Learning about the history of racism in the Americas is not a personal attack on white people. No one is accusing anyone of owning a slave or trying to make anyone feel guilty. This set of suggested readings is for people who have done some beginning and intermediate-level awareness work.
These readings will you take your antiracism practice to an advanced level. However, these readings are for people who already recognize that U.S. and U.K. social systems are definitely not equal or equitable because racism is a structural, political, and an institutionalized practice that serves to maintain White supremacy.
Looking Deeply at Whiteness and Racism
Most white people are caught up in this mystified system, where Whiteness remains masked from everyday consciousness. The system allows white people to be blind, not only to their own privileges, but also to their group membership. From this blindness come phrases like, “I don’t see skin color,” or “I’m color blind.” At the individual level, these phrases serve to deflect and confuse the ways in which whites benefit from a variety of institutional and social arrangements that often appear to Whites as having nothing to do with race, such as mortgage lending and school choice.
What we learned in school about American history is just one point of view, and specifically, it’s the point of view of the white male Christian victor. This list helps to expand and complicate American history since the 1500’s into a better rendering of the messy fullness. Warning, these are not light readings, but they are deeply informative and possibly transformative.
- 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann (2006). Mann uses science, archaeology, and history to deeply inform our understanding of the Americas before Columbus.
- 1493: Uncovering the New World Created by Columbus by Charles C. Mann (2012) shows how post-Columbian European settlements in the Americas altered the world and ushered in the modern era of globalization.
- Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013), who is a botanist and citizen of the Potawatomi Nation. She shows how other living beings―asters and goldenrod, strawberries and squash, salamanders, algae, and sweetgrass―offer us gifts and lessons, even if we’ve forgotten, or never learned, how to hear their voices.
- Stamped from the Beginning: The History of Racist Ideas on America by Ibram X. Kendi (2016). “Some Americans cling desperately to the myth that we are living in a post-racial society, that the election of the first Black president spelled the doom of racism. In fact, racist thought is alive and well in America – more sophisticated and more insidious than ever. And as award-winning historian Ibram X. Kendi argues in Stamped from the Beginning, if we have any hope of grappling with this stark reality, we must first understand how racist ideas were developed, disseminated, and enshrined in American society.
In this deeply researched and fast-moving narrative, Kendi chronicles the entire story of anti-Black racist ideas and their staggering power over the course of American history.”
- Stolen Continents: Five Hundred Years of Conquest and Resistance in the Americas by Ronald White (2005). A history of how aboriginal people in the Americas discovered Europeans. White’s meticulous work focuses on the voices, primary texts, and original records of the five nations of first people: the Aztecs, Mayas, Incas, Cherokee, and Haudenosaunee (Iroquois to the French). White traces the experiences and perspectives of these five groups from pre-contact to modern time. The history calls into serious question the U.S. and Canadian national founding myths and helps us reconsider these myths through the lens of European “settler republics,” which enacted policies of lying, cheating, stealing, reversing treaties, and murdering to grab more Indian land.
- White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo and Michael Eric Dyson (2018). The authors address how the emotions of anger, fear, and guilt lead to argumentation and silence, which maintain racial inequality. This is vital reading for anyone who wants to understand how racism perpetuates, despite good people and good intentions.
- White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg (2017). Isenberg upends assumptions about America’s supposedly class-free society––where liberty and hard work were meant to ensure real social mobility. She exposes how Reconstruction pitted poor whites against newly freed slaves, and how we continue to live with this legacy today.
- Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory by Claudio Saunt (2020) takes an unflinching look at the history of white encroachment and eventual taking of Creek and Cherokee land during the early 1800s. Saunt follows the money and shows how the forces of capitalism enrich southern planters and northern bankers, alike, and overcame the moral outrage of the time.
- Unworthy Republic Review: The People Who Profited Off the Trail of Tears by Caitlin Fitz (2020) published in the Atlantic. Fitz summarizes and critiques Saunt’s carefully researched history. An excerpt summarizes the book’s arc , “He (Saunto) follows the money, exhaustively researching company correspondence and government records to show how bankers in Boston and London financed the dirty work of dispossession in collaboration with southern speculators. The result is a haunting story of racialized cruelty and greed, which came to define a pivotal period in U.S. and indigenous history alike.”