The best books on race and class in the United States

Greta de Jong Author Of You Can't Eat Freedom: Southerners and Social Justice after the Civil Rights Movement
By Greta de Jong

The Books I Picked & Why

The Invention of the White Race Vol II

By Theodore W. Allen

The Invention of the White Race Vol II

Why this book?

In colonial North America, plantation owners were equal opportunity exploiters who mistreated European and African laborers alike, and workers frequently resisted by running away, stealing or destroying property, and engaging in occasional rebellions. Theodore Allen explains how colonial elites invented America’s racial divide through a series of laws that ended up enslaving most African Americans for life and reserving the rights of freedom and citizenship for European Americans. Since then, race and class have been intertwined, laying the basis for white supremacist practices and beliefs that shaped the development of the United States and continue to allocate wealth and power unequally today.


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Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy

By Eric Foner

Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy

Why this book?

This short and accessible book places the end of slavery in the United States in a comparative global context, illuminating the strategies used by employers in the American South, Haiti, the British Caribbean, and British colonies in Africa to deny economic independence to Black workers and ensure a continued source of cheap labor. The book is especially useful for its clear demonstration of how law and policy (rather than invisible market forces) structure economic relations. Foner shows that the fortunes of working people can shift dramatically depending on who controls the government and makes the laws—essential knowledge for countering the arguments of economic theorists and political leaders who claim that vast inequalities of wealth are natural or inevitable.


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Race Rebels : Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class

By Robin D. G. Kelley

Race Rebels : Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class

Why this book?

Kelley’s expansive definition of political activism uncovers various forms of resistance to racism that were often overlooked, from telling jokes and stories that subtly critiqued white supremacy in the Jim Crow era, to joining the Lincoln Brigade’s fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War, to urban uprisings and hip-hop culture that drew attention to continued inequities in the late twentieth century. Kelley shows that working-class African Americans were not passive recipients of middle-class leadership but sophisticated thinkers and participants in their own right in the movements for racial and economic justice. This book is essential reading for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the Black freedom struggle that moves beyond the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr.


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Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America

By James Forman Jr.

Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America

Why this book?

This book is an excellent companion to Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and adds some important nuance to the story of how the United States came to imprison a higher proportion of its population than any other nation on earth. Forman notes that many African Americans in communities afflicted by rising drug abuse and crime rates in the 1970s were desperate to solve these problems and advocated more law enforcement along with greater investments in schools, jobs, and housing to address the root causes of the crisis. Instead, they got only increasingly draconian laws and punishments, often passed with the support of middle-class Black people seeking to discipline poorer African Americans. Writing from his personal experience as a public defender in addition to historical research, Forman includes dozens of illuminating examples of how race and class interact at every level in the criminal justice system and the impact this has on poor Black communities.


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Knocking on Labor's Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide

By Lane Windham

Knocking on Labor's Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide

Why this book?

Labor unions played a key role in lifting millions of Americans—mostly white male industrial workers—into the middle class in the mid-twentieth century. The passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s opened access to unionized manufacturing jobs and led to new waves of labor activism by women and people of color, but these were undermined by political and economic shifts that eliminated millions of jobs in the late twentieth century. Windham shows how anti-union policies and practices made it more difficult for workers to organize and force employers to the negotiating table, which explains the persistence of racial and economic inequality in the twenty-first century. Like Foner’s Nothing But Freedom (mentioned above), the book provides ample evidence that nothing about this was foreordained—once again, those who set the rules of a more globalized economy did so in ways that allowed some people to prosper while others starved.


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