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.

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

The books I picked & why

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 did I love 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.

By Avidit Acharyo, Matthew Blackwell, Maya Sen

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The lasting effects of slavery on contemporary political attitudes in the American South

Despite dramatic social transformations in the United States during the last 150 years, the South has remained staunchly conservative. Southerners are more likely to support Republican candidates, gun rights, and the death penalty, and southern whites harbor higher levels of racial resentment than whites in other parts of the country. Why haven't these sentiments evolved? Deep Roots shows that the entrenched views of white southerners are a direct consequence of the region's slaveholding history. Today, southern whites who live in areas once reliant on slavery-compared to areas…

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Eric Foner,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Second Founding as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Declaration of Independence announced equality as an American ideal but it took the Civil War and the adoption of three constitutional amendments to establish that ideal as law. The Reconstruction amendments abolished slavery, guaranteed due process and the equal protection of the law, and equipped black men with the right to vote. By grafting the principle of equality onto the Constitution, the amendments marked the second founding of the United States.

Eric Foner conveys the dramatic origins of these revolutionary amendments and explores the court decisions that then narrowed and nullified the rights guaranteed in these amendments. Today, issues…

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

Why did I love 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.

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

Why did I love 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.

By Ira Katznelson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked When Affirmative Action Was White as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this "penetrating new analysis" (New York Times Book Review) Ira Katznelson fundamentally recasts our understanding of twentieth-century American history and demonstrates that all the key programs passed during the New Deal and Fair Deal era of the 1930s and 1940s were created in a deeply discriminatory manner. Through mechanisms designed by Southern Democrats that specifically excluded maids and farm workers, the gap between blacks and whites actually widened despite postwar prosperity. In the words of noted historian Eric Foner, "Katznelson's incisive book should change the terms of debate about affirmative action, and about the last seventy years of American…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Michelle Alexander,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Seldom does a book have the impact of Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow. Since it was first published in 2010, it has been cited in judicial decisions and has been adopted in campus-wide and community-wide reads; it has been the winner of numerous prizes, including the NAACP Image Award; and it has spent nearly 250 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Most important of all, it has spawned a whole generation of criminal justice reform activists motivated by Michelle Alexander's unforgettable argument that 'we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.'

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in civil rights, African Americans, and African-American men?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about civil rights, African Americans, and African-American men.

Civil Rights Explore 120 books about civil rights
African Americans Explore 677 books about African Americans
African-American Men Explore 27 books about African-American men