5 Good Books about Race in America

Book Rioters, I’m following the Twitter feeds out of Ferguson, MO, and I am feeling disheartened, disgusted, sad, scared, and powerless. It seems like a good moment for a roundup of books about race in America.

51lILnrBZ3LThe New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colourblindness by Michelle Alexander is a must-read title if you’ve ever looked at the disproportionate rates of arrest by race in the United States and wondered, “What’s up with that?” Alexander’s prose is elegant as she explores the way sentencing and incarceration is used not only as punishment, but as a sophisticated means of social control.

The genius of the current caste system, and what most distinguishes it from its predecessors, is that it appears voluntary. People choose to commit crimes, and that’s why they are locked up or locked out, we are told. This feature makes the politics of responsibility particularly tempting, as it appears the system can be avoided with good behavior. But herein lies the trap. All people make mistakes. All of us are sinners. All of us are criminals. All of us violate the law at some point in our lives. In fact, if the worst thing you have ever done is speed ten miles over the speed limit on the freeway, you have put yourself and others at more risk of harm than someone smoking marijuana in the privacy of his or her living room. Yet there are people in the United States serving life sentences for first-time drug offenses, something virtually unheard of anywhere else in the world.

511E2PP2i3LSome of My Best Friends Are Black by Tanner Colby explores the myth of a post-racial America and particularly challenges the notion that integration of communities and neighbourhoods, as a process, is in any way finished. Colby uses four case studies, interweaving them with larger social trends, to examine how racial divides really work on the ground in America today. Simultaneously showing the history, the progress, and the distance yet to travel regarding urban planning, this balanced portrait of American sentiments about race is worth your time.

Many people in Nixon’s camp had genuine faith in affirmative action. It wasn’t designed to fail, but it wasn’t designed to succeed, either; the intent behind it was not rooted in a desire to help black people attain equal standing in society. It was riot insurance. It was a financial incentive for blacks to stay in their own communities and out of the suburbs.

41GM+SknvjLWhistling Vivaldi and Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us by Claude M. Steele is a book for anyone who has ever wondered, even in passing, even in the quietest part of your brain, “Why doesn’t such-and-such a group just work harder?” Steele gives examples and evidence from across socioeconomic, racial, and gender groups to show how the expectations we hold for each other — positive, negative, and seemingly neutral — have a real-world impact on our ability to succeed.

This is not an argument against trying hard, or against choosing the stressful path. There is no development without effort; and there is seldom great achievement, or boundary breaking, without stress. And to the benefit of us all, many people have stood up to these pressures… The focus here, instead, is on what has to be gotten out of he way to make these playing fields merely level. People experiencing stereotype threat are already trying hard. They’re identified with their performance. They have motivation. It’s the extra ghost slaying that is in their way.

41-YBjYuQvLWhite Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son by Tim Wise is a memoir about advantage and opportunity. If the phrase “check your privilege” gets your back up, it’s probably because you don’t really understand what privilege is and what you’re being asked to do in that context. Wise thoughtfully unpacks his own privilege and interrogates his own position in American society. A good primer on the concept and critical reading for anyone who wants to be an effective ally in the fight for social justice.

And let’s just be honest, there is no such place called ‘justice,’ if by that we envision a finish line, or a point at which the battle is won and the need to continue the struggle over with. After all, even when you succeed in obtaining a measure of justice, you’re always forced to mobilize to defend that which you’ve won. There is no looming vacation. But there is redemption in struggle.

51iGu4hvZyLThe Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King points out the value in understanding history, and the history of racial tension certainly needs to take a spin through colonialism and colonization. King’s exploration of this history is tinged with black humour and his signature absurdist style, but it’s also biting, thorough, and unflinching. This is an incredibly effective reminder of the importance of our collective past in shaping our futures.

A great many people in North America believe that Canada and the United States, in a moment of inexplicable generosity, gave treaty rights to Native people as a gift. Of course, anyone familiar with the history of Indians in North America knows that Native people paid for every treaty right, and in some cases, paid more than once. The idea that either country gave First Nations something for free is horseshit.

This list is by no means comprehensive, but I think it’s a decent start. Please share any titles you would like to see added to this list in the comments below.