Buy, Borrow, Bypass: Recent Books on Racial Justice

Racial justice and injustice are all over the news these days, and for good reason. It’s essential that all of us, especially those of us who are white, understand the roots of racism and its effects. As a southern white American, I’ve seen racism my whole life, but it’s only in the last few years that I’ve become aware of just how pervasive it is in American society.

A lot of my learning has come from books, and 2017 has brought a large supply of new books to learn from. These are my thoughts on a few of this year’s books on race and racial justice.

tears we cannot stopTears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson

Dyson, a Georgetown professor and an ordained minister, delivers a searing sermon calling on white Americans to grapple with our country’s legacy of white supremacy. Formatted like a worship service, with sections titled “Hymns of Praise,” “Invocation,” “Scripture Reading,” and so on, this book is filled with stories of how black people have faced oppression and suspicion again and again. Dyson specifically addresses the ways many white people attempt to deflect any conversation about racism. His arguments about the difference between nationalism and patriotism are especially cogent. As a whole, the book is a powerful call for empathy.

Verdict: Buy. This is one to return to again and again.

policing the black manPolicing the Black Man: Arrest, Prosecution, and Imprisonment edited by Angela J. Davis

This collection of academic essays lays out how the American justice system singles out black men as objects of suspicion, deserving of punishment for even the smallest infraction. The authors look at recent headlines, but they also delve into history, showing how blackness has been criminalized throughout American history. Each author takes up a different aspect of the justice system, and together they provide a thorough picture of how the system is rigged. The essays do sometimes overlap, but each one provides something of value.

 Verdict: Borrow. Worth reading, but not a keeper.

The Color of Law CoverThe Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein

Before reading this book, I was aware of some aspects of America’s history of housing segregation. I knew, for instance, that real estate agents avoided showing black people homes in predominantly white neighborhoods and that black families moving into white neighborhoods faced persecution. But until reading this book, I had no idea how deep the problem goes. Rothstein carefully marshalls the evidence showing how segregation was not just a matter of chance but something that federal, state, and local governments had an active hand in. At every turn, when one segregationist law gets struck down, another racist practice comes along to subvert any efforts at desegregation. And those policies meant that black Americans lost out on opportunities to accumulate wealth through home equity that they could pass down through the generations. Rothstein includes several specific stories, but his overall approach is to focus on the patterns, rather than the individuals. I worried that this would make the book dry, but the clarity of Rothstein’s prose makes his arguments easy to follow.

Verdict: Buy. This will be a useful reference whenever stories about housing come up in the news.

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