When Heather McGhee was a 25-year-old staffer at Demos, the progressive think tank she would eventually lead, she went to Congress to present findings on shocking increases in individual and family debt.
“Few politicians in Washington knew what it was like to have bill collectors incessantly ringing their phones about balances that kept growing every month,” McGhee writes in her new book, “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together.”
Demos’s explanatory attempts failed. When Congress finally took action in 2005, it made the problem worse, passing a bankruptcy bill that made escaping unsustainable debt harder than ever. For McGhee, the disaster was an education in the limits of research, which is often no match for the brute power of big money. But as she was walking down the hallway of the Russell Senate Office Building, she learned something else.
Stopping to adjust her new shoes near the door of a Senate office, she wrote, she heard “the bombastic voice of a man going on about the deadbeats who had babies with multiple women and then declared bankruptcy to dodge the child support.” She doesn’t know whether the man was a Democrat or a Republican, but when she heard him she realized she and her allies might have missed something. They’d thought of debt and bankruptcy primarily as a class issue. Suddenly she understood that for some of her opponents, it was more about race.
She wondered how, as a Black woman, she’d been caught off guard. “I hadn’t even thought to ask the question about this seemingly nonracial financial issue, but had racism helped defeat us?” she wrote.