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)
Black Males Left Behind edited by Ronald Mincy (2006)
A collection of think-tank policy papers by the Urban Institute? Wonder why this one didn’t exactly get around? Yet it is one of the most valuable books I have ever read. It’s one thing to say that things aren’t easy for uneducated young black men. But to just say it implies, via omission, that nothing can be done short of transforming how America operates and thinks—which will never happen. The articles in this book, in accessible language, outline what we can do to help, here in the real world. What are the jobs a man without a college degree can seek? What helps a man from the streets keep a job once he has one? Just read, say, one of Mincy’s essays a day—and afterwards, you’ll feel like almost anything the typical race man-type says is fundamentally incomplete.
American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation's Drive to End Welfare by Jason DeParle (2004)
Few people seem to get that the reform of welfare administration into a five-year program in 1996 was a signpost development in black history. The liberal take on it, today, is that erstwhile welfare moms are still poor—and they are. The conservative take is that they are less poor than they once were—which they are. DeParle’s book gave us the closest thing I can imagine to a truth we can use. He resisted his visceral distrust of the Republican-led policy, followed three black women grappling with its effects and gave us the facts. His conclusion: Welfare reform has created no utopia at all—but is better than the old days. The moms doing without it will never be middle-class, but, he argues, they are happier making it so that their kids might be one day. The book would make for a great dramatized miniseries, in fact—Mo’Nique, in my mind, is the lead character.
Come On, People: On The Path From Victims to Victors by Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint (2007)
This book hasn’t taken the place it should have, partly because the year before, Tyler Perry’s Don’t Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings, a shorter and jollier advice book on making the best of the worst, had flown off the shelves. But if it were up to me, Cosby and Poussaint’s book would be required reading for all HBCU freshmen and an audiobook version would be provided for free to every black family in the United States. A particularly useful lesson: The idea that four years of college is the only way to a middle-class life is a myth. Cosby and Poussaint lay out how to make use of community colleges and vocational schools to make for a comfortable existence—those not up for the policy papers in Black Males Left Behind would get much of the same thing from this book.
Getting Under the Skin of “Diversity”: Searching For the Color-Blind Ideal by Larry Purdy (2008)
This one was published by a small press, is far from P.C. and was written by a white guy. You’ll never see it at the front of a bookstore. However, it’s one of the best books on affirmative action ever written. Purdy, a lawyer, calmly and without rancor, dismantles the typical defenses of racial-preference policies on the basis of diversity (as opposed to disadvantage) and shows how all would be better off if we got back down to specific cases. Purdy has no irritated conservative rancor against “the blacks”—he just doesn’t see coherence in how racial preferences started being defended in the ’80s. The book is especially good on the University of Michigan Supreme Court cases. During which, you may recall, black studies pioneer John Hope Franklin, when informed of affirmative action policies based on lowered test score and grade cutoffs for black students, was appalled.
Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle For Civil Rights In The North by Thomas Sugrue (2008)
Sugrue is best known for his chronicle of what led to the riots in Detroit, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race And Inequality in Postwar Detroit, now established as a go-to source on black urban history and often assigned in college courses. Sweet Land Of Liberty will never occupy that kind of place: It doesn’t have the advantage of a single-line narrative thrust. Yet it is well worth a look. We know about Montgomery, Atlanta and Selma. But how often do we learn about the desegregation of schools in Westchester County, or moves to integrate Levittowns? This book shows what a serious kick-butt organization the NAACP used to be, and also teaches us that the black “militant” mood didn’t begin in 1966, but was very much in the air—just minus the Afros—as early as the late ‘40s. Lots of important stories here about ordinary people who worked just as hard as the rock stars down South.
John McWhorter is a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a Lecturer at Columbia University, and a blogger for The New Republic.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.