Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

PA DEI Summer Book Read Conversation - "The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together"

Kojo Clarke, Director Diversity Equity and Inclusion and the Parents Association Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Task Force recently led our first community conversation about the insights and ideas presented in the summer book read The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee.

Four main questions were posed to lead the discussion:

Question 1: 
Let’s talk about the way McGhee’s metaphor of “the drained pool” has led to the student debt crisis—and how it is influencing generations of Black and White college graduates

  • We described McGhee's use of the idea of zero sum thinking as a way that creates rifts in communities when we believe only some can gain, and the power in the way she balances her personal insights and stories, with facts and data. Then McGhee suggests solutions and hopefulness rooted in examples of how to move forward and through the various challenges she mentions.
  • McGhee brings new insights on combining economics and race in ways that felt novel for some of us.

  • She paints a picture that connects history with the present, in a way that shows the cycle of how we position social and individual goods as supposedly opposed to each other. Additionally, to consider what is lost in misunderstanding and what we are not focusing on. 

  • Black Indigenous and other People Of Color are disproportionately affected by the poor economic decisions, including the student debt crisis, but the overall numbers of whites still exceed numbers from other groups in society.

    Question 2:
    McGhee coined the phrase “The Solidarity Dividend” to describe Americans reaching across racial lines to work together for the common good—and securing better lives for us all. Discuss some of the examples she shares where such solidarity has been achieved.

    • We start to see connections in our own communities - people happily donate to private sector initiatives around community building, but then don’t see town governments as being agents of community building. Although folks would like to “choose their own community, build their own America” that’s not open to everyone, but only to a select group in which they feel part.

    • The author’s initial feedback from close friends and followers (to her book) was positive, but the longer the book was in publication, those who disagreed started to respond. That said, a large majority were folks who described themselves as conservative and thanked her for helping them to challenge some of their own assumptions.

    • The book provided many facts and data providing tools to move beyond the strong emotional reaction to sensitive issues around race and class, but can also ground the discussion in data. 
    Question 3:
    McGhee shares a memory of white classmates proudly stating that they are fiscally conservative and socially liberal but challenges the morality of fiscal conservatism when we can afford to eliminate poverty. Do you agree with McGhee? Why or why not? How can you best explain this concept to peers or family members who might also think of themselves as “fiscally conservative but socially liberal”?
    • Simplifying the fiscal side of our government and treating it as different from the social side causes us to act as though fiscally we have plenty and have to be responsible about how we "spend". Conversely, socially we’re supportive in principle and want to provide people the “freedom” to be themselves, although we won’t support them financially. So this idea of fiscally conservative and socially liberal is really trying to have it both ways - benefit from the zero sum mentality, while not ostensibly standing in the way of other people’s progress. It also suggests that rooting out poverty and hunger etc. are about culture and not about structure. This statement separates and sanitizes the conversation into neat and tidy statements without breaking down the words in the phrase.

    • If you don’t think about who you want to help, but the idea of helping, where do you land? 

    • Even for immigrants, there are very often specific kinds of people who are "desired”, so the concept of pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps can also be challenged (i.e. considering how Italians came to be considered white and the way that separated them from the view of other immigrants). It suggests that we only want certain people and this raises the question of whether we have lost our American belief in people's ability to do their best 
    Question 4:
    What role does luck play in where we start out in life? And what responsibility do we have to that, if any? 
    • She describes “last place avoidance” which we re-described as that person who makes it past the challenges and then closes the door behind them. When people talk about progress as only the result of hard work, it creates the feeling that “I’ve paid my dues”.  Then, if the next person doesn’t have to work as hard, there will be an unfairness in the situation. It is tied up with the idea that our work becomes our identity and reason for self-worth. Once we take “character” out of it and bring in the human argument, people can realize their empathy. 

    • An important question to ask ourselves is "what is our purpose?": Am I doing this for myself or for other people? The idea of intrinsic value and personal enjoyment is a big one in the US, but there are stories of diversity and the ways that connection creates transformation, which lead us to a different, and "deeper" fulfillment personally and collectively.
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