Editor’s Notebook: A way forward for ‘The Sum of Us’
There is a way for everyone to prosper together, but it will take fresh eyes and hard work. (Getty Images)
I once exchanged emails with a newspaper reader who had submitted a letter to the editor that I rejected for some reason. Maybe he had made unverified claims or perhaps he was responding to someone else’s letter in a way that violated our policy – I can’t remember exactly. What I do recall is that at one point in our exchange, he said: “I know you don’t like me.”
He meant that because we were separated by politics, we were something like enemies. But it was still a jarring statement. I did disagree with him on just about every issue he had weighed in on over the years, but it never occurred to me to apply that disagreement in a personal way. I told him as much, and it was there and in that moment that we found a fleeting piece of common ground. He didn’t agree with me on anything, either, but there was no hatred. There was simply space between.
I thought of that exchange recently while reading Heather McGhee’s “The Sum of Us.” Her empathy is so thick on the pages that it strikes me as impossible for an open-minded reader to hold a defensive posture, regardless of ideology. The country was born fundamentally broken, remains broken, and only through unity can it be repaired – it’s a hard fact delivered softly by the author. McGhee wants the reader to stop staring at the sun-blotting canopy of policy debate and consider the economic and racial roots. What is the real purpose of anti-union legislation, of laws targeting voting access, of bans on teaching “divisive topics”? Why are the same debates taking place here in New Hampshire also taking place simultaneously in state legislatures throughout the nation? It’s an invisible hand, but to whom or what does it belong?
New Hampshire likes to tell the rest of the nation that it goes its own way, but these days that’s too often a convenient fiction. Spend some time on the sites of other States Newsroom affiliates around the nation and you’ll see that many bills, many fights are the same. The incivility of some elected representatives is the same. The invisible hand is attached to a body that seems to feed on division, fear, and dehumanization of the other.
There’s a way to break free of its grip.
McGhee writes: “What they say is a threat is in fact our country’s salvation – for when a nation founded on a belief in racial hierarchy truly rejects that belief, then and only then will we have discovered a New World. That is our destiny. To make it manifest, we must challenge ourselves to live our lives in solidarity across color, origin, and class; we must demand changes to the rules in order to disrupt the very notion that those who have more money are worth more in our democracy and economy.”
The full title of McGhee’s book is “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together.” I wonder whether the universal benevolence of that goal would be enough to get that letter writer from years ago to crack the cover. Would he toss it aside and argue that a thoughtful exploration of a “divisive topic” is a liberal trap set by white guilt? Would he argue against the very existence of systemic racism? Would he claim that the American dream is open to anyone who works hard to achieve it – the bootstrap myth – or that there is no such thing as white privilege? Progress is impossible, I can almost hear him say, until we stop looking backward and start moving forward.
But it’s the refusal to explore truth and reconciliation that makes real progress and equity impossible. To pejoratively dismiss any efforts toward a reckoning as “political correctness,” “wokeness,” or “virtue signaling” reinforces a narrative of innocence that we all know in our hearts and histories to be false.
Until there is an earnest national effort to unearth the institutional roots of racist policies, until we not only understand but embrace how the diversity of our communities makes us better and stronger, we will remain marooned on the edges of the great divide.
“The Sum of Us” may not be the long-sought solution to America’s fundamental problem – no one book can be that – but it does a remarkable job of illuminating the path.
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