The best books that explain America’s systemic racism

Who am I?

I grew up in a mostly white town in Ohio, where, as a White woman, I didn’t have to think much at all about race. During college in North Carolina, I first began to consider racism. As a journalist, I’ve learned (sometimes the hard way) that you can’t write in a meaningful way about social justice issues without connecting them to history. The books I’ve recommended provide that connection. Once you make it, you’ll never be able to see the world the same way. 


I wrote...

Money Rock: A Family's Story of Cocaine, Race, and Ambition in the New South

By Pam Kelley,

Book cover of Money Rock: A Family's Story of Cocaine, Race, and Ambition in the New South

What is my book about?

Money Rock is a riveting social history, by turns action-packed, uplifting, and tragic, of a striving Black family, swept up and transformed by America’s 1980s cocaine epidemic. As a young man, Belton Lamont Platt, known on the streets of Charlotte as Money Rock, was hard-working, charismatic, and generous, sometimes to a fault. In the 1980s, those qualities helped make him one of the city’s most successful cocaine dealers. Pam Kelley first met Money Rock when she was a young Charlotte Observer reporter covering his trial. Decades later, the two reconnected, and Kelley dug deeper. As she researched the story of his family, she also discovered a New South city that hadn’t escaped its Jim Crow past. 

The books I picked & why

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The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

By Richard Rothstein,

Book cover of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

Why this book?

When I was trying to figure out how the city of Charlotte became segregated, this book was a godsend. Rothstein explodes the myth that segregation in America grew primarily from individual choices, such as White people fleeing a neighborhood when a Black family moved in. He shows how local, state, and federal governments passed laws and made policies that created the housing and school segregation that much of the nation lives with today.  


Wilmington's Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy

By David Zucchino,

Book cover of Wilmington's Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy

Why this book?

Wilmington’s Lie, winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction, documents one of the darkest episodes in North Carolina’s history – the violent overthrow of an elected government in the Black-majority city of Wilmington. It was a massacre that left at least 60 Black men dead. I lived in North Carolina for decades before I heard about this history. And I’m hardly alone. Until recently, this coup had been described as a “race riot” and largely omitted from textbooks, while its White supremacist organizers had been revered as great North Carolinians. If you want to understand what people mean when they talk about the “whitewashing” of American history, this book is the ultimate case study.


The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap

By Mehrsa Baradaran,

Book cover of The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap

Why this book?

While researching my book, I saw how some residents in poor Black neighborhoods protected and revered monied drug dealers who gave back to their communities. Baradaran’s The Color of Money explains the stark racial wealth gap behind this dynamic. I learned, for example, about the Freedman’s Bank, created to help newly freed slaves build wealth. While White bankers exhorted Black people to limit their spending to build savings, these same bankers made risky railroad and real estate investments. These investments ultimately spelled the demise of the bank – and of the hard-earned savings of its Black customers. And White bankers’ poor decisions sowed Black distrust of financial institutions for generations to come. 


Between the World and Me

By Ta-Nehisi Coates,

Book cover of Between the World and Me

Why this book?

Coates’ memoir, written in the form of a letter to his 14-year-old son, was his response to the 2000 death of his former Howard University classmate, killed by an undercover police officer in a case of mistaken identity. Coates grounds this story in deep research that explores the presumption of Black criminality woven through our history – in laws against aiding fugitive slaves, in slave codes that made it a crime to learn to read, in white terrorism that disenfranchised black people. I’ve admired Coates since I discovered his 2014 Atlantic article, “The Case for Reparations.” His message is devastating. His writing is beautiful. 


Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II

By Douglas A. Blackmon,

Book cover of Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II

Why this book?

I’ve spent recent years discovering all the American history I never learned in school. Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Slavery By Another Name was a major revelation. After the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery, White people found creative ways around it, including convict leasing. Black men, arrested on dubious charges such as vagrancy or breaking curfew, were then leased to employers, such as railroads, mines, and plantations. Conditions were inhumane, even worse than in slave times, because these companies didn’t have a stake in keeping their labor alive. 


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in African Americans, North Carolina, and the economy?

5,887 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about African Americans, North Carolina, and the economy.

African Americans Explore 432 books about African Americans
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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The New Jim Crow, The Second Founding, and Radicalizing the Ebony Tower if you like this list.