The Sum of Us

by Heather McGhee

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The Sum of Us Characters

The main characters in The Sum of Us are Heather McGhee, Dr. Gail Christopher, and Janice Tomlin.

  • Heather McGhee is the author of The Sum of Us and the former president of Demos. She draws on research, personal reflections, and first-hand reportage in her argument for racial unity. 
  • Dr. Gail Christopher is a policy expert who works with the organization Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation, whose equality initiatives McGhee supports. Christopher is McGhee’s mother.
  • Janice Tomlin was the primary plaintiff in a case against predatory loan providers that disproportionately target Black homeowners.


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Last Updated on April 8, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1232

Heather McGhee

Heather McGhee is the author of the book, and while the content is not strictly about her life, she references specific details of her experiences throughout the text. McGhee writes in the first person when she describes her conversations with various interview subjects she met as she travelled across the country studying America’s racial hierarchy and researching potential solutions and models for progress.

McGhee grew up in the Midwest and recalls the region’s influence on her views of systemic inequality and America’s economic reality. She recalls observing and pondering homelessness and reflects on a time when union jobs were considered admirable. Her own family experienced intermittent poverty, with periods of relative prosperity followed by times when the bills would stack up and go unpaid. 

Inspired by the potential good she could do for people of color, McGhee worked for Demos, an organization that researches and proposes solutions for inequity in the United States. However, she quickly learned that the country’s racial hierarchy, deeply held prejudices, and the concentrated power present ongoing obstacles to progress. McGhee earned a law degree and returned to Demos to serve as its president in 2014. Despite the organization’s meaningful work, McGhee decided after a few years that she needed to investigate the “questions of belonging, competition, and status—questions that in this country keep returning to race,” and so she left her position at Demos to begin research for her book.

McGhee notes that, in addition to seeking answers and finding solutions, she undertook her studies for personal reasons. When she left Demos, she was pregnant with a child who would have a diverse racial identity, from “grandparents [who are] Black, white, and South Asian.” She later also references an article on climate change she read while pregnant with her son. The threatening reality of raising a child in a world marred by racism and inequality proved a key motivation in McGhee’s work.

Dr. Gail Christopher

Dr. Christopher is McGhee’s mother. She figures in the book’s conclusion due to her work for Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation (TRHT). The framework for TRHT emphasizes the investigation of racial hierarchy in the law, housing practices, and the economy. In order to implement such measures, the community must form a diverse representative group of citizens to serve as leaders. Christopher is “an expert in public health and social policy,” and McGhee interviews her about why the country should adopt TRHT initiatives as a way to achieve equality and justice for all. Christopher believes that Americans do not need racial hierarchy and can move past it as a nation; she is optimistic that Americans have the potential to see a way forward. By the end of her research, McGhee asserts that the United States should adopt the TRHT program and that it should be fully supported by the government. 

Janice Tomlin

Janice Tomlin’s story forms the crux of the chapter about unequal and discriminatory housing practices, the same corruption that led to the economic crash of 2008. Janice and her husband Isaiah bought their first home in 1978, as a one-year wedding anniversary gift to themselves. Both were the first in their respective families to become homeowners. Segregation and poverty had prevented their parents from investing in a home, but even on their modest salaries—as a teacher and mechanic—they saved enough for a down payment. 

Janice tells McGhee the story of how she was defrauded by Chase Mortgage Brokers, who began to call the home incessantly in 1998. Janice finally made an appointment, and she recounts how polite the saleswoman was, how she appealed to their common Christianity, and how she patiently answered Janice’s many questions. Janice and Isaiah would be taken advantage of by Chase, who had them refinance their home as a subprime mortgage with a high interest rate, even though they did not need to be placed in the subprime borrowers category. The salesperson “hid from Janice the extent of the high-cost fees that would be taken out of the Tomlins’ home equity at signing.” This unethical equity-stripping practiced by Chase and other predatory lenders led people across the country to lose their homes and the housing market to crash a decade later. The example of the Tomlins, however, also reveals the racism behind the corrupt business model, as Black homeowners were more likely to be targeted for subprime loans regardless of their credit history.

Janice became the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit, which helped over a thousand people keep their homes. At her lawyer’s request, the humble Janice recounts how she was able to win over the judge in the case by telling a story from her classroom. She taught the children to say the Pledge of Allegiance and to honor the flag because they “have faith in it.” The story implies that the same faith in America can be maintained only if citizens are treated justly, so Janice’s optimism and devotion to doing good for the community serve as a beacon of hope for progress in the future. 

Torm Nompraseurt

Torm Nompraseurt is a Laotian man who came to the United States as a refugee in 1975 and who serves on the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN). McGhee meets Torm in Richmond, California, an unincorporated city that has borne the brunt of environmental pollution in the region. McGhee drives around Richmond with Torm, observing the giant Chevron refinery that dominates the landscape and learning about the various pollutants that poison the town, from the plant and from cars on the nearby highway. 

The community of Richmond has a diverse population, made up largely of people of color, while the Point Richmond neighborhood, situated on a hill, houses most of the white residents. The city becomes a case study for the ways in which communities of color suffer from the impacts of industrial pollution. Torm and APEN leader Miya Yoshitani discuss efforts to organize and reform but tell McGhee that Chevron “learned how to pit community groups against each other” to prevent solidarity and progress. However, APEN has achieved some gains, including a number of solar panels as “part of the community benefits agreement.” 

Citizens of Lewiston, Maine

While not one character, the town of Lewiston serves as an exemplar for McGhee’s concept of the Solidarity Dividend. After an influx of Somali refugees moved to the town in the early 1990s, Lewiston began to see economic growth as the immigrants filled previously empty apartments and storefronts. Phil Nadeau, a city administrator, gives McGhee a history of the town, its decline and resurgence, and he acknowledges that “immigration can be a win-win for locals.” Cecile Thornton, a citizen of Franco-American heritage, discovered that she could practice her lost French with African immigrants who spoke the language too. Bruce Noddin, at the encouragement of a woman named ZamZam, joined the Maine’s People’s Alliance and started the Community Unity Barbeque, an event driven by cross-cultural unity and celebration. A white woman named Brenda began making and repairing African clothes after building a friendship with Somali immigrant Mama Shukri, who worked in the Lewiston store known as the Mogadishu Business Center. McGhee notes that similar movements are happening in other rural American communities, and though it is only a small start, towns like Lewiston could “provide glimpses of the way . . . much of America could be.”

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