As many other folks with white skin can attest, you don’t really know about your white privilege until someone points it out to you. Because you never really had to worry about it. But you should worry about it, because those blessed with melanin in their skin wear targets on their backs. And no one should have to live their life that way.
Thus, a healthy education on racial injustice (specially for white folks) includes reading, research, and listening to other people’s stories.
I’ve compiled a list of non-fiction books, novels, albums, songs and TV shows that have broadened my perspective and impacted my understanding of systematic racism and black identity in the United States:
Racial Domination, Racial Progress by Matthew Desmond
This is a thorough sociological text that explores race first as a social/cultural construct, and from there, takes the reader through a historical account of social and political policies that have shaped the current messy web of interlacing issues that weave together to make up systematic racism. Desmond provides an adequate explanation of our modern political parties, and how their present platforms attract voters of certain socioeconomic identities. He explores how the Democratic platform has attracted voters of color in the recent decades, while the Republican platform bolsters a mainly homogenous, white following. From there, he describes the 1950s segregationist residential policies and highway building that gave way to the housing districts we see to this day: divided by color. This historical fact is key in understanding how the current residential structure in many American cities and suburbs contributes to opportunity gaps within education between white communities and communities of color. Educational funding comes from property taxes, so predominantly white residential areas benefit from boosted economic resources while communities of color continue to suffer. Further chapters include analyses of the criminal justice system in the United States and social relationships within the black community.
Between Fear and Hope: Globalization and Race in the United States by Andrew Barlow
Written by my college professor who worked on civil rights cases in California for a number of years, Between Fear & Hope is a short sociological text that explains why globalization and job outsourcing affected communities of color first, and then white folks. It provides a thoughtful analysis of economic issues within the black community through the lens of global capitalism. Job outsourcing in previous decades has not only led to a great decrease in job opportunities for black men and women, but has also exacerbated other issues including food and job insecurity, educational opportunity gaps, and the prison-industrial complex. These phenomena, on top of the reversal of very successful affirmative action programs from the 1970s have contributed to a form of systematic poverty that affects the black community at alarmingly higher rates than white communities. Thus, Barlow makes a great case for affirmative action in the midst of predatory corporate capitalism.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
This is one of my favorite books of all time. Between the World and Me is a short narrative nonfiction written by Coates outlining the struggles and fears black men face in the United States. Coates writes like a poet, and his words both sting and soothe like a weapon and salve at the same time. His work speaks to the soul, and it will educate you and make you cry at the same time.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyassi
Another one of my favorite books, Homegoing is a brilliant novel that begins centuries ago in Western Africa, during the height of the slave trade. Gyassi paints a picture of colonization and the barbaric beginnings of slavery through a historical lineage that leads to the present day. This is a novel I read years ago, but still think about. It’s also a great book to read if you’re looking for material by women of color.
Freakonomics “Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live With Their Moms?” by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt
This is a fascinating chapter in the New York Times bestselling nonfiction sociological zeitgeist book Freakonomics. Through a Marxist lens, the authors analyze how the drug trade organizes itself within systematic poverty to both cater to violence within the black community, and provide opportunities. The most disheartening realization comes once you learn that most black men seize the opportunity to become drug foot soldiers not because they want to, but because there are no jobs available to them in their community. This is a fantastic read that challenges our societal tropes about drug dealers.
TPAB was my first introduction to rap albums as a story, and boy did this album not disappoint. Kendrick Lamar brilliantly explores racial prejudice, both self-hatred and self-love, African history, language politics, and the political and social dynamics of black neighborhoods. He blends modern rap styles with jazzy tunes and a fictional conversation with Tupac Shakur in avant-garde fashion as a love letter to the black experience. I didn’t think he could top this album, but a few years later—he did. DAMN. builds on his previous albums by exploring black identity through the lens of liberation theology, and the discontent that follows once you realize that you’re not good enough to live up to American religious ideal. He turns his focus away from just the black community and points a finger at the United States as a whole. On DAMN. Lamar uses current hip-hop and trance sounds, ditching the historical infusion of his predecessor, and focuses on police brutality, black on black violence, success, gun violence, and the fear of dying too soon. It won a Pulitzer Prize, I mean, do I need to say anything more?
Blue Lights by Jorja Smith
Blue Lights is a beautiful yet eerie song about the fear and anxiety that comes when black folks encounter the police. The singer captures the dread of hearing siren lights behind you, and the coping mechanism of trying to turn a frightful situation into something beautiful: strobe lights, maybe even fairy lights. Smith puts listeners into the shoes of most people of color when they hear that disheartening wallop behind them: what have you done?
This Land by Gary Clark Jr.
This Land is a justifiably angry song about being a stranger in your own country, a country that your ancestors built through exploitation and death. In a brilliant reversal of Woody Guthrie’s American classic that optimistically albeit naively deemed the US as a “land made for you and me”, Clark Jr. exposes the farce that is American inclusivity. This song is for anyone who’s ever been told: go back where you come from.
When They See Us directed by Ava DuVernay
Ava DuVernay was definitely robbed of the Best Director Academy Award for her work on the beautiful movie Selma; but years later, she graced the TV screens with her dramatic narrative of the Central Park Five, five black teenagers wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in the late 80s. In both a gruesome and riveting way, DuVernay shows us an infamous example of scapegoating and marginalization, and how these young boys get lost in between the cracks of multiple layers of oppression—racism, poverty, and a failed criminal justice system. It’s an exploration of media stereotypes often painted on young black men as “thugs” and “criminals” and a slap in the face of the “justice” system.
Nina Revisited by Various Artists
Nina Revisited is a compilation of Nina Simone covers sung by modern legends like Lauryn Hill, Usher, Common, Mary J. Blige, etc. It’s a beautiful blend of sounds and voices that covers issues like city poverty, resilience, black love and identity, and relationships. I’ve had this album on repeat for years.
What are your favorite books, albums, or movies that examine racism and the black experience?