The best books on racism and discrimination

Many authors have picked their favorite books about racism and discrimination and why they recommend each book.

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A Country of Strangers

By David K. Shipler,

Book cover of A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America

Shipler’s book is as timely today as when written nearly 25 years ago. Slavery is our nation’s founding sin and was responsible for racism being written into America’s DNA. I spent years researching my book The Northside: African Americans and the Creation of Atlantic City. Shipler’s research was an invaluable aid in understanding where we are today regarding race relations. In everything from pay differentials, education and housing, to healthcare, drug addiction, and death at the hands of police, the chasm between whites and many black Americans is virtually intractable. Shipler does a yeoman’s job of putting race and racism into perspective, making sense of a complex and disturbing issue.

Who am I?

Nelson Johnson is a New York Times bestselling author (Boardwalk Empire) and has been fascinated with history and Clarence Darrow’s career all his life. From having practiced law many years and presided over 200(+) jury trials as a New Jersey Superior Court Judge, Nelson is uniquely qualified to tell the story of Darrow’s and his wife Ruby’s worst two years together. Nelson’s first four books have all prepared him to tell this story. It’s a tale that asks the reader to judge Darrow.

I wrote...

Darrow's Nightmare: The Forgotten Story of America's Most Famous Trial Lawyer

By Nelson Johnson,

Book cover of Darrow's Nightmare: The Forgotten Story of America's Most Famous Trial Lawyer

What is my book about?

Though his fifty-year-long career was replete with momentous cases, specifically his work in the Scopes Monkey Trial and the Leopold and Loeb Murder Trial, Darrow's Nightmare zeroes in on just two years of Darrow's career: 1911 to 1913. It was during this time period that Darrow was hired to represent the McNamara brothers, two union workers accused of bombing the Los Angeles Times building, an incident that resulted in twenty-one deaths and hundreds more injuries.

Along with investigative journalist Lincoln Steffens, Darrow negotiated an ambitious plea bargain on behalf of the McNamara brothers. But the plan soon unraveled; not long after the plea bargain was finalized, Darrow was accused of attempting to bribe a juror. As Darrow himself became the defendant, what was once his shining moment in the national spotlight became a threat to the future of his career and the safety of his family.

Forgotten by history books, New York Times best-selling author Nelson Johnson brings two of the most tumultuous years of Darrow's life back to the forefront of conversation.


By Denise Eileen McCoskey,

Book cover of Race: Antiquity and Its Legacy

If you’re curious about what the ancient Greeks and Romans thought about their neighbors—Persians, Egyptians, etc.— you’ll want to read this book from cover to cover.  It’s smart, learned, and doesn’t shy away from hard truths.  After you read it, you’ll also want to read Benjamin Isaac’s The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity, David M. Goldenberg’s The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and The Origins of Racism in the West, edited by Miriam Eliav-Feldon, Benjamin Isaac, and Joseph Ziegler.

Who am I?

I’m that infamous medievalist who wrote the big book on medieval race. It took 20 years of thinking and research, and a whole lot of writing, but now people are convinced that there was, indeed, such a thing as race and racism between the 11th and 15th centuries in the West (aka Christendom/Europe). I'm Perceval Professor of English and Comparative Literature, with a joint appointment in Middle Eastern studies and Women’s studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

I wrote...

The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages

By Geraldine Heng,

Book cover of The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages

What is my book about?

I take readers on a journey from North America (where Greenlanders and Icelanders had a lot to say about Native Americans) to Europe (where Jews were racialized, and “Gypsy” became the name of a slave race), to the Middle East (where Muslims were the international enemy in the killing fields of holy war) to Africa (where blackness was seen as the color of sin and the devil, and Ethiopians were deemed a population of sinners) to the Eurasian steppes and China (where Mongols evolved, in the western mind, from subhuman beings to the representatives of the greatest empire on earth). Along the way, I show readers why all this still matters today.

Hitler's American Model

By James Q. Whitman.,

Book cover of Hitler's American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law

My first two picks concern the inhumanities that White Americans perpetrated against Black people, and my second two picks concern the inhumanities that Nazis perpetrated against Jews, Roma, and others. My fifth pick brings both of these seemingly independent strands together. In it, Yale University historian James Q. Whitman documents how, during the early years of the regime, Nazi lawyers looked to racist American legislation as a model for the infamous 1935 Nuremburg laws, which were the first step down the road that led to Auschwitz. This short, eye-opening book leads readers to see how American racist values were not only bad in themselves, but also contributed to the most horrific genocide of the twentieth century.

Who am I?

I’ve been studying dehumanization, and its relationship to racism, genocide, slavery, and other atrocities, for more than a decade. I am the author of three books on dehumanization, one of which was awarded the 2012 Anisfield-Wolf award for non-fiction, an award that is reserved for books that make an outstanding contribution to understanding racism and human diversity. My work on dehumanization is widely covered in the national and international media, and I often give presentations at academic and non-academic venues, including one at the 2012 G20 economic summit where I spoke on dehumanization and mass violence.

I wrote...

On Inhumanity: Dehumanization and How to Resist It

By David Livingstone Smith,

Book cover of On Inhumanity: Dehumanization and How to Resist It

What is my book about?

The Rwandan genocide, the Holocaust, the lynching of African Americans, the colonial slave trade: these are horrific episodes of mass violence spawned from racism and hatred. We like to think that we could never see such evils again--that we would stand up and fight. But something deep in the human psyche--deeper than prejudice itself--leads people to persecute the other: dehumanization, or the human propensity to think of others as less than human.

An award-winning author and philosopher, Smith takes an unflinching look at the mechanisms of the mind that encourage us to see someone as less than human. There is something peculiar and horrifying in human psychology that makes us vulnerable to thinking of whole groups of people as subhuman creatures. When governments or other groups stand to gain by exploiting this innate propensity, and know just how to manipulate words and images to trigger it, there is no limit to the violence and hatred that can result.

Between the World and Me

By Ta-Nehisi Coates,

Book cover of Between the World and Me

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. 

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. 

Begin Again

By Eddie S. Glaude Jr.,

Book cover of Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own

Professor Glaube leads us, from his own observations, and those of James Baldwin, through the precarity and failings of modern America. For someone that is new to living in the country and to the details and nuances of its history, it completely opened my mind. It is also beautifully written and though the content is challenging and uncomfortable, it is a joy to read.

Who am I?

I have been an activist working on issues relating to human rights and youth protection for over fifteen years and during that time I worked as a lawyer and was lucky enough to make films and write two novels. Eventually, I would concentrate solely on activism and my reading would become very specific and as the focus of my activism changed and I directed my energies to corporate accountability my reading changed course again. The list I offer is from talented writers on important subjects, all write extremely well about things that matter to a human rights activist.  

I wrote...

All the Flowers in Shanghai

By Duncan Jepson,

Book cover of All the Flowers in Shanghai

What is my book about?

I wrote All the Flowers in Shanghai as an attempt to understand the issue of forced marriage from a woman’s perspective. An experience I clearly do not and will not ever have. At the same time, I wanted to look at such an event from the people around the victim – her parents, husband-to-be, and even sibling. What reactions might they have? How might they respond? It was also an opportunity to describe and explore a portion of China’s history as it responded to huge social and political movements. I believe the pace was very important and I hope I captured the changes in daily rhythms as history swallows up the characters’ lives as they move from imperial China to modern China.

Community as Rebellion

By Lorgia García Peña,

Book cover of Community as Rebellion: A Syllabus for Surviving Academia as a Woman of Color

Peña’s book began as a letter written to students and it remains a powerful offering of love as well as a call to rebel and resist oppression. The book’s “Course Requirements” include: an open heart and mind; “The desire to be part of the sum, rather than a single part”; and patience—to make room for humility, to unlearn and relearn, to make mistakes, to become resilient in order to do more than rebel once but to actually light the fire within to be rebellious as a practice. This book inspires us to continue fighting for justice and change, and to sustain our communities to keep the light of hope in a better future burning.

Who are we?

We are two college-level educators, one has had a long career, one a recent PhD. We share a commitment to lifelong learning, not just in the classroom but beyond. And we love learning from one another. We wrote The New College Classroom together during the pandemic, meeting over Zoom twice a week, discussing books by other educators, writing and revising and rewriting every word together, finding ways to think about improving our students’ lives for a better future even as the world seemed grim. The books we cherish share those values: hope, belief in the next generation, and a deep commitment to learning even in—especially in—the grimmest of times.

We wrote...

The New College Classroom

By Cathy N. Davidson and Christina Katopodis,

Book cover of The New College Classroom

What is our book about?

College teaching is stuck in the past. If a time traveler from a century ago arrived on today’s campuses, they would recognize only too well the listlessness of the lecture hall and the awkward silence of the seminar room. Yet we know how to do better. Cathy N. Davidson and Christina Katopodis, two of the world’s foremost innovators in higher education, turn to the latest learning science to tell us about inspiring, effective, and inclusive teaching. Davidson and Katopodis explain how and why their approach works and provide detailed case studies of educators successfully applying active-learning techniques in their courses every day, ensuring that their students are better prepared for the world after college. 

From Here to Equality

By William A. Darity, A. Kirsten Mullen,

Book cover of From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century

From Here to Equality is a great companion to The Half Has Never Been Told. Through the lens of the contemporary discussion of reparations, it fills in the historical blanks that so many people have about the African American experience, going beyond slavery to Reconstruction and its aftermath, Jim Crow segregation, and modern-day discrimination, detailing the economic impact during each historical period. I was really impressed by the historical detail and the economic analysis, and I learned a lot from reading it. If you want to understand the national conversation about reparations, read this book!

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.

The Beast Side

By D. Watkins,

Book cover of The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America

In the space of two years, D. Watkins published two stunning books about Baltimore. The second, The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir, is sharp and smart, but if I had to only choose one, it would be The Beast Side. In this slim volume of essays, Watkins invites us to explore the two worlds he lives within and between. He grew up on the tough east side, known locally as the beast side, and sold drugs, but also went to college and now teaches creative writing.

While there are many books by Black authors that use stories of poverty and despair to titillate or move white audiences to pity, Watkins does none of that. He speaks first to Black audiences, especially those who maybe don’t love to read, because literacy, he says, is a step towards liberation. The Beast Side may be the best way to see…

Who am I?

As a cultural historian of 20th century America, I’m fascinated by how culture is used to rebel against the status quo and how the status quo fights back. In my first book, Class Acts: Young Men and the Rise of Lifestyle, I looked at greasers, hippies, and white hip hop lovers to understand how they used style and fashion to push back against being white and middle class. In Come and Be Shocked: Baltimore Beyond John Waters and The Wire, I went beyond looking at how individuals shape their identity to thinking about how artists and city leaders shape the identity of a place. Can artists counter the efforts of cities to create sanitized images of themselves?

I wrote...

Come and Be Shocked: Baltimore Beyond John Waters and the Wire

By Mary Rizzo,

Book cover of Come and Be Shocked: Baltimore Beyond John Waters and the Wire

What is my book about?

Is Baltimore Charm City or Bodymore? Is it the pastel-colored dream of the musical Hairspray or the grim tragedy of The Wire? Unlike other cities of its size, Baltimore has been the setting for an astonishing number of cultural texts, from John Waters movies to Anne Tyler novels. As a cultural historian, I wondered how these images shaped and reflected Baltimore’s history from the 1950s to today. What I found was that politics and culture are intertwined more than most of us realize. Policymakers and cultural creators battled over defining the meaning of Baltimore. But this isn’t only a story about culture, it’s also about race.

Charm City and Bodymore are not only slogans but also reflect the hyper segregation of the city. As I show, the representations of Charm City define it through white working-class eccentricity, while Bodymore is depicted as a dangerous place where people of color reside, with material effects on the real neighborhoods that can be connected to each idea.

Call Me Miss Hamilton

By Carole Boston Weatherford, Jeffery Boston Weatherford (illustrator),

Book cover of Call Me Miss Hamilton: One Woman's Case for Equality and Respect

This picture book tells the story of Hamilton v. Alabama, a lesser-known U.S. Supreme Court ruling on behalf of Miss Mary Hamilton. Mary Hamilton, a Black civil rights activist arrested for her protests against segregation, demanded in a court hearing that she be addressed as "Miss Hamilton," rather than by her first name. This courtesy was extended to white people but often not to Blacks. When she refused to respond to "Mary," the judge held her in contempt. The NAACP took the case to the United States Supreme Court, which reversed in a 1964 order. Powerful poetic text and art by the talented mother-son Boston Weatherford team puts Mary's demand for respect into its historical and social context.

Who am I?

As a former lawyer, I want young readers to understand the judicial system and to appreciate how the structure of our government, with its three branches, buttresses our freedoms. That's why I wrote The Supreme Court and Us. My book surveys the court, its function, and some of its important cases. Reading it together with the other recommended titles will offer a multi-dimensional picture of the Court, its Justices, and its work. Each Supreme Court case is a fascinating story. I want to share these stories with kids. We need a knowledgeable new generation to be engaged in civic life – and these books are a good place to start.

I wrote...

The Supreme Court and Us

By Christy Mihaly, Neely Daggett (illustrator),

Book cover of The Supreme Court and Us

What is my book about?

This book introduces young readers to the U.S. Supreme Court, its history, its processes, and its significance. The illustrator, Neely Daggett, engages readers with her kid-friendly, comic-style format showing the young protagonists, Ada and Bea, as they tour Washington, D.C. and learn about the Supreme Court. The two girls joke and talk with various helpful characters, including some past Supreme Court Justices, participants in important legal cases, and the Constitution itself. They come to understand how the Court has shaped our lives. Cases discussed include Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education, and disputes over whether schools can require the pledge of allegiance. Back matter provides additional depth and details. 

How Race Is Made in America

By Natalia Molina,

Book cover of How Race Is Made in America: Immigration, Citizenship, and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts

A focused examination of the relation between race and immigration in the United States, Natalia Molina looks at the effect of racialized immigration views and policies on Mexican migrants during the first half of the twentieth century. Her theory of racial scripts, she argues, is the product of race-based views of American identity. A must-read for scholars of immigration and race, especially for understanding how racialization of one group can occur and impact others across United States history.

Who are we?

Paul Spickard wrote the first edition of Almost All Aliens. He invited Francisco Beltrán and Laura Hooton, who worked under Dr. Spickard at UC Santa Barbara, to co-author the second edition after working as research assistants and providing suggestions for the second edition. We are all historians of race, ethnicity, immigration, colonialism, and identity, and in our other works and teaching we each think about these topics in different ways. We did the same for this list—this is a list of five books that talk about topics that are important to Almost All Aliens and approaches that have been influential in how we think about the topic.  

We wrote...

Almost All Aliens: Immigration, Race, and Colonialism in American History and Identity

By Paul Spickard, Francisco Beltrán, and Laura Hooton,

Book cover of Almost All Aliens: Immigration, Race, and Colonialism in American History and Identity

What is our book about?

Almost All Aliens discusses ethnic identity and race from 1600 to the first two decades of the twenty-first century. The focus is on how immigration in the United States is and was multicultural, racialized, and deeply rooted in colonialism. Moving away from the European migrant-centered melting-pot model of immigrant assimilation, the book examines the lives of those who crossed the Atlantic, Pacific, Caribbean, and North American Borderlands, and their experiences navigating different racial and ethnic structures in the United States. 

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