Some helpful reading on the topic of race and racism

Some helpful reading on the topic of race and racism


[Prefatory note:  I wrote the majority of this post last Friday, August 11th, before the grievous events in Charlottesville, VA, took place.  My original aim was that it would be a resource for anyone who, like me, has much need to grow and who desires to listen, repent, and learn to love.  May it serve this aim all the more.]

The Nobel Prize-winning economist George Stigler once lamented how a highly regarded expert in one field (e.g., in chemistry or literature) can presume to speak with expertise in another field (e.g., in public policy or history).  Stigler wryly criticized some of his fellow Nobel prize winners for the ease with which they speak to the public:

“They issue stern ultimata to the public on almost a monthly basis, and sometimes on no other basis.”

Not surprisingly, expertise in one field in no way qualifies as expertise in another.

I don’t consider myself an expert in any field, really.  As is so often the case, the more one pursues expertise in a given field, the more one becomes painfully aware of how little they actually know:  they (rightly) compare themselves to seasoned leaders in their field and realize that they themselves are but children.  That was my own experience as a PhD student, and I’m fairly certain I wasn’t alone.

Without expertise or experience 

Let me say the obvious:  I am not anything remotely approaching an expert on the extremely important, intricate, and intimate matter of race and racism.  But even beyond (and prior to) that, I do not have the experience (nor ancestry) to be a voice at the table.  But I can–indeed, need to–listen and learn, and I can begin to do so by at least two vital means:  (1) relationships (which may require relocating); and (2) reading.

As for the latter, here’s my journey so far:

Starting last Fall, I began to read various articles and books on race and racism (primarily with respect to Afro-Americans) from a number of genres and on a number of subtopics.  As is the case with probably every field or topic of study, especially in the “publish or perish” environment of American higher education, there is (i) a boatload of poor research, (ii) a fair measure of good research and (iii) relatively little extremely good research.

Importantly, by “extremely good research” I am not at all referring to research that I (necessarily) agree with.  When doing my own academic research, often the secondary literature most helpful to me comes from authors whose presuppositions and perspectives are most different from my own and yet whose rigor, caution, and relentless self-critique proved enormously fruitful, even if I’m still unable (or perhaps just stubbornly unwilling!) to agree with their conclusions.

Different kinds of knowledge

Let me also hasten to say what should be obvious:  there are different kinds of knowledge, and the knowledge that comes from reading books is only one kind.  No matter what kind of reading it is–economics, history, biography, or memoir, etc., it cannot make up for other kinds of knowing:  e.g., reading an article on Mexico is different from spending Spring Break in Mexico, which is different from having a friend from Mexico, which is different from moving to live in Mexico, which is different from being from Mexico, etc.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Having said that, reading is essential.  For all of us.  Ta-Nehisi Coates can be an exemplar:  in Between the World and Me he declares, “My reclamation would be accomplished, like Malcolm [X]’s, through books, through my own study and exploration.”  Later he simply and humbly writes, “I needed more books.”  At Howard he and “Uncle Ben” had “shared . . . a deep belief that we could somehow read our way out.”  Here Coates is presumably tapping into a rich dimension of Afro-American history that underscored education.

When we read about the “lived experience” of others, we are somewhat like a jury member listening to the key testimony of an eye witness.  And when we read about the “learned insight” of, say, a professor, we are somewhat like a jury member listening to an expert witness.  Then, when we talk together about both the “lived experience” and the “learned insight” we’ve received from both the eye- and expert witnesses (both of whom can still be mistaken), we are like jurors deliberating together.  For me that has often meant reaching a guilty verdict, only to discover that I am the accused.

Pity greatly the person who operates only by their “lived experience”; of them the Old Testament wisdom literature says, “Do you see a person wise in their own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for them.”

No quick and easy reads, unapologetically

One will notice that, for the most part, the books on this list are not quick and easy reads; they’re not a link to an online article written by a journalist (too many of which are slanted and simplistic, hurting more than helping).  They will force you to choose between binge-watching seasons 5 and 6 of “Lost” or reading a book.  You will have to decide between being in-the-know about “The Big Bang Theory” or about what is arguably the single most important issue in American history, over which countless people have lost their lives.

I’m not asking you to read any of these particular books (below), but if you decide not to read any book, then I would only ask one favor of you:  find someone whose opinion really matters to you–if possible, someone of Afro-American, Latino, or American Indian descent–and say to them, “I deeply care about the issue of race and racism in America, but not enough to read even a single book about it.”

Get lost.  (And find more heroes.) 

I can’t encourage you enough:  there is something truly edifying and exhilarating, even essential, about getting lost in a book that grips your attention and shakes your foundations and/or offers entirely new vistas and possibilities of feeling, thinking, knowing, hurting, grieving, changing / repenting, celebrating and, most of all, loving.  Set out on a great adventure.  Get lost.  Honestly, on this topic the stakes are high.  Do it.  Let me also say:  through this reading, I have gained a number of new heroes, most of whom share neither my ancestry or gender.  I am forever grateful for that.

A busy parent?  Find another busy parent (or three), pick a book, and divide up the chapters among you, then meet up with the kids at the playground and talk about your chapter.  Or check out some of these authors’ lectures and speeches on YouTube (e.g., that of Cornel West here; you can listen in the car on the commute).

With that introduction out of the way, here are some books that I have found to be worth reading on this topic.

A few recommendations?

I would commend all the books below (there are others that didn’t make the list), which isn’t remotely to say that I fully agree with everything in all of them.

But if I had to recommend only one, I guess it would be A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (UNC Press, 2004) by University of Oklahoma Professor David Chappell.  I’m inclined to think that The Atlantic is right to call it “one of the three or four most important books on the civil rights movement”–but, again, I don’t think I know enough.

If I were to asked to recommend a second, it would be a three-way tie (sorry about that).  The first option would be Intellectuals and Race by Stanford economist Thomas Sowell, partly because his research is so sweeping, his arguments so tight, and his overview of the 20th-century intelligentsia in America so distressing, but also because his voice, in my opinion, has not enjoyed the “air time” it deserves.

A second option would be Race, Crime and the Law by Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy (Pantheon, 1997).  Written two decades ago, Kennedy’s caution, subtlety, and clarity left me envious, and its historical overview of the law’s under-protection of Afro-Americans (especially female slaves) left me sobbing, ashamed, and feeling my own deep uncleanliness.

Randall Kennedy

Further, Kennedy’s work has proven quasi-prophetic:  he addresses so many of the issues that are (back) in the news today–from the racial implications of the war on drugs to police brutality to the criminal justice system, regarding which it’s worth saying:  though sharing some very similar political and ideological perspectives as Michelle Alexander’s widely read book The New Jim Crow, Kennedy’s work generally undermines hers.  The contrast between the degree of rigor and soundness of methodology of Kennedy (an Oxford-educated Rhodes scholar and fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences) and of Alexander (a former ACLU lawyer, presently teaching at Union Theological Seminary) is, to say the least, vast. But both books have been extremely helpful to me.

A third option is the collection of essays in Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life by Columbia University history professor Barbara J. Fields and sociologist (and sister) Karen E. Fields (an independent scholar, I believe).  Perhaps this book should be my #1 recommendation; while never esoteric, it is, however quite sophisticated and erudite, making Chappell’s work more accessible.  Though dense reading, these two wonderful women have profoundly challenged me and painfully helped me to begin to reshape my perspective–indeed, to reshape me.  Whether your leanings are progressive or conservative, prepare to be gently but boldly challenged on almost every front.

Karen Fields

To the suspicious reader, let me transparently say:  Sowell is, on the whole, politically conservative, while Kennedy is, on the whole, progressive (e.g., in his phenomenal book Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal, Kennedy’s critique of conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s legal opinions is relentless and scathing, though he argues vehemently that Thomas is anything but a “sellout”).  I could only give an educated guess at the social/political views of either the Fields or Chappell (though he makes some comments concerning his philosophy of history in the book’s appendix).

If it surprises you that solid research can be done by “those people” who hold to an ideology different from your own, you’ve stopped listening and you’re part of the problem.  So, if you incline to, say, conservativism, read the “other side” first, and vice versa.

If all the above options seem a bit heavy, then try Celia, A Slave by UNC-Wilmington history professor (emeritus) Melton McLauren, and get ready for your life to change forever. Sir Ridley Scott, if you’re reading this, here’s your next film (text me to discuss the royalties).

An earnest request

To the reader, I make the following earnest request:  since the following list makes no claim of being adequate or comprehensive, I would greatly appreciate your time (and patience) and kindness in offering any feedback or making a book recommendation.  There can be little doubt that there are embarrassing gaps in the list.

Further, like the neighbor or co-worker who stops by only when there’s a problem, this list runs the risk, perhaps irresponsibly, of perpetuating a condescending perspective that relates to Afro-Americans only with respect to “the problem of racism.”  It is altogether wrong to relate to anyone without regard to their ancestry (in all its beauty, tragedy and failure)–indeed, in the ancient world lineage was huge (as, e.g., Matthew 1.1-17 reflects), but it’s also wrong to relate to others only with regard to their ancestry.

One’s humanity is (far) more but not less than their ancestry.

Obviously, this list reflects my own ancestry, identity and personality, with all their passions, privileges and prejudices.  In short, I write this post primarily as a pupil who is part of the problem, not as a self-appointed proponent of some perspective or plan.

In the future, I may well write more posts on this topic–I may just write some summaries of these various books, but I’ll always write as a transgressor and learner, primarily “channeling” voices far more credible and capable than my own.  On such a matter as this, there would be only presumption and pretense in simply airing my own opinions, but there would be only collusion, collaboration and cowardice in simply remaining silent.  Who can endure the silent treatment?

What this list isn’t

One final comment.  I have another list of books on race and racism written by Christian authors from an explicitly Christian perspective.  This is not that list.  It is possible that some authors on this list may profess faith, but none writes (at least overtly and singularly) from that perspective (excluding some of the auto/biographical works on the list).

One could argue, perhaps, that James Baldwin does (or at one time did) and more certainly West as well, who, of course, identifies as a Christian in his work.  For an insightful overview of Baldwin’s religious narrative, see the discussion by Harvard Divinity Professor (and Dean) David Hempton in his fascinating work Evangelical Disenchantment Narratives: Nine Portraits of Faith and Doubt (Yale University Press, 2009).  Hempton’s overview of Baldwin’s religious struggle made me deeply appreciative of Baldwin.

Here are the books, with brief comments attached, in alphabetical order:

Alexander, Michelle.  The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration and the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010).

This is a widely read book on a topic of incredible importance.  She advocates movingly and vigorously for the plight of imprisoned Afro-Americans.  I’m truly grateful to Alexander:  her work summoned me to repentance as a pastor and to some fundamental reconsiderations of my philosophy of ministry.  There is so much to learn (and grieve) here, even if one does not agree with all of Alexander’s conclusions.  For a very helpful introduction to and development of this discussion (even if one disagrees with its conclusions), see Yale Law Professor James Forman, Jr.’s article “Racial Critiques of Mass Incarceration: Beyond the New Jim Crow,” available here.

Bibas, Stephanos.  The Machinery of Criminal Justice (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2015).

A fascinating account of the de-personalization, de-popularization, and inhumane professionalization of the U.S. criminal justice system:  today “justice” happens away from the public’s eye and outside of the courtroom.  Indirectly but absolutely relevant to the topic at hand.

Brundage, W. Fitzhugh.  Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880-1930 (Urbana, IL:  University of Illinois Press, 1994).

Bone-chilling, nauseating, hair-raising, demoralizing.  The final three chapters, which catalogue the diverse responses to lynching, are an incredible read.  Another amazing book on this topic that mixes history and biography is Revolt against Chivalry: Jessie Daniel Ames and the Women’s Campaign against Lynching by  Jacquelyn Dowd Hall.

Buck, Stuart.  Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2014).

A heartbreaking account of the (controversial) phenomenon of “acting white,” telling the story of the racialization of public education during the process of desegregation.  Painstakingly researched.  While I was reading this on an airplane, the flight attendant stopped to ask if I was okay, because I (very awkwardly) broke down sobbing.  Whenever I think about the pioneers, it’s hard not to break down.

Baldwin, James.  Notes of a Native Son (Boston: Beacon, 1955).

Baldwin’s pen is simply amazing.  As a collection of his works, this is one that you can easily read in parts.  Visceral.

Brooks, David.  Bobos in Paradise (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).

What–why’s this book on here?  There’s a number of reasons, but the biggest one is simply this:  contrast.  This is the same reason that Coming Apart by Charles Murray is on the list as well (see below).

Chappell, David.  A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

I read it twice–it was that helpful, convicting, and inspiring.  One of several books on here that has led to a major change in my vocational trajectory.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi.  Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegal & Grau, 2015)

Widely read, celebrated and critiqued.  I read it twice, and I’ll never be the same again.  Profoundly experiential / existential, this “sober and serious” letter to his 15-year-old son penetratingly communicates what Coates “feels,” “sees,” and “knows,” calling to (my) mind an epistemological method akin to Ecclesiastes’ Qoheleth.  Further, his conception of the human body has some close parallels with that of the Apostle Paul.  His work brilliantly communicates the impact of both lived experience and worldview.  Consider reading alongside the autobiographical sections of Jason Riley’s Please Stop Helping Us.  Also, to triangulate a bit, check out the reviews by Michelle Alexander (here) and Randall Kennedy (here), the latter of whom not unfairly critiques Coates’ work as at times privileging authenticity over honesty. There is so much that’s priceless here.

Douglass, Frederick.  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (Sweden: Wisehouse Classics, 2015; orig. 1845).

Breath-taking.  I’m tempted to just start writing and writing here, but I’ll resist.

Dulaney, W. Marvin.  Black Police in America (Bloomington:  Indiana University Press, 1996).

Utterly captivating.  I’m a schedule guy (early to bed, early to rise), but this book kept me up till the wee hours.

Ellison, Ralph.  Invisible Man (New York:  Random House, 1980; orig. 1952)

A classic.  If all the non-fiction on this list bores you, this novel might just be the ticket.

Fields, Karen; Fields, Barbara.  Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (New York: Verso, 2012).

An anthology of articles and essays by these two insightful sisters, both leaders in their fields (sociology and history, respectively).  Among other things, it is a strong critique of the thinking on race/racism coming from America’s intelligentsia, both in the sciences and humanities.  Incredibly insightful, helping me to re-think the whole idea of “race” not least via its comparison with witchcraft.  There are quotes in this book that I meditate on daily.  Not an easy read, but well worth it.

Fields, Mamie Garvin.  Lemon Swamp and Other Places:  A Carolina Memoir (New York: Free Press, 1983).

A beautiful memoir of one Afro-American woman’s life in Jim Crow Charleston, SC.  Rich, humorous, strong, tender, if somewhat exceptional (as she herself says).  So much to soak in here.  I’ve read parts to my children.  The memoir was captured by her two scholarly granddaughters, just mentioned.

Frazier, E. Franklin.  On Race Relations: Selected Writings (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968).

Essential reading by this renowned sociologist.  To explore the Afro-American family of the 1930s and 40s, look no further.  Also, his “Comparison of Negro-White Relations in Brazil and in the United States” is very helpful.

Gates, Henry Louis; West, Cornel.  The Future of the Race (New York:  Knopf, 1996).

More essential reading.  It places Gates and West in conversation with W. E. B. Du Bois’ seminal essay “The Talented Tenth,” which seeks to define the responsibility of Afro-American leaders.  Du Bois’ essay and his later critical reflection upon it are included in the book as well.  Outstanding reflections on the challenges and complexities of leadership–e.g., “Being a leader does not necessarily mean being loved; loving one’s community means daring to risk estrangement and alienation from that very community.”  Sounds like that one guy from Galilee.

Jacobs, Harriet.  Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Written by Herself (New York: Penguin, 2000; orig. 1861).

Heart-wrenching.  Stomach-turning.  Arresting.  Courageous.  Real.  This Penguin version provides a great introduction / overview.

Kennedy, Randall.  Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal (New York: Random House / Pantheon, 2008).

The first chapter alone is worth the price, as he grapples with the question, “Who is ‘Black’?”  The second chapter gives an incredibly helpful historical overview of the wretched complexities of what it does / doesn’t mean to be a sellout.  An accessible, instructive, relatively brief read.

Kennedy, Randall.  Race, Crime and the Law (New York:  Random House / Pantheon, 1997)

An incredibly helpful book, discussed above.  Kennedy writes about insanely complex topics with a subtlety and clarity, sifting arguments masterfully.  So much to learn here.  A must read.  One of several books on here where I felt compelled to email the author and thank them profusely.

Kolchin, Peter.  Unfree Labor:  American Slavery and Russian Serfdom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987).

Few things open your eyes to understand a topic in a new way like a comparative study.  Without in any way making racism in America any less invidious, we can learn so much from this salient comparison.  Further, by focusing on the origins (vs. the demise) of the institutions of slavery and serfdom, Kolchin offers a fairly persuasive suggestion for their primary cause, at least in these two contexts (without taking away from the causes that sustained slavery and racism).  Paul gives us that answer in 1 Timothy 6.10 (cf. Rev. 18.13).  Chapter 5 (“Patterns of Resistance”) is simply amazing.  At the very least, read the intro, most/all of which can be found on Google books.

McLaurin, Melton.  Celia, A Slave (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1991)

I cannot begin to describe how unbearably heart-wrenching and haunting this story is.  McLaurin, now professor emeritus at UNC-Wilmington, tells it very well, with humanity against the backdrop of a violent power-keg of a country about to erupt in civil war.  I  literally did not put the book down, from start to finish.  I will never forget Celia–a 14-year-old slave girl with the whole world against her and absolutely no one in her corner, nor can I forget the countless vile Robert Newsoms.  This story could be powerfully adapted to the silver screen.

Murray, Charles.  Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (New York: Random House, 2012).

On the list for the sake of comparison.  A page-turner, offering a very compelling way to (re)think about the subcultures in America.  Murray’s former work was controversial, receiving scathing critique from some (e.g., Cornel West) while sophisticated vindication by others (e.g., Barbara and Karen Fields).  That being said, both West and Gates state, “Race differences and class differentials have been ground together in this country in a crucible of misery and squalor, in such a way that few of us know where one stops and the other begins.”

Morgan, Edmund S.  American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York: Norton, 1975)

An insanely informative read written by an engaging Pulitzer-prize-winning author, the late Edmund Morgan (history professor at Yale), who investigates how the very colonies that celebrated freedom also insisted on slavery, focusing primarily on Virginia.  Given the early indentured servitude of the Anglo poor, American Indians and only a few Africans, how and why was it that only the latter would come to be enslaved?  A classic history text.  Chapter 1 and Parts 3 and 4 are the heart of the book.  Also, this is as good a place as any to mention John Hope Franklin’s classic From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, now in its 9th edition.  I didn’t list it separately, because (1) I’ve got the 8th edition and (2) I’ve only read a few select chapters so far.  A great resource.

Mac Donald, Heather.  The War on Cops (New York: Encounter, 2016)

A relentless, even ruthless argument for the severe cost of the erosion of trust in law enforcement in America.  From Ferguson to law enforcement tactics to the complex issue of criminogenic contexts to mass incarceration, Mac Donald pulls no punches and offers critique without favoritism.  One may find Mac Donald’s tone all too polemical–I wrestled with it myself, but if I was to be fair, I had to ask:  in her estimation, what is at stake?  I would insist that the skeptical reader hear Mac Donald out, just as I would also insist that the sympathetic reader go read at least 2-3 critical reviews of Mac Donald’s work, or at least a comparative review from a subject matter expert like NYU Law Professor Barry Friedman, found here.

Riley, Jason.  Please Stop Helping Us (New York: Encounter, 2014)

A thoughtful plea from a rising (conservative) journalist affiliated with the Wall Street Journal.  Great to read alongside Coates’ Between the World and Me.  E.g., comparing Coates’ poignant discussion of the death of Prince Carmen Jones with Riley’s subversive discussion of his own hair-raising encounters with law enforcement (in ch. 3 “The Enemy Within”) is fruitful.

Soares, Joseph.  The Power of Privilege (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007)

If a university wants to produce future leaders, what’s to keep it from drawing from a pool of the very people who are already positioned to have the greatest chance of being those future leaders?  This up-close-and-personal study of the Yale admissions program from a scholar on the inside subtly discusses the criteria that make for the reproduction of class and color in higher education.  His comparisons with Oxford and Cambridge are especially helpful.  Don’t choke on the statistical analyses, just press on.

Sowell, Thomas.  Ethnic America:  A History (New York: Perseus, 1981)

Okay, I can’t help myself, I’m going to break out the cliché:  everyone should read this book.  What a beautiful overview.  Sowell’s tour is at times heart-breaking but hopeful, celebrating the mosaic of humanity that has come to the shores of America–e.g., Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, peoples from Africa, Japanese, Chinese, Jews, Italians, Germans, and Irish.  The only downside is that it’s obviously dated.

Sowell, Thomas.  Intellectuals and Race (New York: Perseus, 2013).

Already discussed above.  A very compelling compilation of articles that form an impressively cohesive argument.

Turner, Patricia A.  I Heard It Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture (Berkeley: University of California, 1993).

This UC-Davis Professor of African-American studies applies her expertise in folklore to discuss rumor in a way that reveals so much about the human nature that we all share.

Vann Woodward, C.  Origins of the New South, 1877-1913 (Louisiana State University Press, 1971; orig. 1951).

Reads like an epic tragedy, Origins is a sweeping tome of history.  Incredibly easy to “get lost” in (in a good way).  It’s a key to understanding the South.  Sacrilegiously, I confess I skipped a few chapters and skimmed a few as well.  Chapter 13 (“The Atlanta Compromise”) is amazing.

West, Cornel.  Race Matters (Boston: Beacon, 1993).

Want to move (well) beyond binary liberal vs. conservative viewpoints?  Published almost 25 years ago, this compilation of seminal essays and articles by West (all of which are fairly brief and quite accessible) helped me reframe questions in critical ways, calling me out on unhelpful categories and caricatures.  Further, West’s discussion of “black leadership” was perceptive and penetrating, bringing both soul-searching conviction and life-giving instruction to my soul.  His gentle essay on Malcom X and black rage introduces the complexities of the frustrations and fears of (at least some forms of) black nationalism.


3 thoughts on “Some helpful reading on the topic of race and racism

  1. I look forward to reading some of these Bruce! One I have in my pile of books to read is “Blood Done Sign My Name” by Timothy Tyson. Professor of Afro-Studies at the university of Wisconsin-Madison. Based on the true story he witnessed as a kid, the murder of a black man in the street of a southern town in 1970. He was the son of a Methodist pastor. This took place in my hometown, Oxford NC, so possibly why I am intrigued about this story which appears to be heartbreaking. I am going to tackle it very soon. Appears to be similar background to To Kill a Mockingbird.

  2. It will be interesting to get a glimpse into his experiences at that time of the civil rights movement right around the corner of Durham/Chapel Hill.

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