The country is in another stir, but truth be told, it’s been like this for a good long time. People of color know this. The larger, paler percentage of us have typically – well, traditionally & culturally – been, at best, unaware of it.
This list is focused on systemic injustice, not just isolated hate crimes or “personal” racism. These books, in various ways, show how our social and economic structures are actually bent against people of color. You may disagree with their arguments, but you can’t do that unless you’ve first read them. Do your integrity that favor, at least.
When we talk about socio-economic structures, we’re talking about sources of power. On this list – which is not exhaustive, just a place to start – that power is located in the state and in the church. Sometimes it’s a deliberate conspiracy; sometimes it’s a case of earnestly trying to help someone while not realizing we’re standing on their neck. Both cases require material change.
The Fire Next Time – James Baldwin
Two essays make up this essential book from the 60s. One is in the form of an extraordinary letter Baldwin writes to his teenage nephew. In this letter, which at first seems like he’s warning his nephew about the dangers of living in a white world, he flips the whole thing on its head by admonishing him to be patient and loving towards white men, who are under the innocent delusion that they are superior to black men. They must be gently nursed back to reality. (You can actually read an earlier version of the letter – which is not long – right here.) The second essay is a devastating attack on American Christianity and its brutal treatment of African Americans and a dismissal of the approach of the Nation of Islam, for different reasons.
Don’t think this book is outdated; it is, after all these years, quite applicable to our current situation.
Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America – Michael O Emerson & Christian Smith
While we’re on the subject of religion in America, there are very challenging ideas in this book. To mention just one, the individualism of evangelical faith makes it nearly impossible for evangelicals to even acknowledge the role that socio-economic structures and institutions play in racism. It’s not that they do not believe in equality, it’s that it’s not within their overall world view that the American (and therefore Christian?) system could be that distorted and destructive. Any “possible” problems must lie elsewhere. This is especially fascinating – even essential – if you’re looking at it from within the faith. Here’s a more thorough look at the book.
More on the church:
The Cross and the Lynching Tree – James H Cone
Going deeper into the connection of faith and racism is Cone’s book, which is a blistering exposé on the complicity of (mostly) Bible belt churches in the lynching of African Americans. This is history and theology – another one for the person of faith.
Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion – Gregory Boyle
So we don’t despair, here is a story of the church getting it right. In a low income, mostly Hispanic neighborhood in Los Angeles, a spot which is more or less the gang capital of the world, Jesuit priest Gregory Boyle – working with his parish community – starts Homeboy Industries. This organization circumvents some of the roadblocks of the system (see below) by starting its own businesses to employ young men and women who would otherwise not have a way out of their dead end situations. They also have educational opportunities, legal assistance and more. This is in stark contrast to the state of the actual justice system, as you’ll find in the next entry. Just take a peek.
The New Jim Crow – Michelle Alexander
This might be the most important book on this list. Vastly disproportionate incarceration of African American men and the permanent discrimination that follows former inmates are the new Jim Crow. Using a slanted justice system, largely sold as the “War on Drugs”, black males are controlled and relegated to second class status. The labels are all different, but it’s segregation and inequality with the legal weight of the state behind it. All the details and evidence are in Michelle Alexander’s book. Feel free to think the idea sounds overwrought or exaggerated: it does sound crazy. Too bad it’s true. Here’s the NPR chat with Alexander. This one is crushing.
More on the justice system:
Just Mercy – Bryan Stevenson
Walter McMillian was accused of killing a white woman, and then railroaded thru the “justice” system to a death penalty, despite copious evidence of his innocence. Stevenson starts with McMillian’s story, and continues with other cases and out to the bigger picture of a distorted institution in this memoir.
Between the World and Me – Ta Nehisi Coates
Ta Nehisi Coates, taking a cue from The Fire Next Time, writes this letter (and part memoir) to his teenage son, similarly hoping to prepare him for life in a white world. He draws some different and very stark pictures than Baldwin. (We’ve met Coates recently; he’s doing Marvel’s Black Panther this year.)
Here is his famous piece for The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations”.
Why We Can’t Wait – Dr Martin Luther King Jr
It’s no surprise to find Dr King on this list, because you can’t make a list like this and ignore him: he’s the action hero philosopher and surely the greatest American in a long time. This is a collection of Dr King’s writings, mostly about nonviolence and the actions in Alabama in the early 60s. He picks apart a few of the nitty gritty details of systemic injustice, especially in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (which you can read right now here). One reason to read this is to notice the alarming similarities between King’s detractors and those who are now critical of Black Lives Matter. Eesh.
“If we – and I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of others – do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.” – James Baldwin
Editorial Note: To my fellow white folk, there are people literally fighting for their lives; one thing we can’t do is sit back and say “You’re doing it wrong”. What do we know about it? We have to stop thinking that our way of seeing reality is normative. These books allow a glimpse into a reality you and I do not experience, and – without needing a shred of validation from us – the picture they paint is true. If we don’t start buying in, we’re saying we’re ok with the status quo.