This year has given Americans the opportunity to face some ugly truths about our country. The torch that was lit when George Floyd was murdered on Memorial Day continues to burn day and night. Under that light, American citizens are daring to step out of the protection of their houses and step into the public square to debate issues such as freedom, patriotism, policing, and racism. Young adults are leading the charge in the streets and on social media to raise awareness that we can no longer neglect the past or remain willfully ignorant of the severity and scope of our country’s racial disparity. Yet, many of us lack the words to articulate our current turmoil or find the path forward.
In an effort to deepen our understanding of race and racism in America, we’re turning to authors to shed light on how we got to where we are, how to have civil discourse about inflammatory topics, and steps that we can take individually and collectively to heal. Here are eight books written by academics, historians and activists that we are reading.
1. The People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
What it’s about: This classic national bestseller chronicles American history from the bottom up, throwing out the official narrative taught in schools—with its emphasis on great men in high places—to focus on the street, the home, and the workplace.
Why pick it up: Zinn shows that many of America’s greatest battles – fights for fair wages, eight-hour workdays, child labor laws, health and safety standards, universal suffrage, women’s rights, racial equality – were carried out at the grassroots level, against bloody resistance.
2. The Racial Contract by Charles W. Mills
What it’s about: With a sweeping look at the European expansionism and racism of the last five hundred years, Charles W. Mills demonstrates how this peculiar and unacknowledged “contract” has shaped a system of global European domination: how it brings into existence “whites” and “non-whites,” full persons and sub-persons, how it influences white moral theory and moral psychology; and how this system is imposed on non-whites through ideological conditioning and violence.
Why pick it up: “Fish don’t see water, men don’t see patriarchy, and white philosophers don’t see white supremacy. We can do little about fish. Now Charles Mills has made it clear how whites dominate people of color, even (or especially) when they have no such intention. He asks whites not to feel guilty, but rather to do something much more difficult – understand and take responsibility for a structure which they did not create but still benefit from.” – Jennifer Hochschild, Princeton University
3. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
What it’s about: In 2008, months before his election as president, Barack Obama assailed feckless black fathers who had reneged on responsibilities that ought not “to end at conception”. Where had all the black fathers gone, Obama wondered. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander has a simple answer to their whereabouts: they’ve gone to jail. Alexander’s book is a stunning account of the rebirth of a caste-like system in the United States, one that has resulted in millions of African Americans locked behind bars and then relegated to a permanent second-class status – denied the very rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement. Since its publication in 2010, the book became a New York Times bestseller; been dubbed the “secular bible of a new social movement” by numerous commentators, including Cornel West; and has led to consciousness-raising efforts in universities, churches, community centers, re-entry centers, and prisons nationwide. The New Jim Crow tells a truth our nation has been reluctant to face.
Why pick it up: Alexander shows that, by targeting black men through the War on Drugs and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of colorblindness. The New Jim Crow challenges the civil rights community – and all of us – to place mass incarceration at the forefront of a new movement for racial justice in America.
4. White American Youth: My Dissent Into America’s Most Violent Hate Movement – And How I Got Out by Christian Picciolini
What it’s about: At 14, Christian Picciolini went from naïve teenager to white supremacist – and soon, the leader of the first neo-Nazi skinhead gang in the United States. How was he radicalized, and how did he ultimately get out of the movement? In this courageous book, Picciolini shares the surprising and counterintuitive solution to hate in all forms.
Why pick it up: As featured on the TED stage, a stunning look inside the world of violent hate groups by a onetime white supremacist leader who, shaken by a personal tragedy, abandoned his destructive life to become an anti-hate activist.
5. Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist by Eli Saslow
What it’s about: Derek Black grew up at the epicenter of white nationalism. His father founded Stormfront, the largest racist community on the internet. His godfather, David Duke, was a KKK Grand Wizard. By the time Derek turned 19, he had become an elected politician with his own daily radio show – already regarded as the “the leading light” of the burgeoning white nationalist movement.
Then he went to college. At New College of Florida, he continued to broadcast his radio show in secret each morning, living a double life until a classmate uncovered his identity and sent an email to the entire school. “Derek Black … white supremacist, radio host … New College student???” The ensuing uproar overtook one of the most liberal colleges in the country. Some students protested Derek’s presence on campus, forcing him to reconcile for the first time with the ugliness of his beliefs. Other students found the courage to reach out to him, including an Orthodox Jew who invited Derek to attend weekly Shabbat dinners. It was because of those dinners – and the wide-ranging relationships formed at that table – that Derek started to question the science, history, and prejudices behind his worldview. As white nationalism infiltrated the political mainstream, Derek decided to confront the damage he had done.
Why pick it up: “No one can match Pulitzer Prize winner Eli Saslow’s skill at telling the most improbable, humane, and riveting tales of our time. Anyone despairing at the hate that has fueled so much of America’s politics ought to read this unforgettable story.” – Jane Mayer, New York Times bestselling author.
6. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
What it’s about: What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden? Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s attempt to answer these questions in a letter to his adolescent son. Coates shares with his son – and readers – the story of his awakening to the truth about his place in the world through a series of revelatory experiences, from Howard University to Civil War battlefields, from the South Side of Chicago to Paris, from his childhood home to the living rooms of mothers whose children’s lives were taken as American plunder.
Why pick it up: Beautifully woven from personal narrative, reimagined history, and fresh, emotionally charged reportage, Between the World and Me clearly illuminates the past, bracingly confronts our present, and offers a transcendent vision for a way forward.
7. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin Diangelo
What it’s about: The New York Times best-selling book exploring the counterproductive reactions white people have when their assumptions about race are challenged, and how these reactions maintain racial inequality. Robin DiAngelo, a white woman and antiracist educator, deftly illuminates the phenomenon of white fragility and “allows us to understand racism as a practice not restricted to ‘bad people’. Referring to the defensive moves that white people make when challenged racially, white fragility is characterized by emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and by behaviors including argumentation and silence. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium and prevent any meaningful cross-racial dialogue.
Why pick it up: DiAngelo invites us to have courageous conversations about the culture of complicity. To eradicate racism, she encourages white people to relinquish ingrained hyper-attachment to individualism and embrace predictable patterns of their own racial group. Her book provides strategies for people who truly endeavor to be a part of the solution.
8. So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
What it’s about: How do you tell your roommate her jokes are racist? Why did your sister-in-law take umbrage when you asked to touch her hair – and how do you make it right? How do you explain white privilege to your white, privileged friend? In So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo guides readers of all races through subjects ranging from intersectionality and affirmative action to “model minorities” in an attempt to make the seemingly impossible possible: honest conversations about race and racism, and how they infect almost every aspect of American life.
Why pick it up: Whether you’re beginning your journey to understanding racism in America or believe yourself to be well-versed on the subject, this book is a tool to help broach conversations and help us work toward a better world for people of color from all walks of life.
Question: What books are you reading to understand and dismantle racism?