5 Books to Begin Your Education on Race and Crime in America
In the months following George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer, numerous Americans sought to learn about the complicated structures, histories, and politics represented in his death and referenced in the fallout. Responding to this moment, organizations ranging from NPR and its various affiliates to publications like Time and The New York Times have published resources for public reference. Unsurprisingly, books are among the best sources Americans can use to start learning about the historical and institutional types of racism center-stage in public discourse.
People, in short, are groping for places to start. There are the classics, like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, perhaps one of the most influential books of the twenty-first century, and the bestsellers, such as Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People To Talk About Race, which a is a flawed but significant text in that it brought wrongs long identified by communities of color to broader corporate and white audiences for the first time. A mark of its popularity, but with no bearing on its substance, DiAngelo’s holds the distinct honor of being a Walmart “summer pick.” In contrast with bestsellers like White Fragility, each of the five books listed below is an impressively researched, masterfully written, and damning indictment of America’s bloated, armed, and aggressive government.
There is no single book that will make you an expert — this is by no means a comprehensive list — and reading alone does not equip us to understand and explain these issues; for white or otherwise privileged Americans like me, there is absolutely no substitute for learning from and supporting our colleagues, friends, and neighbors who are part of the communities most affected by police violence. Nevertheless, as decent and responsible community members and citizens, we have a duty to our compatriots and our country to learn the facts, educate ourselves about the history, and do our part in preventing state-sanctioned violence in America’s streets. Here are five books that will help us on that journey.
From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America | Elizabeth Hinton | Harvard University Press | 2017 | 464 Pages | $19.50
Harvard historian Elizabeth Hinton’s book, as a friend and former Hinton student stated when recommending it to me, is the best history book to read for anyone looking to the development of America’s criminal justice system. Whether one is interested in the origins of mass incarceration, which Hinton traces to LBJ’s Great Society, or the processes by which American police came to look like occupying forces, Hinton’s book is the best place to start.
The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America | Khalil Gibran Muhammad | Harvard University Press | 2011 | 392 Pages | $15.95
All of the books mentioned in this list can be read alongside one another. Yet Harvard Kennedy School professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s The Condemnation of Blackness is uniquely complemented by Hinton’s. Here, professor Muhammad traces the beginnings of the idea of black criminality, so essential to the war on poverty as charted in Hinton’s book, to the late eighteenth century, when government officials and elites contrasted dishonest depictions of blacks as dangerous and inferior with images of industrious and virtuous working-class whites.
Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America | James Forman Jr. | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 2017 | 320 Pages | $27
In this book, Yale law professor and former Washington, D.C., public defender James Forman Jr. offered a complicated and tragic portrait of the punitive, unforgiving principle of justice embraced by Americans as the war on crime began in the 1970s. Among those who adopted it were many African American law enforcement professionals, judges, and mayors, including former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Ultimately, Forman Jr.’s book is an essential read for anyone interested in how the devastation of Black and poor communities came to be accepted as the norm.
The Black and the Blue: A Cop Reveals the Crimes, Racism, and Injustice in America’s Law Enforcement | Matthew Horace and Ron Harris | Hatchette | 2018 | $27
Matthew Horace, a Black man, spent just under three decades as a police officer before becoming a writer and contributor to media outlets like CNN and The Wall Street Journal. In The Black and the Blue, he brings his decades-worth of intimate insider insight to bear on the question of racism in law enforcement. Supplemented by reporting from Howard University professor and former journalist Ron Harris, this book offers a unique balance of the first-person perspective and big-picture descriptions of law enforcement’s systemic problems.
Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color | Andrea Ritchie | Beacon | 2017 | 352 Pages | $21
Andrea Ritchie is an immigrant and police-misconduct attorney whose aims in Invisible No More are conveyed in the title: to expose and describe the violence all women of color have experienced at the hands of state-sanctioned officers. As Angela Davis wrote in the foreword, “Like its antecedents, this is a difficult book to read. Because we encounter case after case of excessive, traumatic force, including systemic sexual violence, this is a book that dares us not to turn away.” If there ever was a time to face this history head-on, it is now. We are fortunate to have Ritchie’s incisive and urgent prose to help up face it.