Books to illuminate the problems of race in America

The death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed in Minneapolis by a white police officer who knelt on his neck for almost 9 minutes, has drawn global attention to the seemingly never-ending, violent reverberations from America’s original sin — slavery.

To understand the systemic racism that African-Americans still struggle with today, and the ways in which it is at the heart of the US’s national political and economic divide, you need to reflect on more than 300 years of the country’s history. Here is a selection of some of the most relevant books to aid that understanding.

Gerald Horne

The American Revolution is hailed as a great leap forward for freedom and liberty. But African-Americans living in the Colonies overwhelmingly sided with the British, in large part because abolition was a foregone conclusion across the Atlantic. Historian Gerald Horne exposes little-known facts and weaves a narrative showing how America’s revolt against the British was in part a conservative movement, in which the new country’s founding fathers fought to preserve their right to enslave others.

Henry Louis Gates Jr

The abolition of slavery following America’s civil war and the civil rights movement that followed the second world war are well-known history. The century in between is less well understood: why did it take so long for African-Americans to enjoy the most basic civil rights following Emancipation? The famed scholar, film-maker, journalist and cultural critic Henry Louis Gates Jr tells a gripping story of African-Americans’ struggle for equality after the civil war, and the violent counter-movement against it.

Isabel Wilkerson

A history of the multi-decade migration made by African-Americans from the South to the northern cities of the US, in search of a better life. Rich with historical detail and rigour, it’s also a page-turner in which Wilkerson uses three individuals to tell the story of the greatest migration in American history and how it reshaped the economy, politics, and culture of the nation.

James Baldwin

A plea to end the country’s “racial nightmare” and the classic essay of the civil rights movement. The book takes the form of two letters addressed to Baldwin’s 14-year-old nephew, in which the writer describes the role of racism in American history. The title is drawn from a line in an old African-American spiritual, entitled “Mary Don’t You Weep”: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign; no more water, fire next time.”

as told to Alex Haley

Crucial to understanding the philosophy of black pride, black nationalism, and why some in the civil rights movement felt that power had to be taken “by any means necessary.” The book, which is a collaboration between the journalist Haley (the author of Roots) and Malcolm X, is a vibrant, moving, “warts-and-all” personal narrative that covers how the African-American activist rose, after a multi-year jail sentence, to lead the Nation of Islam, his later conversion to conventional Sunni Islam, and his eventual assassination in 1965.

Martin Luther King Jr

In his fourth and final book before his death, America’s greatest civil rights figure argued for tackling basic income and wealth inequality in a united social movement to deal with both race and class injustice in America. The issues he focuses on, from education and fair housing, to higher wages and better-quality jobs, are still among America’s core challenges as a nation.

Michelle Alexander

This book is a key reason that Black Lives Matter has focused so much energy on the criminal justice system. Legal scholar Michelle Alexander looks at the similarities between the mass incarceration of African-American males in the US, and the “Jim Crow” laws that enforced racial segregation following the civil war. While this segregation technically ended after the civil rights movement, Alexander argues that America’s “war on drugs”, and the way in which it has disproportionately and unfairly penalised African-Americans relative to whites, has created a new form of legal systemic oppression.

Share your suggestions

What would you recommend as a reader to help understand the racial problems in America? Share your thoughts in the comment field at the bottom of this story

Michael W Quinn

A powerful take by an insider on the code of silence that is pervasive within the police force.

Susan Neiman

Born and raised in the South during the Civil Rights era, Neiman spent much of her adult life in Berlin and moved back to Mississippi to research this book, which grapples with how a country can come to terms with its historical wrongdoings.

Rana Foroohar is the FT’s global business columnist

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