Four Books to Help You Understand Racism

‘May you live in interesting times’. Allegedly an English translation of a traditional Chinese saying, this phrase has been bandied about a lot over the last four or five years. It’s easy to see why: though it has the structure of a blessing, it is in fact a curse. Few would deny that we now live in ‘interesting times’. But I suspect even fewer would claim to be excited about this. ‘Interesting times’ are for all too many times of suffering — of anxiety, fear, uncertainty, and, in all too many cases, direct threats to life and livelihood.

Indeed, it is all too easy to sympathise with Frodo’s lament, from Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings. ‘I wish’, he sighs to the wizard Gandalf, ‘it need not have happened in in my time.’ I know I find myself feeling this way. Of course, if we do share Frodo’s feeling here, it is worthwhile to remember Gandalf’s response. ‘So do I’, he replies, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.’

Truth be told, I still don’t know what I can, should, or must do with this time. But I know that doing nothing is not a credible moral option. Expect to see more written here over the coming weeks and months as I wrestle with this question. Still, there is one thing I find I can always do —communicate. Whether by writing a story or playing a song, or by simply sitting back and listening to others more knowledgeable and more directly affected than I, communication is always a possibility.

In this post, then, I will recommend four books that have helped shape my ever-evolving understanding of race and racism. These four books will not teach you everything there is to know about our current crisis or its historical roots. They will not point the way to easy solutions, and reading them will not absolve you of complicity in systems of oppression or responsibility to act to dismantle those systems — just as writing this post will do neither for me.

What they will do, I hope, is point you in the right direction to better understand our present moment.

Michelle Alexander, The New Jime Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010).

First published in 2010, this remains perhaps the crucial text in understanding racial disparities in the US criminal justice system. A qualified legal scholar and civil rights advocate, Michelle Alexander outlines with clinical precision the ways in which black Americans are specifically targeted and oppressed by policy, police, courts, and the prison system. Most shockingly, she persuasively argues that this is not an accident: that US crime policy, including but not limited to the disastrous ‘war on drugs’, did not simply happen to do the most harm to black Americans, but emerged in response to the dismantling of the Jim Crow system of segregation in the South and its analogues in the North.

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952).

A novel published in the early 1950s, Invisible Man has stood the test of time as one of the most important works in the US literary canon. More than this, though, it’s also alarmingly, devastatingly prescient. Structured as a coming of age story, the book takes readers from a gonzo spectacle in the Jim Crow South through an astonishing takedown of what it means to ‘accommodate’ to white supremacy, into the urban North, spending most of its time in New York City’s famous Harlem neighbourhood, where it shows us evictions, labour tensions, and police violence, ultimately culminating in an explosion of popular unrest. There is much to learn here, but perhaps what stuck with me the most as a white reader was the callous and casual way that even ‘revolutionaries’ claiming to fight for racial justice could cast that aside in the interests of their own ideology.

Akala, Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire (2018).

It almost certainly says something damning about my priorities and preoccupations that this is the only UK-focused text on this list. For precisely that reason, this is an essential read for anyone based in the United Kingdom who wants to understand and fight against white supremacy. It’s all too easy for UK observers to adopt a tone of detached smugness when it comes to racist violence in the United States. Even well-meaning liberals and leftists will often rest comfortably in the belief that things are ‘nowhere near as bad’ in their home country. All too often, such platitudes come along with a cheery dismissal of racial injustice — an absence of any attempt to learn how racism functions in the United Kingdom. In Natives, rapper, poet, and activist Akala offers a powerful antidote to this sort of thinking. The book is a mix of personal memoir and socialist, internationalist manifesto, setting its author’s own experiences in the context of post-imperial (or rather, post-colonial — imperialism is still very much with us) politics both in his home country and worldwide.

Malcolm X and Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965).

If I had to place one book as the single most important one in shaping my understanding of race and racism, at least in the US context, it would be this. The Autobiography is nothing short of seminal, illustrating and tracking the intellectual journey of one of US history’s most important and iconic figures in the ongoing struggle for racial justice. Standing somewhere between history and literature, this text rewards multiple, critical readings more than perhaps any other on this list. While some of its claims about Malcolm’s own life are inflated, the Autobiography more than makes up for this with its passionate tone and intellectual heft. Compiled from a series of interviews Malcolm gave to Alex Haley in the years before its publication, and compiled after Malcolm’s death, the prose perfectly captures Malcolm’s searing wit and caustic rage. At the same time, it is unmistakably a meeting of two minds — a vision of Malcolm as seen through Haley’s eyes. Crucially, the Malcolm that Haley saw was in the process of a great intellectual reinvention, moving away from the Nation of Islam and reexamining many of his core beliefs on Islam, race relations, and the nature of activism. It is this that is the book’s most inspiring element, setting a brave and bold example of the constant thought we must put into fighting and ending white supremacy.

If you have any more recommendations or criticisms, please don’t hesitate to comment or contact me on Twitter. Finally, keep reading and learning, and take action if you can. You can donate to George Floyd’s memorial fund here, to the Black Lives Matter movement here, and to the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund here.

Alex left Oxford University in 2015 with a degree and depression. Now he teaches, writes, and tries to play music.

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