Learning Breeds Understanding: 10 Relevant Reads

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If you want to understand the meaning of words, read the dictionary. If you’re interested in current events, pick up a newspaper. A major part of understanding is learning, and we can learn even more from reading others’ experiences. Newspapers and news stations are flooded with reporting on protests and riots; if you want to better understand the reasoning behind what’s going on in the nation’s streets, here are ten books, essays, and articles worth reading.

The Fire Next TIme, by James Baldwin

A national bestseller when it first appeared in 1963, this book galvanized the nation and gave a passionate voice to the emerging civil rights movement. At once a powerful evocation of James Baldwin’s early life in Harlem and a disturbing examination of the consequences of racial injustice, the book consists of two “letters,” written on the occasion of the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, that exhort Americans, both black and white, to attack the terrible legacy of racism. As Esquire magazine says, “Arguably the most staggering thing about this staggering book is how little has changed in the many years since it arrived in 1963.”

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, by Robin DiAngelo

This New York Times best-selling book explores the counterproductive reactions white people have when their assumptions about race are challenged, and how these reactions maintain racial inequality. Antiracist educator Robin DiAngelo deftly illuminates the phenomenon of white fragility – referring to the defensive moves that white people make when challenged racially and characterized by emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and by behaviors including argumentation and silence, which prevent any meaningful cross-racial dialogue. This book promotes introspection, an integral part of anti-racism, and looks inward at one’s own complicity in our broken systems.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander

Praised by Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier as “brave and bold,” this book directly challenges the notion that the election of Barack Obama signals a new era of colorblindness. With dazzling candor, legal scholar Michelle Alexander argues that “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” By targeting black men through the War on Drugs and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control—relegating millions to a permanent second-class status—even as it formally adheres to the principle of colorblindness. In the words of Benjamin Todd Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, this book is a “call to action.” Alexander’s work tore open a hole in our nation’s understanding of criminal justice, leading to the creation of The Marshall Project and a $100 million investment in the nascent Art for Justice Fund.

Policing the Colony: From the American Revolution to Ferguson

Adapted from Chris Hayes’s book, this essay covers the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. It details the humiliations inherent in street policing and how the city of Ferguson explicitly designed its policing programs to produce revenue rather than protect public safety.


How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi

Not being racist and being antiracist are different things. Antiracism is a transformative concept that reorients and re-energizes the conversation about racism. With groundbreaking vision and revelatory clarity of purpose, Kendi argues that to reject racism is insufficient–rather, one must practice antiracism, which demands “persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.” At its core, racism is a powerful system that creates false hierarchies of human value; its warped logic extends beyond race, from the way we regard people of different ethnicities or skin colors to the way we treat people of different sexes, gender identities, and body types. In How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi takes readers through a widening circle of antiracist ideas—from the most basic concepts to visionary possibilities—that will help readers see all forms of racism clearly, understand their poisonous consequences, and work to oppose them in our systems and in ourselves.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

A first novel by an unknown writer, it remained on the bestseller list for sixteen weeks, won the National Book Award for fiction, and established Ralph Ellison as one of the key writers of the century. Invisible Man addresses many of the social and intellectual issues faced by the African Americans in the early twentieth century, including black nationalism, the relationship between black identity and Marxism, and the reformist racial policies of Booker T. Washington, as well as issues of individuality and personal identity. The nameless narrator of the novel describes growing up in a black community in the South, attending a Negro college from which he is expelled, moving to New York and becoming the chief spokesman of the Harlem branch of “the Brotherhood”, and retreating amid violence and confusion to the basement lair of the Invisible Man he imagines himself to be. The book is a passionate and witty tour de force of style, strongly influenced by T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Joyce, and Dostoevsky.

Violent Protests Are Not the Story. Police Violence Is 

If you’re looking for a quick read, this short Vox article explains how the racism inherent in the U.S. criminal justice system provided the tinder for the current protests to explode nationwide.


They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement, by Wesley Lowery

A deeply reported book that brings alive the quest for justice in the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Freddie Gray, offering both unparalleled insight into the reality of police violence in America and an intimate, moving portrait of those working to end it. Conducting hundreds of interviews during the course of over one year reporting on the ground, Washington Post writer Wesley Lowery traveled from Ferguson, Missouri, to Cleveland, Ohio; Charleston, South Carolina; and Baltimore, Maryland; and then back to Ferguson to uncover life inside the most heavily policed, if otherwise neglected, corners of America today. What emerges is a piercing analysis of how racist policing rots community life from the inside out, as well as a poignant portrait of the new generation of activists fighting for a better future. 

In Defense of Looting 

An interesting look at looting versus protesting. In challenging the widely accepted notion that the civil rights movement was non-violent, and that its non-violence predicated its limited successes, Vicky Osterweil flatly lays out the practical, tactical, and political benefits of rioting and looting.


The End of Policing, by Alex Vitale 

Recent weeks have seen an explosion of protest against police brutality and repression. Among activists, journalists and politicians, the conversation about how to respond and improve policing has focused on accountability, diversity, training, and community relations. Unfortunately, these reforms will not produce results, either alone or in combination. The core of the problem must be addressed: the nature of modern policing itself. This book examines the broken status quo of modern policing and, more importantly, proposes an alternate vision for what community-based law enforcement could look like.

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