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. 

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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.  

By Richard Rothstein,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked The Color of Law as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Widely heralded as a "masterful" (The Washington Post) and "essential" (Slate) history of the modern American metropolis, Richard Rothstein's The Color of Law offers "the most forceful argument ever published on how federal, state, and local governments gave rise to and reinforced neighborhood segregation" (William Julius Wilson). Exploding the myth of de facto segregation arising from private prejudice or the unintended consequences of economic forces, Rothstein describes how the American government systematically imposed residential segregation: with undisguised racial zoning; public housing that purposefully segregated previously mixed communities; subsidies for builders to create whites-only suburbs; tax exemptions for institutions that enforced…

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

Why did I love 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.

By David Zucchino,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Wilmington's Lie as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


From Pulitzer Prize-winner David Zucchino comes a searing account of the Wilmington riot and coup of 1898, an extraordinary event unknown to most Americans

By the 1890s, Wilmington was North Carolina’s largest city and a shining example of a mixed-race community. It was a bustling port city with a burgeoning African American middle class and a Fusionist government of Republicans and Populists that included black aldermen, police officers and magistrates. There were successful black-owned businesses and an African American newspaper, The Record. But across the state—and the South—white supremacist Democrats were…

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Mehrsa Baradaran,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Color of Money as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Read this book. It explains so much about the moment...Beautiful, heartbreaking work."
-Ta-Nehisi Coates

"A deep accounting of how America got to a point where a median white family has 13 times more wealth than the median black family."
-The Atlantic

"Extraordinary...Baradaran focuses on a part of the American story that's often ignored: the way African Americans were locked out of the financial engines that create wealth in America."
-Ezra Klein

When the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863, the black community owned less than 1 percent of the total wealth in America. More than 150 years later, that number…

Between the World and Me

By Ta-Nehisi Coates,

Book cover of Between the World and Me

Why did I love 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. 

By Ta-Nehisi Coates,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Between the World and Me as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Hailed by Toni Morrison as “required reading,” a bold and personal literary exploration of America’s racial history by “the most important essayist in a generation and a writer who changed the national political conversation about race” (Rolling Stone)

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Douglas A. Blackmon,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Slavery by Another Name as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This groundbreaking historical expose unearths the lost stories of enslaved persons and their descendants who journeyed into freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation and then back into the shadow of involuntary servitude shortly thereafter in “The Age of Neoslavery.”

By turns moving, sobering, and shocking, this unprecedented Pulitzer Prize-winning account reveals the stories of those who fought unsuccessfully against the re-emergence of human labor trafficking, the companies that profited most from neoslavery, and the insidious legacy of racism that reverberates today.

Following the Emancipation Proclamation, convicts—mostly black men—were “leased” through forced labor camps operated by state and federal governments. Using a…

5 book lists we think you will like!

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

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