside of my interior bookish life, and the rest is history. I mean, I’m now very, I’m a person in public. I don’t mind being, giving speeches and doing all this. And my great, great love in life is throwing parties, which of course has made this year very, very socially challenging for me because there’s nothing I love more than putting together a great party that brings hundreds of strangers together. It’s just my highest joy.

Reset the United States

Watson: Talk to me, if you would, a little bit about where you think this country goes from here. What would you put on the table if you were planning America’s next 250 years?

McGhee: That is such a good question, Carlos. And I think that’s where we are, truly. I mean, we are in, in some ways, I wish it felt a little bit different than the Reconstruction after the Civil War. I wish it didn’t feel like there was a Confederate flag being marched through the Capitol building, but we are in this moment right now where we are soon going to be a nation with no racial majority. And so, we have to ask this nation, which was founded on a lie, on the belief in a hierarchy of human value, and that hierarchy of human value, that belief was propagated in order to justify an economic model that was built on stolen land and stolen labor. Those are no longer our values. Those are no longer what is going to make us the richest as a society.

This exploitation, this zero-sum, this predation economy, it just isn’t serving us anymore as a society. It’s in a narrow band, and in fact that narrow band is richer than humans have ever been on the planet. But most Americans are struggling to make ends meet and to fulfill their dreams without debt. So we’ve got to reconstitute.

What’s exciting to me is that the idea of a multiracial democracy that takes a diverse room and says, “You’re ancestral strangers. You are people who have a tie to every community on the globe, and yet I’m going to give you” — America says this — “an equal say in setting the rules that govern all of our lives and that set opportunity for each other’s children.” That’s a radical idea. And yet I think if you dig deep, Americans of all stripes can get really excited about that idea if they trust one another.

So, one of the things that I think we need to do is first have a new set of standards for the kinds of stories that we consume that are called news, but right now have really spun off into a level of propaganda, and divisiveness, and detachment from the truth that fundamentally needs to be reined in. And we need a new birth of the commons of our ideas, and our facts, and our knowledge. That’s one piece of it.

Then we also need to experience the amazing potential … of being in a relationship, and in fellowship, and in celebration, and working with people who are different from one another. This idea that if we actually have so much difference, as people who live in those real hubs of diversity, which are not just New York City, they’re also Houston, those places where you really do have all the world’s communities represented.

What I found on my journey to write this book was that the people who had really dug into the potential of cross-racial solidarity, of working together with someone who is different from them in order to meet some common goal, whether it was organizing a car plant, or saving homes from foreclosure, or kicking out a big polluter in their community, they revealed the common humanity that connects us. Because if you’re working with someone on something that really matters to you, your race and your culture are not as important as your desire to clean up the air in your community. You connect on a level of value that’s higher than what divides us and what keeps us apart. So, I think we need to provide more of those experiences.

Now we’ve got millions of people out of work. We’ve got young people who are looking at society and saying, “What’s my path? I’m saddled with debt.” College is now like a video game, what’s happening? There’s so much work to be done. I think we need to have a massive jobs program in this country that particularly brings people in fellowship with people who are not like them. Whether you’re building a park, or creating a community center, or whatever it is that is the New Deal–era jobs program, vaccinating people, etc., all of the different public health and infrastructure needs that our society has, let’s do those in teams that reflect America’s diversity.

In many ways, the Army was that for many generations. I don’t think we need to have to train people to kill to find some way to be united by a common purpose and a higher purpose. That’s one of the things that I would do to reconstitute an American fabric and the fibers between us so that we can really take pride in how singular this American experiment of a multiracial democracy is, and not shy from the truth about our history and about how pervasive racism is. My book is not about shying away from the truth, but it’s also about expanding the aperture to show that, in some ways, because racism is so pervasive, it impacts us all.

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