The best books on race relations

11 authors have picked their favorite books about race relations and why they recommend each book.

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Stamped from the Beginning

By Ibram X. Kendi,

Book cover of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America

Everyone ought to read this book. It’s beautifully written and it’s a detailed history of the US and its relationship to racism. Kendi makes a convincing case that racism is about policy—what we do—more than it is about attitudes—what we feel and think. In focusing on the institutional and historical aspects of racism, he both offers a necessary corrective to many histories of the US, but also does so in a way that shows how the national history is deeply influenced by its political economy. 


Who am I?

I believe in democracy. I think the US has the opportunity to be the world’s first multicultural and inclusive democracy. And I think that’s a very, very hard thing to do. I’ve been writing about democracy through the lens of presidential history my whole career, and I think the US has done some things so impressively well while at the same time it frustratingly keeps failing to live up to its own ideals. The tensions and contradictions in our history as we try to expand and enact those ideas are endlessly fascinating. And I’m nervous that we may be seeing the end of a national commitment to democracy. 


I wrote...

Deplorable: The Worst Presidential Campaigns from Jefferson to Trump

By Mary E. Stuckey,

Book cover of Deplorable: The Worst Presidential Campaigns from Jefferson to Trump

What is my book about?

From the contest that pitted Thomas Jefferson against John Adams in 1800 through 2020’s vicious, chaotic matchup between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, Stuckey documents the cycle of despicable discourse in presidential campaigns. Looking beyond the character and the ideology of the candidates, Stuckey explores the broader political, economic, and cultural milieus in which each took place. In doing so, she reveals the conditions that exacerbate and enable our worst political instincts, producing discourses that incite factions, target members of the polity, encourage undemocratic policy, and actively work against the national democratic project.

Keenly analytical and compulsively readable, Deplorable provides context for the 2016 and 2020 elections, revealing them as part of a cyclical―and perhaps downward-spiraling―pattern in American politics. Deplorable offers more than a comparison of the worst of our elections. It helps us understand these shameful and disappointing moments in our political history, leaving one important question: Can we avoid them in the future?

The Shadow of the Panther

By Hugh Pearson,

Book cover of The Shadow of the Panther: Huey Newton and the Price of Black Power in America

The late Pearson took a lot of heat as an African-American author for telling the truth about all sides of the Panther era. But somebody credible needed to do it, and he did it well  —  in a way that can help us approach modern-day political and police accountability protest with eyes wide open.


Who am I?

Paul Bass is the co-author with Douglas W. Rae of Murder in the Model City: The Black Panthers, Yale, and the Redemption of A Killer. Paul has been a reporter and editor in New Haven, Conn., for over 40 years. He is the founder and editor of the online New Haven Independent.


I wrote...

Murder in the Model City: The Black Panthers, Yale, and the Redemption of a Killer

By Paul Bass, Douglas W. Rae,

Book cover of Murder in the Model City: The Black Panthers, Yale, and the Redemption of a Killer

What is my book about?

In a basement of a New Haven housing coop in 1969, the Black Panthers tortured a suspected spy, then took him to a field and shot him dead. It turned out the local party was full of informants  —  but this individual was not among them. The subsequent murder case became a national cause celebre that shut down Yale University, led to mass protests, revealed extensive law enforcement disruption of dissent through COINTELPRO, raised the question of whether a Black revolutionary could receive a fair trial in America, and served as a warning of the dangers of ignoring facts across all sides of the ideological spectrum.

Slave and Citizen

By Frank Tannenbaum,

Book cover of Slave and Citizen: The Classic Comparative Study of Race Relations in the Americas

This is a comparative short study of slave societies in the Americas with an emphasis on how the Brazilian system was more legally and morally fluid than the more rigid North American system. The importance of this book lies in its originality and influence as a model for generations of historians.  Tannenbaum’s legalistic themes have been superseded by enriched data sources and social science theories and models. An additional characteristic of this comparative model was the introduction of the work of controversial Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre, his thesis of miscegenation and its role in defining Brazilian national character. Tannenbaum’s optimistic closing prediction about racial harmony has not yet occurred.


Who am I?

I taught American, European, and World History at the University of British Columbia for over 30 years. I was constantly reminded of the dynamics and consequences of slavery and how a history of black America should be more prevalent in understanding the development of American culture, institutions, and identity over time. In writing two books on colonial America and the American Revolution, the roots of America’s racial divide became clearer and the logic of permanence seemed irresistible. My Shaping the New World was inspired by a course I taught for years on slavery in the Americas. Compiling the bibliography and writing the chapters on slave women and families helped to refine my understanding of the “peculiar institution” in all its both common and varied characteristics throughout the Americas.


I wrote...

Shaping the New World: African Slavery in the Americas, 1500-1888

By Eric Nellis,

Book cover of Shaping the New World: African Slavery in the Americas, 1500-1888

What is my book about?

Between 1500 and the middle of the nineteenth century, some 12.5 million slaves were sent as bonded labour from Africa to the European settlements in the Americas. Shaping the New World introduces students to the origins, growth, and consolidation of African slavery in the Americas and race-based slavery's impact on the economic, social, and cultural development of the New World.

While the book explores the idea of the African slave as a tool in the formation of new American societies, it also acknowledges the culture, humanity, and importance of the slave as a person and highlights the role of women in slave societies.

The Chosen Place, the Timeless People

By Paule Marshall,

Book cover of The Chosen Place, the Timeless People

One of my all-time favorites. I think it is about Haiti, or it is a fictional island “Bourneville” that is based on Haiti. The novel describes a place linked to its history of enslavement and the battle for freedom. She is a beautiful deep-thinking writer. She carefully shows a group of white ethnographers going to this island, and how their attempts to "help" led to tragedy. It illustrates the pitfalls with international aid organizations. How often they damage, instead of help. And the novel is timely to this day. 


Who am I?

I was born and raised in Haiti where I was known as ti-blan—little white. And when we moved to central Florida, I remember the feeling of utter sadness and despair. I felt wrenched from the place I loved. The only person I could speak creole with was the janitor at the segregated white school. The teacher yelled at me for talking with him. Since then, I have been interested in this weird problem of race in America. I am drawn to women writers and Caribbean women writers. I love books that evoke place and language and tell me a story—but also deal with the specific urgent political questions of our times. 


I wrote...

Ruth and the Green Book

By Calvin Alexander Ramsey, Gwen Strauss, Floyd Cooper (illustrator)

Book cover of Ruth and the Green Book

What is my book about?

The story of the journey of a family traveling from Chicago to Alabama by car. "It was a BIG day at our house when Daddy drove up in our very own automobile—a 1952 Buick!... I was so excited to travel across the country!" Ruth's family encounters many of the obstacles that existed, from whites-only restrooms in gas stations to whites-only hotels: "It seemed like there were White Only' signs everywhere outside of our Chicago neighborhood." The Negro Motorist Green Book comes to the rescue, listing resources for black motorists in every state, and Ruth and her family make their way from safe haven to safe haven until they reach Alabama.

Notes from No Man's Land

By Eula Biss,

Book cover of Notes from No Man's Land: American Essays

This essay collection isn’t exclusively about New York, but the four essays that open the collection are, and they are excellent. Biss writes personally about race relations in the city, and the United States. Her insights still feel relevant more than a decade later. She also refreshingly tackles the myth of New York, and the way that it is, as she says, overimagined. 


Who am I?

I have always loved cities, New York in particular. A few weeks after 9/11, I decided to study the rebuilding of the WTC site for my graduate thesis, compelled by the immensity of the project and the layers of conflict embedded in the reconstruction and memorialization. None of the books listed below are directly about 9/11, but the attacks and their aftermath thread through all of their stories. New York is an intense, fraught, sometimes fun, sometimes heartbreaking place, like these stories, which are listed from newest to oldest.


I wrote...

Battle for Ground Zero: Inside the Political Struggle to Rebuild the World Trade Center

By Elizabeth Greenspan,

Book cover of Battle for Ground Zero: Inside the Political Struggle to Rebuild the World Trade Center

What is my book about?

My book tells the story of the fight to rebuild the WTC site, from days after the Twin Towers collapsed, in September 2001, to the opening of the memorial on the 10 year anniversary of the attacks. It’s a portrait of clashing voices, belonging to victims’ families, local residents, wealthy leaseholders, first responders, and designers, among others, all of whom felt an intense sense of ownership over this sixteen-acre piece of land. For a moment, and due to extraordinary events, the city's most powerful people had to answer to an aggrieved public about the land’s future. My book chronicles the messy compromises and bitter feuds that followed—and that ultimately remade Lower Manhattan.

The Sum of Us

By Heather McGhee,

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

The Sum of Us accomplishes two important things: it illustrates the power of public policy to perpetuate racism and racial inequality and demonstrates the negative impact of such policies on white people as well as Black and other people of color. Racism hurts all of us in tangible and measurable ways. The Sum of Us makes those costs abundantly clear, but also offers much-needed hope and action steps for healing our collective wounds. I love Heather McGhee’s concept of the “solidarity dividend”. It reminds me that change is possible!


Who am I?

I am a clinical psychologist with a life-long research interest in racial identity development, particularly among Black adolescents. I began teaching about the psychology of racism in 1980, at the start of my academic career. That teaching experience was transformative for both my students and me. I was convinced that helping people understand how racism operates in our lives, and what we can do about it, was my calling. I have been teaching and writing about racism ever since. In 2014, I was deeply honored to receive the Award for Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to Psychology in recognition of my work, the highest honor presented by the American Psychological Association.


I wrote...

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations about Race

By Beverly Daniel Tatum,

Book cover of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations about Race

What is my book about?

This book is about the psychology of racism: what it is, how it shapes our view of ourselves and others, and ultimately what we can do about it. I translate psychological theory and research regarding racial identity and intergroup relations into accessible language, and apply it to daily experiences in school, at home, and at work. The answer to the title question comes from the latest research on Black adolescent identity development.

Also included are substantive discussions of the racial-ethnic-cultural identity development of White, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and multiracial youth, reflecting the changing U.S. demographics. You will gain a better understanding of the dynamics of race in America and find both inspiration and effective strategies to help you take anti-racist action.

A Passage to India

By E.M. Forster,

Book cover of A Passage to India

This novel, quite simply, sent me to India! Written in the 1920s when my grandparents were starting married life there, it is a beautifully written but unsettling depiction of British colonial rule. The plot is deceptively simple: was Adela (a naive young woman newly arrived from England) molested in the Marabar Caves by Dr. Aziz (a cultured young Indian acting as her guide)? But the characters are complex and the novel brilliantly illustrates the tensions between the racist rulers and the ruled. I read it as a teenager, and its portrayal of the vividness of the Indian landscape and the vibrancy of its multi-layered culture gripped my imagination. This book is what made me – aged 18 – climb on a bus to India!


Who am I?

As a historical novelist, my passion is world history and the story of my own family. Having survived the First World War, my Scottish grandfather went to India as a forester and my granny followed him out there; they married in Lahore. I was fascinated by their stories of trekking and camping in the remote Himalayas. They lived through momentous times: world war, Indian Independence and Partition. Grandfather Bob stayed on to work for the new country of Pakistan. Long after they’d died, I discovered their letters, diaries, and cine films from that era – a treasure-trove for a novelist! – which have helped enrich my novels set during the British Raj.


I wrote...

The Emerald Affair

By Janet MacLeod Trotter,

Book cover of The Emerald Affair

What is my book about?

After the heartbreak of the First World War, two friends leave Scotland for a new life in India. While Esmie endures hardship and danger nursing in the wilds of the Northwest Frontier, hedonistic Lydia dreams of a glamorous life at The Raj Hotel in Rawalpindi. But the simmering tensions at the hotel are mirrored in the unrest on the frontier and when crisis strikes, Esmie faces a shattering choice: should she stay the constant friend she’s always been, or risk everything and follow her heart? Love, loyalty, and friendship will be tested to their utmost in the heat and turbulence of colonial India. The Emerald Affair is the first in the Raj Hotel Series.

Stamped

By Jason Reynolds, Ibram X. Kendi,

Book cover of Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You: A Remix of the National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning

My son loved this adaptation of Ibram X. Kendi's National Book Award-winning book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. "It shows you things that are hidden," he said. "And reveals things that America doesn't want you to know about." This 12-year-old tore through the book, prepared for youth by brilliant KidLit writer Jason Reynolds. He found it utterly readable, and very compelling. If every middle and high school history class had Stamped as a required text, we would undoubtedly be having very different (meaning: better) discussions about race in this country.


Who am I?

I love stories and storytelling of all kinds – from YA to memoir to journalism to children's picture books. If there is a story worth telling I will pursue it, regardless of genre. I'm particularly fascinated by stories that are out of the mainstream, are hidden, or come from people and cultures at the intersections of place, race, and gender. See No Color, about a mixed Black girl adopted into a white family, was my first YA novel, and it was followed by Dream Country, which chronicles five generations of a Liberian and Liberian American family. I co-edited an anthology on BIPOC women's experiences with miscarriage and infant loss, What God Is Honored Here?

I wrote...

See No Color

By Shannon Gibney,

Book cover of See No Color

What is my book about?

Alexandra Kirtridge is a 16-year-old baseball prodigy. She's also a mixed Black girl adopted into a white family, who wonders about her racial identity, where she fits in in her family and among her peers. Then she discovers letters from her Black birth father that her white adoptive parents have kept from her and is propelled into a journey that changes her life forever.

Racial Innocence

By Robin Bernstein,

Book cover of Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights

Who gets to claim “childhood innocence” and the protections that come with this designation? Certainly not Black children in nineteenth-century America, according to Robin Bernstein. They were instead pictured as “pickaninnies”—comic figures who felt no pain, whatever mischief befell them. This book won a slew of awards for good reason: reading the racial ‘scripts’ in seemingly innocuous cultural products like children’s picture books, dolls, and knickknacks, Bernstein reveals how race-making hides in plain sight.


Who are we?

We are two historians who have been writing together for about a decade now, first on project related to race relations after WWI, then on a book about debates over the enlistment age in nineteenth century America. Rebecca teaches at UCSD while Frances works at the University of Sydney in Australia, but we regularly meet online to write together and talk about our favorite new books.


We wrote...

Of Age: Boy Soldiers and Military Power in Civil War America

By Frances M. Clarke, Rebecca Jo Plant,

Book cover of Of Age: Boy Soldiers and Military Power in Civil War America

What is our book about?

The first study to focus on underage enlistment in the U.S. Civil War, Of Age demonstrates that a full ten percent of the Union army enlisted when below the age of eighteen. Looking at both the Confederate and Union armies, it explains why mid-nineteenth century American society and culture facilitated youth enlistment, even as medical experts decried it. Tracing the heated conflicts between parents who sought to recover their sons and military and federal officials who resisted their claims, this book exposes larger, underlying struggles over the centralization of legal and military power.

Turn Me Loose

By Frank X Walker,

Book cover of Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers

Walker’s poems channel the voices of Myrlie Evers, widow of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers, and of Byron De La Beckwith, Medgar’s assassin. The poems create warm, sometimes groovy narratives that evoke the music and voices of my childhood, thus humanizing the historical figures while still making palpable their fear, hatred, and defiance.


Who am I?

I grew up in the American South during the Civil Rights Movement. The movement was nearly constant conversation, approached with cautious optimism, in my household. Years later, I met my wife, whose family lived in Birmingham, Alabama, and participated in various ways in the movement in that city. Soon after I began to study and write about the Civil Rights Movement, especially the Birmingham movement. I’ve published two books of fiction that reflect on the Movement and I’ve taught college courses and given many lectures in the States and abroad about literature and film set during the Civil Rights Movement.


I wrote...

Bombingham

By Anthony Grooms,

Book cover of Bombingham

What is my book about?

With wry humor and haunting descriptions, this is a portrait of the wonder and terror of childhood during a time when ordinary citizens risked their lives to change America. Now a soldier in the Vietnam War, Walter Burke tells the story of his family’s fight against segregation in Birmingham, Alabama during the 1963 Children’s March and his struggle to discover a faith that gives meaning to it all.

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