Black Lives (Don’t) Matter: 10 Books on Institutional Racism in America

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Current EventsInequalityPoliticsProtestTopicsUnited States

Another horrifying video of an even more horrifying crime. City centers on fire, with protesters and police filling the streets. These scenes have become almost ritualized in the last decade, giving them a bizarre feeling of déja-vu mixed with hopelessness. The institutional racism in America which is the underlying cause of these scenes of violence is deep-rooted. What solutions are there? Is the issue beyond remedy?

These emotive issues defy simple answers. We’ve delved through the literature to bring you the best ten books on racism in America’s institutions, from law enforcement to the criminal courts, and from the health industry to local government planners. Put together, they offer stark tales of the depth of the problem, but also hard-headed suggestions for how to move toward a closer, more equitable Union. Let’s get dug in!

The Black and the Blue: A Cop Reveals the Crimes, Racism, and Injustice in America’s Law Enforcement

by Matthew Horace, Ron Harris

Horace served inside America’s law enforcement institutions for nearly 30 years. As one of the nation’s most decorated black police officers, he continues to command respect within the security community even after his retirement from active duty. Horace’s book is an insider’s account of the institutional racism not only of law enforcement towards blacks in society at large, but even within its own ranks. The author relies on his immense experience in the field to produce one of the most insightful examinations of policing, and police tactics, in recent memory. By deconstructing the use of out-dated, and ineffective, tactics the author shows how these serve to undermine trust between the police and the policed, leading to surging violence and sky-high incarceration rates for black Americans. Horace lays out what the police, at local, state and federal levels, need to do to change the culture of institutionalized racism that pervades their ranks. The Black and the Blue lays bare the poison inside the US’s law enforcement institutions, while offering hope that there remains space for reform and change.

Chokehold: Policing Black Men

by Paul Butler

A former federal prosecutor and current Professor of Law at Georgetown, Prof. Butler brings his experience within the justice system to bear in this terrifying dissection of the rigged system that are the American courts. Defying rosy-eyed activists who believe reform from within is still achievable, Butler describes how the system itself must be dismantled, and black communities must learn to police themselves. Using the results of careful statistical research, he demonstrates how in a country where a white woman is ten times more likely to be raped by a white man she knows than be a victim of crime committed by a black male, the system continues to perform its intended role, incarcerating black males in ever increasing numbers. Chokehold, the title of which refers to the over-arching system of laws and justice system practices that effectively assume the criminality of every black male, is a powerful denouncement of the existing criminal justice system, and a clarion call to historically abused communities of color to stand up and demand ownership of their own system of justice.

The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap

by Mehrsa Baradaran

Black capitalism, and black banks in particular, have been touted as the solution to the gaping economic disparity between white and black communities in the US by luminaries such as Frederick Douglass and even Malcolm X. The truth, as Baradaran reveals in this engrossing work, is the absolute opposite. Black banks have done nothing to improve the lot of the median black family, which is today more than ten times poorer than the median white family. Even more damning, the black community in the US as a whole today owns approximately 1% of the total wealth in the country, a figure that has not changed since the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation over 150 years ago. With eye-wincing clarity, Baradaran describes the failure of black capitalism, revealing the truth at the core of the black community’s economic inequality; political inequality. For those that believe in the power of the market, and simple hard-work and sweat of the individual working man, to alleviate poverty will find themselves forced to re-assess their most basic assumptions in the face of The Color of Money’s searing denunciation of an economic red-herring.

Segregation by Design: Local Politics and Inequality in American Cities

by Jessica Trounstine

Trounstine, a Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Merced, delves into over a hundred years of cumulative statistical data from cities across the country to produce a qualitative and quantitative analysis of the urban development policies that have been consciously implemented to produce deep-rooted class and race-based segregation in America’s urban areas. In examining changing patterns of segregation within these figures, Prof. Trounstine demonstrates how these same policies have effectively increased the prosperity and quality of life of white property owners, while exerting precisely the opposite effect on black communities. The conclusion is stark, and difficult to refute; the structures of local democracy have failed to enable the representation of all residents, resulting in fundamental inequalities of service provision, from access to schools, police resources, and even sanitary drinking water. Segregation by Design is a pain-staking analysis of the raw data, which when put together paints an eye-watering portrait of systemic structural inequality in America’s urban neighborhoods.     


Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present

by Harriet A. Washington

A former fellow of both Harvard Medical School as well as the university’s School of Public Health, Washington has written the first comprehensive account of the history of the exploitation of black people’s bodies, both living and dead, by a predominantly white medical establishment. From grave-robbing, unauthorized dissections and autopsies performed without consent to spurious theories of social Darwinism used to effectively deprive black communities of effective medical care. Across the branches of the armed forces, through the prison system and on to private institutions, Medical Apartheid reveals previously unknown medical trials and experiments carried out on black people’s bodies, while at the same time providing further shocking details on already well-known abuses such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. Washington lays out in withering detail the fundamental inequalities within the American medical system, and deep grounds of justified mistrust between black patients and a medical community that has historically exploited their illnesses for research, rather than seeking to treat and cure them.  

Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century

by Dorothy Roberts

Holding two professorships at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, Prof. Roberts deconstructs the fallacy of race as a scientific, biologically-proven concept. As supposed state-of-the-art race-specific pharmaceuticals, genetic testing and DNA databases are promoted as the future of science, Roberts shows how they are in fact used to further inequality and suppress justice. The author shows how race is a baseless concept, and then provides background research on its uses and misuses within the medical community. An insightful work based on the author’s long career in academia and Civil Rights, Fatal Invention will force the reader to re-evaluate some of their most basic assumptions about genetic differences, and what that means for society as a whole.

A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind

by Harriet A. Washington

Ever since the publication of The Bell Curve in 1994, the concept of IQ as a means to measure a person’s intelligence has come under sustained assault. In A Terrible Thing to Waste, Prof. Washington seeks to re-tool IQ away from its contentious past, and to put it to work as a valid means to measure cognitive damage to an individual from their immediate living environment. In doing so, she is able to quantify and analyse the environemental inequalities separating predominantly black and white communities in the US. From rates of lead poisoning (overwhelmingly experienced by black children), to neurotoxins, and below standard prenatal care among other factors, Prof. Washington shows how the poisoned environment in which many black people are forced to live gravely affects cognitive development in their children, and has devastating secondary effects for black families in higher medical bills, and shorter life spans. A Terrible Thing to Waste will open readers’ eyes to the deadly surroundings in which many poor, black households have to live, and are permanently scarred from as a result.

Locking Up Our Own

by James Forman Jr.

Winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-fiction, Forman’s book is a ground-breaking historical study of the role played by senior black officials within the police and justice system in instituting the hardline policing practices which are today blamed for the huge rate of incarceration of young black males in the US. As a former public defender in the D.C. area, the author brings his own reflections and personal experience to bear in a lively discussion of the unintended consequences brought about by black mayors’, judges’ and police chiefs’ commitment to protecting the gains made by the Civil Rights movement. Filled with the larger-than-life personalities he knew personally in his role as a public defender, Forman writes movingly of the young men and women of color he saw trapped in a system bent on punitive justice, and the government officials trying to get a hold of a runaway epidemic of violence in poor black neighborhoods.

The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America

by Khalil Gibran Muhammad

A concurrent Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School as well as the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, Prof. Muhammad seeks to answer the question of how a statistical link between being black and a propensity to commit crime was first created. His historical narrative of the pervasive influence of “black crime statistics”, which have been paraded out in scenarios ranging from public education policies, policing and even presidential debates, provides important background to their role today as fuel for continued racism and justification for racial inequality. In pointed contrast, Muhammad shows how the same statistical links were not forged for other ethnic minorities with large criminal contingents, due to their perceived “whiteness”. By separating this toxic equivalence of race and criminality, Muhammad blows the lid open on one of the most pernicious myths that undermines black people’s demands for equality to this day.

Author Khalil Gibran Muhammad recommends…

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

by Richard Rothstein

Published only six months before Troustine’s Segregation by Design, Rothstein’s The Color of Law runs over much the same ground at the local government level, before ramping it up a notch and demonstrating how segregationist policies came from even higher levels of government, both state and federal. The award-winning book received rave reviews on its publication, and Rothstein’s lucid prose, accompanied by extensive research in government archives, do not disappoint. Revealing overt federal support and funding of racial zoning policies, segregated public housing, subsidies to builders who constructed white-only districts and support for violent resistance against blacks in white neighborhoods, Rothstein’s stunning book will leave the reader stunned by the depth and extent of official schemes to effectively wall off black communities from others.

And we’re done here y’all – our top ten picks for the best books on institutionalised racism in the US. Stunned that we didn’t include The New Jim Crow? Got any other titles you think we’ve overlooked? Let us know in the comments below.

Alternatively, don’t forget to check out our Current Events page for regular updates of more curated reading lists of the best books covering topics in the latest media headlines and breaking news. Until next time!

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