An Anti-Racist Reading List: 20 Books Recommended by Open Culture Readers

You may have received an email from your favorite online retail­er, your boss, uni­ver­si­ty pres­i­dent, or the CEO of your bank: “It has come to our atten­tion that racism is real, and it is real­ly, real­ly bad.” Oppor­tunism is real too, but a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of indi­vid­u­als seem to have final­ly drawn the same con­clu­sion and feel moral­ly com­pelled to do some­thing about an epi­dem­ic that has—very discriminately—killed tens of thou­sands of black, indige­nous, and peo­ple of col­or in the U.S. through the unequal dis­tri­b­u­tion of med­ical resources, and dozens more at the hands of the police and racist vig­i­lantes. That’s only in the past three months.

But racism isn’t new; the cur­rent con­flict has been on its way for a very long time. How long? Anti-racist schol­ar and activist Ibram X. Ken­di, author of the Nation­al Book Award-Win­ning Stamped from the Begin­ning, would say from the country’s ear­li­est set­tle­ment and enslave­ment of African peo­ple. “For near­ly six cen­turies,” he writes, “antiracist ideas have been pit­ted against two kinds of racist ideas: seg­re­ga­tion­ist and assim­i­la­tion­ist,” Ken­di wrote dur­ing the protests in Fer­gu­son and oth­er U.S. cities. At the time, antiracists were large­ly char­ac­ter­ized in main­stream media as fringe agi­ta­tors, naïve Gen‑Z neo­phytes, and pos­si­ble for­eign agents, not “real Amer­i­cans.”

How things have changed in six years. Antiracism has become a default posi­tion, all of a sud­den, for per­haps the first time in U.S. his­to­ry, so much so that every com­pa­ny and insti­tu­tion has issued some sort of state­ment in sup­port of Black Lives Mat­ter, and every­one is col­lect­ing and shar­ing Anti-Racist Read­ing Lists, near­ly all of which con­tain Kendi’s fol­low-up book, last year’s How to Be an Anti-Racist (which he dis­cuss­es above with Brené Brown). How long this will last is any­one’s guess, but it is with­out a doubt a cul­tur­al sea change a long time in the mak­ing.

Ken­di and White Fragili­ty author Robin DiAn­ge­lo are the “mac dad­dies of the bunch” of recent antiracist authors, Lau­ren Michele Jack­son writes at Vul­ture, and it’s become a crowd­ed field as more and more Amer­i­cans attempt to come to grips with a nation­al his­to­ry many of them are learn­ing for the first time. As Ken­di and Pulitzer Prize-win­ning jour­nal­ist Nikole Han­nah-Jones, cre­ator of the 1619 project, dis­cuss on Chris Hayes’ pod­cast at the top, the country’s past as it is taught to us and as it hap­pened are two entire­ly dif­fer­ent things. Antiracism has always rec­og­nized the vicious, cease­less mur­der, dis­en­fran­chise­ment, and ran­sack­ing of black and brown peo­ple, and has pushed against the nar­ra­tives that deny or excuse these acts.

Car­ol Ander­son, author of White Rage, has giv­en us one of the most raw, com­pelling, and exhaus­tive­ly researched accounts of the vio­lence of Recon­struc­tion and the lynch­ings of the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry. Above, she links the mur­der of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery and recent police killings to the shock­ing­ly bru­tal racism that fol­lowed the Civ­il War. Anderson’s book also rou­tine­ly appears on sug­gest­ed read­ing lists, and well it should. All of these schol­ars and authors have pro­duced acces­si­ble work full of his­to­ries one might pre­vi­ous­ly have only encoun­tered in grad­u­ate-lev­el col­lege and uni­ver­si­ty cours­es. It is essen­tial infor­ma­tion for peo­ple com­mit­ted to over­turn­ing racist sys­tems, which is exact­ly why it has been left out of the text­books.

For all the urgency of edu­ca­tion, the anti-racist book­list is an ambigu­ous kind of cur­ren­cy. Jack­son won­ders what func­tion it serves, exact­ly. Read­ing lists can be an eru­dite brush-off, a polite way of say­ing, “go away and read a book.” They can be a way to sig­nal mas­tery and work for online mer­it badges rather than real ben­e­fi­cial action. They can “feel good to solic­it, good to mete out, but some­one at some point has to get down to the busi­ness of read­ing. And there, between giv­ing and receiv­ing, lies a great gulf. No one can quite account for what hap­pens. Read­ing, hope­ful­ly, but you nev­er can be sure.”

Jackson’s cri­tique of the anti-racist read­ing list is worth read­ing before engag­ing with lists of books, recent and his­tor­i­cal, that oppose racist ideas, poli­cies, and sys­tems. What are we look­ing for in such lists? And can we real­ly make good use of them? She makes a case for why fic­tion, poet­ry, and dra­ma should not appear, since they deserve the sta­tus of art, not as instru­men­tal works of social change. “It is unfair,” Jack­son writes, “to beg oth­er lit­er­a­ture and oth­er authors, many of them dead, to do this sort of work for some­one,” when the work they set out to do is pri­mar­i­ly cre­ative. Ignor­ing genre “rein­forces an already per­ni­cious lit­er­ary divide that books writ­ten by or about minori­ties are for edu­ca­tion­al pur­pos­es” only.

Despite many poten­tial blind spots, despite the fact that “our cus­tom­ar­i­ly wan atten­tion spans have been dec­i­mat­ed” by pan­dem­ic and protest, the read­ing “has to get done,” Jack­son weari­ly admits. Anti-racist book­lists must cir­cu­late. And read­ers must make crit­i­cal judg­ments about which books to read and what to take away from them, since we’re giv­en the equiv­a­lent of a syl­labus with­out a class or an instruc­tor. We trust that our read­ers can find their way and will make a good faith effort to do the read­ing. There won’t be a grad­ed exam; the test is far more con­se­quen­tial than that.

We solicit­ed an anti-racist read­ing list on Twit­ter and chose the books below sub­mit­ted by our read­ers. Since there’s no such thing as a defin­i­tive list, and dif­fer­ent kinds of read­ers have dif­fer­ent needs, we include oth­er col­lec­tions of read­ings lists here, includ­ing “41 Children’s Books to Sup­port Con­ver­sa­tions on Race, Racism, and Resis­tance.” You’ll find an anti-racist read­ing list on Twit­ter, here, com­piled by doc­tor­al researcher Vic­to­ria Alexan­der, and a list on LinkedIn enti­tled “Why White Peo­ple Stay Silent on Racism, and What to Read First,” from orga­ni­za­tion­al psy­chol­o­gist Adam Grant.

If this is over­whelm­ing but you feel you must start to engage with the his­to­ry and the­o­ry of anti-racism, don’t despair or buy a pile of books you know you can’t read right now. All of the most promi­nent anti-racist authors have been in high demand for inter­views. “There are snap­pi­er places to glean the long-sto­ry-short of Amer­i­ca, like pod­casts, if it took some­one this long to care,” writes Jack­son, or if, like so many mil­lions of oth­er stressed out, angry, griev­ing, out-of-work Amer­i­cans, you’re sim­ply too burned out to crack anoth­er book. But if you’re will­ing and able to dig in, see our read­er-sub­mit­ted list below and sug­gest oth­er titles you’d rec­om­mend in the com­ments. If you pre­fer audio­books, many of these texts also exist as audio­books on Audi­ble. Get details on Audi­ble’s free tri­al here.

Between the World and Me—Ta-Nehisi Coates: Hailed by Toni Mor­ri­son as “required read­ing,” a bold and per­son­al lit­er­ary explo­ration of America’s racial his­to­ry by “the most impor­tant essay­ist in a gen­er­a­tion and a writer who changed the nation­al polit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion about race” (Rolling Stone)

Biased: Uncov­er­ing the Hid­den Prej­u­dice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do—Jen­nifer L. Eber­hardt PhD: How do we talk about bias? How do we address racial dis­par­i­ties and inequities? What role do our insti­tu­tions play in cre­at­ing, main­tain­ing, and mag­ni­fy­ing those inequities? What role do we play? With a per­spec­tive that is at once sci­en­tif­ic, inves­tiga­tive, and informed by per­son­al expe­ri­ence, Dr. Jen­nifer Eber­hardt offers us the lan­guage and courage we need to face one of the biggest and most trou­bling issues of our time. She expos­es racial bias at all lev­els of society—in our neigh­bor­hoods, schools, work­places, and crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem. Yet she also offers us tools to address it.

Black Like Me—John Howard Grif­fin: The his­to­ry-mak­ing clas­sic about cross­ing the line in Amer­i­ca’s seg­re­gat­ed south. The Atlanta Jour­nal & Con­sti­tu­tion calls it “One of the deep­est, most pen­e­trat­ing doc­u­ments yet set down on the racial ques­tion.”

How To Be An Antiracist — Ibram X. Ken­di: “What do you do after you have writ­ten Stamped From the Begin­ning, an award-win­ning his­to­ry of racist ideas? … If you’re Ibram X. Ken­di, you craft anoth­er stun­ner of a book.… What emerges from these insights is the most coura­geous book to date on the prob­lem of race in the West­ern mind, a con­fes­sion­al of self-exam­i­na­tion that may, in fact, be our best chance to free our­selves from our nation­al nightmare.”—The New York Times

I Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street—Matt Tiab­bi: A work of riv­et­ing lit­er­ary jour­nal­ism that explores the roots and reper­cus­sions of the infa­mous killing of Eric Gar­ner by the New York City police.

Just Mer­cy: A Sto­ry of Jus­tice and Redemp­tion—Bryan Steven­son: “Every bit as mov­ing as To Kill a Mock­ing­bird, and in some ways more so … a sear­ing indict­ment of Amer­i­can crim­i­nal jus­tice and a stir­ring tes­ta­ment to the sal­va­tion that fight­ing for the vul­ner­a­ble some­times yields.”—David Cole, The New York Review of Books

On the Cour­t­house Lawn: Con­fronting the Lega­cy of Lynch­ing in the Twen­ty-First Cen­tu­ry—Sher­ri­lyn A. Ifill: “This path­break­ing book by Sher­ri­lyn Ifill shows how the ugli­est mes­sages from our racial his­to­ry and pol­i­tics can hide open­ly in the pub­lic square. Her unflinch­ing mem­o­ry restores hope for the com­mon good.”—Taylor Branch, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Part­ing the Waters

So You Want to Talk About Race—Ijeo­ma Oluo: “Ijeo­ma Olu­o’s [book] is a wel­come gift to us all — a crit­i­cal offer­ing dur­ing a moment when the hard work of social trans­for­ma­tion is ham­pered by the inabil­i­ty of any­one who ben­e­fits from sys­temic racism to reck­on with its costs. Olu­o’s man­date is clear and pow­er­ful: change will not come unless we are brave enough to name and remove the many forces at work stran­gling free­dom. Racial suprema­cy is but one of those forces.” ―Dar­nell L. Moore, author of No Ash­es in the Fire

Stamped from the Begin­ning: The Defin­i­tive His­to­ry of Racist Ideas in Amer­i­ca—Ibram X. Ken­di: The Nation­al Book Award win­ning his­to­ry of how racist ideas were cre­at­ed, spread, and deeply root­ed in Amer­i­can soci­ety. In this deeply researched and fast-mov­ing nar­ra­tive, Ken­di chron­i­cles the entire sto­ry of anti-black racist ideas and their stag­ger­ing pow­er over the course of Amer­i­can his­to­ry. He uses the life sto­ries of five major Amer­i­can intel­lec­tu­als to dri­ve this his­to­ry: Puri­tan min­is­ter Cot­ton Math­er, Thomas Jef­fer­son, abo­li­tion­ist William Lloyd Gar­ri­son, W.E.B. Du Bois, and leg­endary activist Angela Davis.

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You—Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Ken­di: “Read­ers who want to tru­ly under­stand how deeply embed­ded racism is in the very fab­ric of the U.S., its his­to­ry, and its sys­tems will come away edu­cat­ed and enlight­ened. Wor­thy of inclu­sion in every home and in cur­ric­u­la and libraries every­where. Impres­sive and much need­ed.” ―Kirkus

Sun­down Towns—James Loewen: In this ground­break­ing work, soci­ol­o­gist James W. Loewen brings to light decades of hid­den racial exclu­sion in Amer­i­ca. In a sweep­ing analy­sis of Amer­i­can res­i­den­tial pat­terns, Loewen uncov­ers the thou­sands of “sun­down towns”—almost exclu­sive­ly white towns where it was an unspo­ken rule that blacks weren’t welcome—that cropped up through­out the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, most of them locat­ed out­side of the South.

The Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of Mal­colm X: As Told to Alex Haley: In the sear­ing pages of this clas­sic 1964 auto­bi­og­ra­phy, Mal­colm X out­lines the lies and lim­i­ta­tions of the Amer­i­can Dream, along with the inher­ent racism in a soci­ety that denies its non­white cit­i­zens the oppor­tu­ni­ty to dream.

The Col­or of Law—Richard Roth­stein: Roth­stein argues with exact­ing pre­ci­sion and fas­ci­nat­ing insight how seg­re­ga­tion in America—the inces­sant kind that con­tin­ues to dog our major cities and has con­tributed to so much recent social strife—is the byprod­uct of explic­it gov­ern­ment poli­cies at the local, state, and fed­er­al lev­els.

The Fire Next Time—James Bald­win: “Bald­win’s best­seller from 1963, which com­mem­o­rat­ed the cen­ten­ni­al of the sign­ing of the Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion, still res­onates pow­er­ful­ly today. The late author’s book con­sists of two essays that exam­ine racial injus­tice in Amer­i­ca, includ­ing his own expe­ri­ence grow­ing up as a black teenag­er in Harlem.”

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incar­cer­a­tion in the Age of Col­or­blind­ness —Michelle Alexan­der: The New Jim Crow “took the acad­e­my and the streets by storm, and forced the nation to recon­sid­er the sys­tems that allowed for bla­tant discrimination.”—The Chron­i­cle of High­er Edu­ca­tion

The Oth­er by Wes Moore: “This is a fas­ci­nat­ing book about two young men from Bal­ti­more with the same name. One, the author, became a Rhodes Schol­ar while the oth­er land­ed in jail. It’s as much a med­i­ta­tion on cir­cum­stance and luck as it is a com­men­tary on how suc­cess­ful our soci­ety is in man­ag­ing those who are on the precipice, both social­ly and eco­nom­i­cal­ly.”

The Per­son You Mean to Be: How Good Peo­ple Fight Bias—Dol­ly Chugh: An inspir­ing guide from Dol­ly Chugh, an award-win­ning social psy­chol­o­gist at the New York Uni­ver­si­ty Stern School of Busi­ness, on how to con­front dif­fi­cult issues includ­ing sex­ism, racism, inequal­i­ty, and injus­tice so that you can make the world (and your­self) bet­ter.

The Warmth of Oth­er Suns—Isabel Wilk­er­son: In this epic, beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten mas­ter­work, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Isabel Wilk­er­son chron­i­cles one of the great untold sto­ries of Amer­i­can his­to­ry: the decades-long migra­tion of black cit­i­zens who fled the South for north­ern and west­ern cities, in search of a bet­ter life.

White Fragili­ty: Why It’s So Hard for White Peo­ple to Talk About Racism—Robin DiAn­ge­lo: The New York Times best-sell­ing book explor­ing the coun­ter­pro­duc­tive reac­tions white peo­ple have when their assump­tions about race are chal­lenged, and how these reac­tions main­tain racial inequal­i­ty.

White Rage—Car­ol Ander­son: “White Rage is a riv­et­ing and dis­turb­ing his­to­ry that begins with Recon­struc­tion and lays bare the efforts of whites in the South and North alike to pre­vent eman­ci­pat­ed black peo­ple from achiev­ing eco­nom­ic inde­pen­dence, civ­il and polit­i­cal rights, per­son­al safe­ty, and eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ty.” — The Nation

Why Are All the Black Kids Sit­ting Togeth­er in the Cafe­te­ria?—Bev­er­ly Daniel Tatum: Walk into any racial­ly mixed high school and you will see Black, White, and Lati­no youth clus­tered in their own groups. Is this self-seg­re­ga­tion a prob­lem to address or a cop­ing strat­e­gy? Bev­er­ly Daniel Tatum, a renowned author­i­ty on the psy­chol­o­gy of racism, argues that straight talk about our racial iden­ti­ties is essen­tial if we are seri­ous about enabling com­mu­ni­ca­tion across racial and eth­nic divides. This ful­ly revised edi­tion is essen­tial read­ing for any­one seek­ing to under­stand the dynam­ics of race in Amer­i­ca.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Noam Chom­sky Explains the Best Way for Ordi­nary Peo­ple to Make Change in the World, Even When It Seems Daunt­ing

Watch Ava DuVernay’s 13th Free Online: An Award-Win­ning Doc­u­men­tary Reveal­ing the Inequal­i­ties in the US Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Sys­tem

Albert Ein­stein Explains How Slav­ery Has Crip­pled Everyone’s Abil­i­ty to Think Clear­ly About Racism

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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