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Black Books That Scholars Are Reading

The History of White People and more in our books column.

Nell Irvin Painter

The History of White People, by Nell Irvin Painter (W.W. Norton & Co.)

Why is it that we classify people by skin color? Is it "natural" to do so? Painter doesn't think so, and she can prove it. In her eye-opening The History of White People, Painter shows that the Greeks, Romans and people of the Middle Ages didn't often put people into what we would call "racial" boxes. They sometimes did it, but it wasn't their main mode of demographic categorization.

All that changed in the Enlightenment and Romantic eras (roughly the 18th and 19th centuries). It was then, Painter explains, that Europeans invented "racial science," a forerunner of modern anthropology. Thus Europeans became "white," Asians "yellow" and Africans "black," and all the "races" were put in a tidy hierarchy. Naturally, Europeans were on top, which, to Painter, is somewhat suspicious. And for good reason: They, after all, were the ones doing the classifying.

The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease, by Jonathan Metzl (Beacon Press)

African Americans are two to three times more likely than white Americans to be diagnosed with schizophrenia. Is that genetic? Environmental? Or do the high rates of schizophrenia have something to do with, if not overt racism, at least racial thinking? In his provocative book, Metzl says that racial thinking is indeed the culprit.

In the 1950s, schizophrenia was a nearly all-white ailment. But in the 1960s, he writes, white psychiatrists, consciously or unconsciously, adapted the definition of the disease to capture what they perceived as the "unstable" behavior of black men. It was no accident that all of this redefining took place at the height of the civil rights movement. That movement is over, but the definition and the racial thinking that stand behind it remain.

You've probably seen Spike Lee's School Daze and Sylvain White's Stomp the Yard. They're great entertainment, but do they capture the essence of black Greek-letter organizations? Whaley answers that question with this in-depth investigation of the America's oldest black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, founded in 1908.

Whaley explores the sorority's history, talks to its members, analyzes its rituals and discusses its politics. She takes us "inside" AKA and allows us to see how it shapes black women's lives and affects the African-American community at large.