The best books on the impact of race on American politics

Doug McAdam Author Of Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America
By Doug McAdam

Who am I?

I was born in 1951 and came of age during the 60s heyday of the civil rights movement. The images of that struggle—“Bloody Sunday” on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, fire hoses and police dogs in Birmingham, etc.—were seared into my brain and helped reinforce a powerful sense of outrage and empathy for black activists. The movement also inspired me to get deeply involved in the Anti-War movement while in college. And so it seemed perfectly natural, when I got to graduate school, that I choose to study the origins and impact of the civil rights struggle and more recently, the continued resistance to that struggle by a significant minority of Americans. 


I wrote...

Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America

By Doug McAdam, Karina Kloos,

Book cover of Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America

What is my book about?

It would be hard to overstate Donald Trump’s corrosive effect on American democracy. That said, the tendency is to see Trump as the principal source of our divisions and the fragile state of our democracy. But for all his “contributions” in this regard, Trump is really more the extreme product and expression of much older trends and events. It’s important that we understand these older roots, lest we think that having removed him from office, we have restored the health and well-being of American democracy. In fact, American democracy was badly frayed before Trump took office.

Though published two years before Trump was elected, Deeply Divided proved to be a remarkably prescient book. In the book McAdam and Kloos warned of:The fundamental transformation of the Republican Party from the more progressive on race to today’s coalition of extreme racial conservatives; The growing dominance of the far-right movement wing of the party on the GOP; And the erosion of key democratic norms and institutions, threatening the long-term viability of American democracy.

The books I picked & why

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Deep Roots: How Slavery Still Shapes Southern Politics

By Avidit Acharyo, Matthew Blackwell, Maya Sen

Book cover of Deep Roots: How Slavery Still Shapes Southern Politics

Why this book?

Slavery was abolished in the U.S. over 150 years ago. So while race and racism might still shape life and politics in the U.S., surely the institution of slavery does not. This book, and the detailed empirical research that informs it, says otherwise. More specifically, the authors show that white residents in southern counties that were heavily reliant on slavery are significantly more likely than whites elsewhere to hold racially conservative views on a host of attitudinal items. I’m not surprised. In a similar research project, I found that the strongest county-level predictor of arson attacks on southern black churches in the 1990s was the number of lynchings that took place in that county historically, even though the great majority of those horrific events took place 80-100 years before the arson attacks in question.


The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution

By Eric Foner,

Book cover of The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution

Why this book?

This recent book, by the dean of Reconstruction studies, deepens our understanding of the impact that the three Reconstruction era amendments had in “remaking the Constitution,” and American politics more generally. But while celebrating the achievement of these amendments, Foner also details the policy limits and “loopholes” encoded in the specific language of those amendments. 


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?

Rothstein explodes the myth that racial segregation in housing is generally a product of individual prejudice and/or the actions of private institutions, such as banks and real estate firms. This impressive historical survey of housing policy at all levels of government makes it abundantly clear that it was the laws and policy decisions passed by local, state, and federal government that established and continue to sustain the patterns of residential segregation that pose such a formidable barrier to racial equality in the US.


When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America

By Ira Katznelson,

Book cover of When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America

Why this book?

Katznelson explodes another myth in the troubled history of civil rights policy in the US. Most of us grew up believing that FDR’s New Deal policy innovations benefited the neediest of Americans at the height of the Great Depression. But as Katznelson documents in this groundbreaking book, African-Americans were largely excluded from New Deal programs as the price Southern Senators and Congressmen extracted from FDR in exchange for their support in stewarding the legislation through the Congressional committees they controlled.


The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

By Michelle Alexander,

Book cover of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

Why this book?

This widely celebrated, influential book needs no further promotion, but in light of the current debates around systemic racism and criminal justice reform, it is simply impossible to understate the contemporary salience of Alexander’s important book. The book also fits the list’s focus on the imprint of race and racism on public policy, in this case, judicial and criminal justice policy.


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