We’re living in a resurgence of the American civil rights movement. A movement that never truly ended, but brought the United States enough progress to restore white Americans’ belief in the ideals and values this country was founded on. Most Black people, most People of Color really, know that we have never truly seen our country reckon with her history, truly make amends for the generations of enslaved people who fueled the economy, or for the ongoing, pervasive, and intentional disenfranchisement of their descendants. This is evidenced by the inequities that make themselves painfully clear to us in our lived experience here.
Whether it be the observation that your company’s diversity achievements came from hiring Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Color in low-level roles with little ability to affect change. Or maybe it’s seeing students in wealthy, white communities be given substantial access to opportunities while students in low-income, Black communities go under-resourced. Could also be that Black women have the highest maternal mortality rates being 2.5 times more likely to die of maternal causes. Healthcare, housing, criminal legal, education –– we know, and have known, that there is an intricate web of racism that exists within almost every system that we interact with in our lives. A web that, at any given time in the day, at any given point in our experiences as Black people living in this country, will snag us. Remind us of its presence. Force us to attempt to shake free, even force us to watch others attempt to shake free, knowing that sometimes we won’t be able to. Where is the web and how do we collectively spot the strands? Better yet, how do we dismantle the shit altogether?
Rather than striving to simply navigate the racism, we instead work collectively to reimagine what we’ve known.
We learn and commit to a deeper learning of our past and our present. We commit to teaching the next generation and allowing them to teach us in the hope that we rise out of the belief that “enough progress” is good enough. That rather than striving to simply navigate the racism, we instead work collectively to reimagine what we’ve known. Holding tight to that hope, these six books will always hold space on my bookcase as just a few of the resources that contribute to my ongoing learning.
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD
Following a series of speaking engagements, Dr. Tatum received a letter from a New Jersey principal who asked if she would come speak to his staff about why all the Black students in their fairly diverse high school were sitting together at lunch. Based on the many similar questions she’d received, Dr. Tatum knew the unspoken direct request was “How do we fix this problem?”
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteriawas at the forefront of my own racial identity work. When and how did I develop my relationship to race in America? How did that process determine how I navigated my environments? My life? In my efforts to see and dismantle this complex web, I wanted to take a critical eye to how I came to be in it. This was the book that shed so much light on my desire to assimilate in school and my awakening in Dr. Allen’s African and African American Studies courses in college. Understanding my relationship to race meant understanding my relationship to racism.
As Black people, we’re well aware of the racism that exists throughout our society in ways that white people typically aren’t. Why is this? Because it’s either us, or people who look like us who are the most adversely affected. Across various systems – healthcare, education, employment, criminal legal, etc. – data shows that while all People of Color are impacted by the effects of systemic racism, white people and Black people make up the ends of that spectrum.
In Stamped From the Beginning, Ibram Kendi chronicles the evolution of racism through the inherently racist ideas that were held by those shaping policies based on a false reality. Kendi shared recently, “Slaveowners imagined they were being persecuted by immoral and illegal abolitionists. Ku Klux Klansmen imagined white people were being persecuted by tyrannical Black politicians and voters and landowners…Today, the red hats imagine they’re being persecuted by divisive anarchists, critical race theorists, and antiracists of all races. None of these racist ideas are inherent.” Taking me from Colonial America to the election of President Obama, Kendi takes an incredibly researched approach to illustrate how racist ideas form into racist policies based on one group’s perception of being threatened by the freedom of another.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
In 2016, Netflix released Ava Duvernay’s “13th,” a documentary focused on the 13th amendment – “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” This loophole included in the outlawing of slavery that opened the door for Black people to be disproportionately charged with crimes to justify an evolved form of slavery. This was explored in 2010 by Michelle Alexander in the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
At the time Alexander’s assertions were bold, but today her observations of discrimination in policymaking and policing are at the root of the Black Lives Matter movement. Throughout The New Jim Crow, Alexander details the insidious policies that contribute to the disenfranchisement of Black Americans through mass incarceration in the criminal legal system.
Did you know that the Justice Department recently found that Yale discriminated against white and Asian applicants? They weren’t as likely to get in as Black applicants. Do you remember Abigail Fisher? The white girl who challenged affirmative action policies because she didn’t get into the University of Texas at Austin? Frequently, attempts to increase access and opportunity for Black people come head-to-head with the entitlement of white people. Similar to the racist ideas Kendi lays out in Stamped From the Beginning, these attempts to build more equitable systems are quickly met with an “All Lives Matter” response.
When Affirmative Action Was White goes back to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to explain how efforts to relieve hardship following the Great Depression merged with racist laws to effectively create a government-funded affirmative action program. These programs that disproportionately benefited whites while discriminating against Black, Indigenous, People of Color, allowing white families to begin building the wealth and mobility we see today at a higher rate.
Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice by Paul Kivel
I believe in knowing the work and unlearning that white people must do to become antiracist. In part because it helps me speak directly to the mindsets and behaviors I observe in my white counterparts, but also because it brings me peace of mind. Before exploring the work of white antiracists, the mental gymnastics of trying to find the words to explain my experience would almost surely induce fatigue. It allowed me to find the language to describe situations I have found myself in. Example: “She did that thing she does where she asks for feedback, but acts like she didn’t want it,” may be read more accurately as, “She asks for feedback because she believes she should, but her desire for comfort as a white woman means she gets defensive when confronted with racist behaviors.”
In Uprooting Racism, Kivel provides white readers explicit advice and tools on how to transform their thinking and therefore their behaviors in order to unlearn and dismantle systemic racism. This understanding has been beyond helpful to me.
Disclaimer: It’s my belief that as a Black man it’s not my responsibility to educate my oppressor on how they are oppressing me. Instead, it is the responsibility of my oppressor to acknowledge and learn how their oppression is holding us back collectively and should therefore be unlearned.
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein
We’ve known for some time (since 2016 to be precise) that our country was facing a critical turning point, and over the past four years have seen what progress we made regress beyond what we could imagine. Now more than ever we see the critical nature of actively participating in our democratic systems while we work to dismantle inequitable systems altogether. Why? Because this is systemic change, and without acknowledging the reality of that process you risk the lives of those who don’t have the voice that you do. It’s not an either/or decision between actively participating in our democratic system or dismantling it to rebuild something more equitable. It’s a both/and. We can do two things at once.
In The Color of Law, Rothstein sheds a powerful spotlight on segregation in America, challenging the narrative of “de facto segregation” – when legislation does not overtly segregate, but segregation continues nevertheless. This contributes significantly to our current crisis in policing and our current political climate. Think “the Black side of town” or “the other side of the tracks”. Yes, families have been here for generations, but why? Rothstein goes in-depth, detailing how local, state, and federal policies have not only maintained segregation, but actively furthered it through zoning, taxation, and redlining that was inherently discriminatory. This is what fortifies the web we get trapped in. The policies and legislation that keep these structures in place are the ones dishonest lawmakers slide into the smaller, quieter elections. Collectively, we can reverse it. Collectively, we can elect leaders who give a damn.
This list is far from exhaustive, but a great starting place for anyone looking to build their understanding of race and racism in America. From defunding police departments and making smarter investments into communities and education systems, to transforming the ways we view Black bodies and lives, we have the collective power in this moment and every moment to create the world we want rather than react to the world we don’t. We must organize. We must vote. We must create a better present and future for ourselves and our children.
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