What is “the treatment”? When it comes to books, it’s the New York Times review, the conversation with the author on Morning Edition, placement upfront at Barnes & Noble. And for every book on any subject that gets “the treatment,” there are a couple of others that get lost in the shuffle—and it’s not always because they aren’t equally worthy of attention. This is certainly true of race books. Yes, there are so many books and so little time. Top-name authors get attention for whatever they write, which crowds out the lesser-known names. Plus, hot-button issues—hip-hop, Obama—can distract us from equally vital ones that aren’t as sexy. Here are 10 books on race that should be more widely read. Some of them got something like “the treatment”—but haven’t taken their place as fundamental sources in the way that they should. If I ever taught a course on black issues, these would all be on the syllabus.
Race Experts: How Racial Etiquette, Sensitivity Training, and New Age Therapy Hijacked the Civil Rights Revolution by Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn (2001)
This book had the misfortune of being published around 9/11 and became an instant footnote. This was too bad because Lasch-Quinn highlighted a crucial point: Outlawing segregation was one thing, but how necessary was it to start demanding that whites harbor no shards at all of racial bias? “This psychological state was much more nebulous, open to interpretation, difficult to achieve and controversial than the universal guarantees of political equality sought by the early civil rights movement,” Lasch-Quinn noted, and questions about this “psychological state” remain at the heart of quite a few race issues that come to the fore nowadays. (Example: Sergeant James Crowley and Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.) It’s a genuine and challenging question: Do we need to eradicate all racist sentiment in order to overcome? Race Experts was a solid contribution to the debate on that.
Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age by Kevin Boyle (2004)
Are as many people getting to this one as they should? It didn’t win the National Book Award for nothing. Ossian Sweet, a black doctor in 1925 Detroit, moved into a house in a white neighborhood, only to face down a racist mob and shoot one of its members dead. The NAACP came in to defend him, complete with none other than the legendary Clarence Darrow, giving us a look at him beyond the Scopes trial he is most known for today. Boyle’s book shows what happened at the tipping point in Northern cities between the pre-Great Migration phase, when there weren’t enough blacks to seem threatening to whites and the later one, when there were enough blacks that the North became the South. Some Amazon reviewers mistake this book as a “novel,” and it’s because Boyle is a fantastic chronicler. “History written with lightning,” Woodrow Wilson called D.W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation. Same with this book.
American Skin: Pop Culture, Big Business, and the End of White America by Leon Wynter (2002)
Wynter observed that these days, we are unsurprised to see the likes of a television production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella with a black lead like Brandy, and that this indicates a “browning” of American pop culture that would have shocked Americans just 20 years before. The book never really made any noise—it probably would have if Wynter’s main interest had been hip-hop. But his purview was broader than that, and therefore in a way, more valuable. He nailed a crucial turning point. But he’s also a great rhetorician (i.e. not above the likes of a pungent comment about Britney Spears’ posterior endowment) and the aptness of his analysis was underlined six years later when we elected a brown—if not precisely “black”—president.
Affirmative Action Around the World: An Empirical Study by Thomas Sowell (2004)
Our national in-house debates on racial preferences become so very coded: Are brown people “welcome” on college campuses? (What does that mean?) Do we value “diversity”? (But what is the relationship between that and qualification, and what is qualification?) Sowell, in this little book, pulled the camera lens back and looked at how affirmative action plays out in other countries. Hearing the debate framed in accents other than American ones helps us stand back and truly evaluate the issues.
Snitch: Informants, Cooperators and the Corruption of Justice by Ethan Brown (2007)