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Books to Get You Thinking

Juneteenth, falling on June nineteenth each year, commemorates the end of slavery in 1865. It is a day of celebrating African American freedom and achievements. However, despite the years that have passed since the abolition of slavery, segregation, and the passing of the Civil Rights bills, there persist wide disparities and inequities that African American communities continue to face with the access to health care, housing, education and economic advancement opportunities.

Chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease are more rampant in African American communities and statistics from the Centers for Disease Control show disproportionately higher rates of hospitalization and deaths during the recent Coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic has also had more serious economic consequences for African American communities, with heavy displacement of small business owners mainly in the restaurant, service, and retail industries.  The situation has been worsened by inadequate access to bank loans and the Federal stimulus packages.

Despite more than a century separating us from the horrific practice of slavery, the long legacy of violence and racism against African Americans lives on today.   Most recently, the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of a police officer has evoked outrage and protests against continuing systemic racial injustice, police brutality and discrimination against African American communities. The Black Lives Matter movement has found resonance not just all over the country but also the world.

The history of the African American experience in America is a long and complex one. Mercer County Library System has a rich mosaic of titles in both the physical and virtual collections. Weaving together history, social sciences and personal narrative can provide a framework for understanding the wide racial disparities that exist in the United States and the systemic racial injustice against African Americans as a class. I am highlighting some outstanding titles here that provide a lucid understanding of the underlying dynamics of the African American experience.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration
by Isabel WilkersonThe book chronicles one of the defining moments in US history – an era spanning the five decades between 1920 and 1970 that witnessed a large scale migration of African Americans from the segregated South to cities in the West and the North - including Chicago, Los Angeles, Oakland, Detroit, Washington and New York. For much too long they had toiled under the tyranny of the owners of Southern plantations. Desperate to escape, desperate for a ticket to board the trains and buses that would carry them to “the warmth of other suns,” theirs was a journey of hope and of dreams for a better future and a new life for their children. Based on thousands of interviews, the Pulitzer Prize winning author poignantly captures the aspirations and yearning of millions of African Americans through compelling vignettes of three different migrants. Each of them came from different areas of what had been the Confederate South and had different backgrounds, yet they shared the same thirst for freedom and for equality. Their stories capture the changing landscape of America that followed this Great Migration – millions of people in search of a better life transformed a nation just as the earlier immigrants who had come to the shores of America before them. The story of their struggles as they found new jobs in new cities, bringing with them their music and their culture while carrying the legacy of their past, is the story of the making of modern America. 

The Color of Law by Richard RothsteinRichard Rothstein of the Economics Policy Institute writes this compelling book in which he lays out the thesis that America has failed to follow through on the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to ensure equality of place in society to the African American community. The author uses vast amounts of data to illustrate how the period following the late nineteenth century has been rife with systematic examples of the use of urban policy, housing and zoning restrictions by successive governments to perpetuate racial segregation.  Rothstein cites the  example of the construction of public housing projects during the Roosevelt Presidency that were strictly segregated  and the construction of Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan, an apartment complex  built in 1940 that displaced  an integrated community with housing reserved mainly for White families. The 1963 Supreme Court ruling of Milliken versus Bradley and its terminology of de facto segregation dealt another singular blow to the Civil Rights Movement.  It deemed segregation a result of unknown factors and individual choice rather than deliberate government policy.  In other instances, during urban renewal and the construction of bridges and highways, large numbers of African Americans were displaced without adequate compensation. The result has been a concentration of African Americans living in struggling neighborhoods in inner cities and suburbs with limited resources for good schools and better housing. But while the social injustice is now recognized as real, finding a collective solution to counter it is a much more challenging task.

What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America by Michael Eric DysonGeorgetown University professor, Michael Eric Dyson pens this fascinating book that follows Robert Kennedy’s evolution from his early days when he worked for Republican senator Joseph McCarthy, to the early sixties when he became a serious advocate for the Black Civil Rights movement. The book centers around a 1963 meeting that took place in New York in Kennedy’s home, where he met a group of prominent African Americans authors, artists and intellectuals to discuss ways to combat segregation and discrimination in the North. Included in the group were James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Jerome Smith, Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne.  In the three hours that followed, they laid bare the deep anguish, suffering and seething rage tearing through the Black community under years of unending discrimination, segregation, and brutality at the hands of White America.  The book also unveils the decisive role played by Black intellectuals, activists, and politicians in the fight against racial injustice and atrocities against African American communities.

Reproducing Racism: How Everyday Choices Lock in White Advantage by Daria RoithmayrOn many counts, the election of President Obama in 2012 was an indicator that race was no longer a dominant factor in American politics. Reassuring as this might be, a statistical analysis of all economic indicators of wellbeing reveal wide disparities between Black and White communities. The gap in net wealth quadrupled between 1984 and 2007. Similar gaps exist in home ownership rates, and in 2009 the figure for median net worth, excluding home values, was just $2,200 for Blacks compared to $97,900 for White families.  The book investigates why the racial disparities in labor, housing, income, access to health care, well-funded schools, infant mortality rates and incarceration rates have persisted and widened over the years. The author uses the lock-in model developed by economists to describe how an early competitive advantage gained by a company can perpetuate the advantage over time. He provides the example of how the early lead in the software technology that Microsoft gained helped it to retain its position in the market even when faced with competition in later years from superior technology. He uses this analogy to demonstrate how, at the turn of the nineteenth century and for the decades following, Whites successfully gained economic advantage over Blacks through racist cartels, economic boycotts and violence that successfully enforced slavery, and segregated schools and housing. Much like monopolies in the manufacturing and technology space, the advent of time has done little to diminish the access to key markets and the resulting relative advantage gained by Whites – the competitive power has become “locked in” and is self-perpetuating. The only way to break the cycle is through massive government intervention, which may be difficult to achieve, given the existing political and institutional structure of the country.

- by Nita Mathur, West Windsor Branch


America, This is Your Chance

Racism, Inequality, and Health Care for African Americans

Coronavirus Is Hitting Black Business Owners Hardest by Lauren Leatherby

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