The best books about racism and the politics of public investment

Why am I passionate about this?

Ever since I first visited a prison during college and was shocked by its horrific conditions, I’ve been fascinated with America’s punitiveness—our tolerance for harsh, dehumanizing punishments. I pursued a Ph.D. in criminology in order to better understand the politics of crime and justice. I am constantly searching for “political space” within which to pursue meaningful criminal justice reform without provoking a punitive backlash. I was previously an associate professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and I am now a lecturer in criminology at the National University of Ireland Maynooth.


I wrote...

The Politics of Crime Prevention: Race, Public Opinion, and the Meaning of Community Safety

By Kevin H. Wozniak,

Book cover of The Politics of Crime Prevention: Race, Public Opinion, and the Meaning of Community Safety

What is my book about?

The Politics of Crime Prevention examines the big question behind activists’ calls to “defund the police” following the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a police officer. Should the nation rely predominantly upon the criminal justice system to arrest and imprison offenders, or should the nation prioritize fixing social causes of crime by investing more money in the infrastructure and institutions of disadvantaged communities? Through an analysis of public opinion data, the book demonstrates that politicians profoundly underestimate the American people’s desire for community investment. It recommends ways to advocate for community investment without triggering racist backlash and argues that it is long past time to help communities thrive instead of turning to the criminal justice system to respond to every social problem.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together

Kevin H. Wozniak Why did I love this book?

I loved The Sum of Us because it tells the political and economic history of race relations and investment in public infrastructure, benefits, and services in a readable and accessible manner. 

McGhee recounts shocking stories of the ways that, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, hundreds of communities across the United States—governed by White people—chose to close or bulldoze public amenities like pools, parks, and campgrounds rather than desegregate them.

This is a sad story of the way that a generation of White Americans cut off their own nose to spite their face. In the decades since, more and more local amenities because privatized and fee-based, making it harder for poor and working-class people of all races to enjoy their communities.

By Heather McGhee,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The Sum of Us as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • LONGLISTED FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD • One of today’s most insightful and influential thinkers offers a powerful exploration of inequality and the lesson that generations of Americans have failed to learn: Racism has a cost for everyone—not just for people of color.

WINNER OF THE PORCHLIGHT BUSINESS BOOK AWARD • ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: Time, The Washington Post, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Ms. magazine, BookRiot, Library Journal

“This is the book I’ve been waiting for.”—Ibram X. Kendi, #1 New York Times bestselling author of How to Be an Antiracist

Look for…


Book cover of The Color of Welfare: How Racism Undermined the War on Poverty

Kevin H. Wozniak Why did I love this book?

The Color of Welfare is a classic text on the history of American social policy.

The American welfare state was created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the wake of the Great Depression. Quadagno explains how Roosevelt compromised with conservative southern members of Congress in order to enact the New Deal into law. These consequences shaped early anti-poverty policies in ways that disproportionately excluded African Americans by design. 

Quadagno then traces how this legacy of racially discriminatory social policymaking continued through President Johnson’s War on Poverty in the 1960s. The Color of Welfare taught me why the American welfare state is so underdeveloped compared to the nations of Western Europe and why it is characterized by so many racial disparities.

By Jill Quadagno,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Color of Welfare as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From Reconstruction to Lyndon Johnson and beyond, Jill Quadagno reveals how American social policy has continuously foundered on issues of race. She draws on extensive primary research to show how social programmes became entwined with the civil rights movement and subsequently suffered by association at the hands of a white backlash.


Book cover of Manufacturing Decline: How Racism and the Conservative Movement Crush the American Rust Belt

Kevin H. Wozniak Why did I love this book?

Manufacturing Decline educated me about the reasons why the steady loss of jobs, infrastructure, and population from Rust Belt cities in the latter half of the twentieth century was not a natural, unavoidable consequence of changes in the economy.

Hackworth tells a compelling history of the ways that Republican-controlled state legislatures enacted a variety of zoning, tax, and spending policies that facilitated the flow of resources out of cities (disproportionately populated by African Americans and Latinos) toward suburbs (disproportionately populated by White Americans).

The book includes a number of shocking quotes from Republican political advisors who admitted later in life that they knew how their policies would hurt Black communities.

By Jason Hackworth,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Manufacturing Decline as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For decades, the distressed cities of the Rust Belt have been symbols of deindustrialization and postindustrial decay, their troubles cast as the inevitable outcome of economic change. The debate about why the fortunes of cities such as Detroit have fallen looms large over questions of social policy. In Manufacturing Decline, Jason Hackworth offers a powerful critique of the role of Rust Belt cities in American political discourse, arguing that antigovernment conservatives capitalized on-and perpetuated-these cities' misfortunes by stoking racial resentment.

Hackworth traces how the conservative movement has used the imagery and ideas of urban decline since the 1970s to advance…


Book cover of Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy

Kevin H. Wozniak Why did I love this book?

Why Americans Hate Welfare has been very influential to my own scholarship. 

Gilens examined a paradox: a majority of Americans consistently express support for government spending to aid people experiencing poverty, but a majority also consistently express opposition to welfare—which is, itself, government spending to fight poverty! 

Through a careful analysis of data, Gilens demonstrates that Americans hate welfare because they associate that word with the stereotype that African Americans are lazy and prefer to live off government handouts rather than work. 

Think about President Reagan’s infamous condemnation of “welfare queens.” Gilens’ book is one of the clearest examples I’ve encountered of the ways that cynical political appeals to racism can sabotage public support for government spending for the common good.

By Martin Gilens,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Why Americans Hate Welfare as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Drawing on surveys of public attitudes and analyses of more than 40 years of television and newsmagazine stories on poverty, this book demonstrates how public opposition to welfare is fed by a potent combination of racial stereotypes and misinformation about the true nature of America's poor. But the answer isn't simply that white Americans oppose welfare because they think it benefits blacks; rather, they think it benefits "undeserving" blacks who would rather live off the government than work, a perception powerfully fuelled by the media's negative coverage of the black poor. Martin Gilens not only examines public opinion and public…


Book cover of The Government-Citizen Disconnect

Kevin H. Wozniak Why did I love this book?

I love The Government-Citizen Disconnect because it examines the relationship between social policy and politics. 

Mettler demonstrates that over 90% of Americans receive financial benefits from the government, but most of these are submerged in the tax code (like the home mortgage interest deduction). People who only receive submerged benefits believe that the government does little to improve their personal lives. In contrast, the more antipathy they feel toward people who receive visible government benefits (like food stamps), the more they also express cynical, negative attitudes toward government in general.

Since White Americans are more likely to receive submerged benefits than Americans of color, this pattern fuels racialized “us vs. them” attitudes when, in fact, the government financially buffers most Americans from the full costs of the free market in a variety of ways.

By Suzanne Mettler,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Government-Citizen Disconnect as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Americans’ relationship to the federal government is paradoxical. Polls show that public opinion regarding the government has plummeted to all-time lows, with only one in five saying they trust the government or believe that it operates in their interest. Yet, at the same time, more Americans than ever benefit from some form of government social provision. Political scientist Suzanne Mettler calls this growing gulf between people’s perceptions of government and the actual role it plays in their lives the "government-citizen disconnect." In The Government-Citizen Disconnect, she explores the rise of this phenomenon and its implications for policymaking and politics.

Drawing…


You might also like...

Book cover of Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink

Ethan Chorin Author Of Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Story-lover Middle East expert Curious Iconoclast Optimist

Ethan's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Benghazi: A New History is a look back at the enigmatic 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, its long-tail causes, and devastating (and largely unexamined) consequences for US domestic politics and foreign policy. It contains information not found elsewhere, and is backed up by 40 pages of citations and interviews with more than 250 key protagonists, experts, and witnesses.

So far, the book is the main -- and only -- antidote to a slew of early partisan “Benghazi” polemics, and the first to put the attack in its longer term historical, political, and social context. If you want to understand some of the events that have shaped present-day America, from political polarization and the election of Donald Trump, to January 6, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russian expansionism, and the current Israel-Hamas war, I argue, you need to understand some of the twists and turns of America's most infamous "non-scandal, scandal.”

I was in Benghazi well before, during, and after the attack as a US diplomat and co-director of a medical NGO. I have written three books, and have been a contributor to The NYT, Foreign Affairs, Forbes, Salon, The Financial Times, Newsweek, and others.

By Ethan Chorin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On September 11, 2012, Al Qaeda proxies attacked and set fire to the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, killing a US Ambassador and three other Americans.  The attack launched one of the longest and most consequential 'scandals' in US history, only to disappear from public view once its political value was spent. 

Written in a highly engaging narrative style by one of a few Western experts on Libya, and decidely non-partisan, Benghazi!: A New History is the first to provide the full context for an event that divided, incited, and baffled most of America for more than three years, while silently reshaping…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in race relations, poverty, and welfare?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about race relations, poverty, and welfare.

Race Relations Explore 246 books about race relations
Poverty Explore 91 books about poverty
Welfare Explore 16 books about welfare