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

Who am I?

I’m a historian of the African American freedom struggle with more than two decades of experience researching and teaching on this topic. My work focuses especially on the connections between race and class and the ways Black people have fought for racial and economic justice in the twentieth century. I write books and articles that are accessible for general audiences and that help them to understand the historical origins of racism in the United States, the various forms it has taken, and the reasons why it has persisted into the present.

I wrote...

You Can't Eat Freedom: Southerners and Social Justice after the Civil Rights Movement

By Greta de Jong,

Book cover of You Can't Eat Freedom: Southerners and Social Justice after the Civil Rights Movement

What is my book about?

I look at how African Americans in the rural South continued their struggles for racial and economic justice after the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s, which failed to do anything about mass unemployment and poverty caused by agricultural mechanization. Social justice activists pressured the federal government to pay attention to these problems and invest more in anti-poverty initiatives, while white supremacists blocked every effort to help displaced workers who were left without jobs, homes, or income. These conflicts helped shape the experiences of other Americans whose jobs were lost to deindustrialization and globalization later in the twentieth century, and their outcomes still affect our lives today.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Invention of the White Race Vol II

Why did I love 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.

By Theodore W. Allen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Invention of the White Race Vol II as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, Martin Luther King declared his dream of a racially integrated, non-discriminatory American society. Some three centuries before, that dream had in many ways been a reality, since white skin privilege was recognized neither in law nor in the social practices of the labouring classes. But by the early decades of the eighteenth century, racial oppression would be the norm in the plantation colonies, and African Americans would continue to suffer under its yoke for more than two centuries. In this second volume of his acclaimed study of the origins of racial…

Book cover of Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy

Why did I love 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.

By Eric Foner,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Nothing But Freedom as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Nothing But Freedom examines the aftermath of emancipation in the South and the restructuring of society by which the former slaves gained, beyond their freedom, a new relation to the land they worked on, to the men they worked for, and to the government they lived under. Taking a comparative approach, Eric Foner examines Reconstruction in the southern states against the experience of Haiti, where a violent slave revolt was followed by the establishment of an undemocratic government and the imposition of a system of forced labor; the British Caribbean, where the colonial government oversaw an orderly transition from slavery…

Book cover of Race Rebels : Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class

Why did I love 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.

By Robin D. G. Kelley,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Race Rebels as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Many black strategies of daily resistance have been obscured--until now. Race rebels, argues Kelley, have created strategies of resistance, movements, and entire subcultures. Here, for the first time, everyday race rebels are given the historiographical attention they deserve, from the Jim Crow era to the present.

Book cover of Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America

Why did I love 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.

By James Forman Jr.,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Locking Up Our Own as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction

Longlisted for the National Book Award

One of the New York Times Book Review's 10 Best Books of 2017

Former public defender James Forman, Jr. is a leading critic of mass incarceration and its disproportionate impact on people of colour. In LOCKING UP OWN OWN, he seeks to understand the war on crime that began in the 1970s and why it was supported by many African American leaders in the nation's urban centres.

Forman shows us that the first substantial cohort of black mayors, judges and police chiefs took office amid…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Lane Windham,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Knocking on Labor's Door as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The power of unions in workers' lives and in the American political system has declined dramatically since the 1970s. In recent years, many have argued that the crisis took root when unions stopped reaching out to workers and workers turned away from unions. But here Lane Windham tells a different story. Highlighting the integral, often-overlooked contributions of women, people of color, young workers, and southerners, Windham reveals how in the 1970s workers combined old working-class tools--like unions and labor law--with legislative gains from the civil and women's rights movements to help shore up their prospects. Through close-up studies of workers'…

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