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15 Essential Books for Understanding Race Relations in America

Think you understand racism in America? Think again. The topic is much more complex than you likely realize.

Every editorial product is independently selected, though we may be compensated or receive an affiliate commission if you buy something through our links.

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books race racism america black lives matter educate yourselfvia amazon.com (3)

Educating yourself

The protests around the country are a reaction to ongoing systemic injustice. And while it’s great to watch the news and stay up to date on current events, it’s impossible to get a full, unbiased picture of that injustice from media coverage alone. In order to understand what’s fueling this anger that’s now boiling over, it is important to understand the underlying context of racism in our society and why desegregation didn’t put an end to racism in America. These books go a long way toward explaining many of the racial issues that continue to affect our country.

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The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindnessvia amazon.com

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

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This book is key to understanding the oppressive judicial system that has used the War on Drugs to target and oppress black men and communities of color with almost surgical precision. Legal scholar Michelle Alexander lays out in intricate detail how the criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control and relegates millions to permanent second-class status. She argues that President Barack Obama’s election notwithstanding, we are far removed from an era of colorblindness. Our racial caste system hasn’t ended; it’s merely been redesigned. Alexander makes it clear that nothing short of a nationwide social movement will remake our unjust criminal justice system. Here’s why you should stop saying “I don’t see color.”

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Between the World and Mevia amazon.com

Between the World and Me

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Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me has been called the bible for the Black Lives Matter movement. It creates a new framework for understanding how the bodies of black women and men have been exploited through slavery and segregation and how a modern-day system serves to widen the gulf between people and exacerbate tensions and unrest. In this blend of history and memoir, Coates chronicles these struggles with clarity, dignity, and respect. He uses his own coming-of-age journey to illuminate our history, confront our present, and offer a road map for living within a system that, by design, is so unfair. Coates wrote Between the World and Me as a loving letter and a warning to his adolescent son. Here’s a list of other great reads for teens.

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White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism bookvia amazon.com

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

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Sociologist and anti-racist academic Robin DiAngelo explores how whites react when their assumptions about race are challenged and why those reactions make progress so difficult. DiAngelo helps us understand that racism as a practice is not restricted to “bad people.” She defines “white fragility” as a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering defensive moves like anger, guilt, silence, and a desire to flee the stress-inducing situation. Whether intended or not, these behaviors curtail honest discussions and ensure that nothing ever changes. She explores what we can do to engage more constructively. In the process, we learn what to not say to our work colleagues and anyone else.

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Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? bookvia amazon.com

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

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First published more than 20 years ago, this best-selling book on the psychology of racism is even more relevant as the national conversation about race becomes increasingly acrimonious. In Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? Beverly Daniel Tatum argues that self-segregation in high school can only be fixed if we enable communication across racial and ethnic divides. We don’t talk about race in America, but we must start if we are going to heal this broken country and break down the racial barriers that still divide us in so many areas of life. Here are 14 small ways you can fight racism every day. 

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How to Be an Antiracist bookvia amazon.com

How to Be an Antiracist

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“I’m not the least bit racist” is a common rebuttal to being identified as a racist. But even if that statement is 100 percent true, it’s still insufficient, argues author Ibram Kendi. Not being racist is a neutral stance, and in the fight for a more fair world, neutrality isn’t good enough. We must choose a side and lean into the work of anti-racism. Racism is a powerful system that creates a paradigm for the way we regard people of different ethnicities or skin colors. It intersects with class and culture and geography and even changes the way we see and value ourselves. In How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi leads us to a better understanding of all forms of racism and its pernicious consequences. Here’s how you can support the Black Lives Matter movement and become anti-racist.

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Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun: A Personal History of Violencevia amazon.com

Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun: A Personal History of Violence

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When educator and activist Geoffrey Canada talks about transforming kids and the spaces around them, he speaks from experience. As a small boy growing up in the South Bronx, he learned that the codes and rituals of the neighborhood streets were ranked in ascending orders of violence: fist, stick, knife, and gun. His book of the same name points the way to saving all the children who grew up like him—in abject poverty and surrounded by violence. His formula is simple: In order to change these children, you must change their environments and teach them to change their own worlds. Canada’s story reminds us that ordinary people can change history.

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Blood Done Sign My Namevia amazon.com

Blood Done Sign My Name

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This memoir recounts author Timothy Tyson’s childhood growing up as the son of a white liberal Methodist minister in a small North Carolina town riven by conflict and racism. As a historian, Tyson delivers an unassailable dissertation that deconstructs the revisionist history of the Civil War that seeks to recast treason as patriotism and whitewash the brutality of slavery. Beautifully written and, at times, laugh-out-loud funny, Blood Done Sign My Name is one of the most powerful meditations on race in America that I have ever read. It goes a long way toward providing an understanding of the uniquely American struggle for racial equality. These 25 powerful quotes speak volumes in the fight against racism.

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Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New Americavia amazon.com

Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America

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Before he was a Supreme Court Justice or the Solicitor General or the lead attorney in Brown v. Board of Education, Thurgood Marshall was a fearless courtroom attorney who risked his life to defend black men accused of horrific crimes and changed the course of the civil rights movement. Winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King recounts Marshall’s time in Florida defending four young black men accused of raping a 17-year-old white woman. This compelling book focuses on this important yet overlooked moment in American history and the case that forged Marshall’s legacy as Mr. Civil Rights. There are so many overlooked facts about black history and civil rights you probably didn’t learn in school.

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Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhoodvia amazon.com

Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood

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On its face, Born a Crime is the story of a dirt-poor, mischievous young boy who makes good. Much deeper, it paints a poignant and sometimes painful picture of a biracial man struggling to find his place in a society where his very existence is a crime. Trevor Noah offers hilariously brilliant insights into the world of apartheid as a construct at odds with itself and bound to collapse under its own nonsensical weight. In that respect, it is a reflection of racism in America. Despite that, it is also one of the funniest books of all time.

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Slavery by Another Namevia amazon.com

Slavery by Another Name

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Douglas A. Blackmon brings to light a shameful and little-known chapter in our country’s history: the Age of Neoslavery that thrived from the aftermath of the Civil War through the dawn of World War II. Slavery by Another Name uses the lost stories of slaves and their descendants who tasted freedom only to be re-enslaved again in a cruel system of laws and regulations that reinstituted slavery under another name. Blackmon also calls out the businesses and enterprises that profited from Neoslavery. Ultimately, the book illuminates both the tragedy of holding human chattel and the corruption that flows from such inhumanity.

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A Lesson Before Dyingvia amazon.com

A Lesson Before Dying

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Grant Wiggins narrates Ernest J. Gaines’ powerful novel that explores race, injustice, and resistance. Though he wasn’t armed and didn’t pull the trigger at the robbery gone bad, a young black man goes on trial for murder. There is little hope of his exoneration in 1940s Louisiana, so his grandmother begs Grant to teach her grandson to die like a man. A Lesson Before Dying paints a vivid picture of the racial and social conventions that prevailed in the Deep South long after slavery was abolished. This novel also teaches readers a lesson: True heroism can be achieved through resistance. Want to figure out how to fight racism and support Black folks? Here are 14 charities and organizations that need your support right now.

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The Autobiography of Malcolm X bookvia amazon.com

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

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Originally published in 1964, the Muslim leader and firebrand Malcolm X recounts his journey from a prison cell to Mecca, describing his transition from hoodlum to Muslim minister. In it, he pulls off the perfect hat trick. He clearly spells out the injustice and anger that results from racism in America while being brutally honest about his own failings and misgivings. It defines both the movement and the evolution of Malcolm X from “the angriest Black man in America” to someone who recognized the brotherhood of all mankind. It is essential reading to move beyond empathy to seeing racism through the eyes of those most affected by it. His co-author, Alex Haley, also wrote about another man who, like Malcolm, refused to quit.

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So You Want to Talk About Racevia amazon.com

So You Want to Talk About Race

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While acknowledging that talking about race is difficult, Ijeoma Oluo has written a tutorial for anyone who wants to go there, nonetheless. In frank, blunt language, So You Want to Talk About Race guides readers of all races through everything from intersectionality to affirmative action to white privilege. It is the only way we can have honest, productive conversations about race and racism, she asserts. Her book gets to the core of how racism has infected almost every aspect of American life and dismantles the grievances and blind spots that impede clear, constructive dialogue. It also helps us readers understand the psychology of racism and prejudice.

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The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated Americavia amazon.com

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

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This compassionate and scholarly work diagnoses the past policies and prescriptions that led to systematic racial segregation and the disparities we still find in many of the nation’s metropolitan areas today. The United States did not arrive at this current moment in time by happenstance. In The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein’s meticulous research lays bare the specific policy choices and resources that were used to get us here and asserts that government resources are essential if we are ever going to change course.

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book Just Mercy: A Story of Mercy and Redemptionvia amazon.com

Just Mercy: A Story of Mercy and Redemption

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Just Mercy is both a searing indictment of our criminal justice system and perhaps the most imminently readable book ever written about the death penalty. Fresh out of Harvard Law School, author Bryan Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative to defend those that many feel are undeserving of mercy: death-row inmates. Stevens’ powerful true story compels us to believe in the potential for mercy to redeem us. He makes a persuasive case that each of us is capable of making a difference if we pursue justice with the vigor, relentlessness, and compassion it deserves. Next, marvel at these 14 vintage photos of unity that we all need to see right now.

For more on this important issue, see our guide to the Fight Against Racism.