Over the last year and a half, I have done quite a bit of reading to help me better understand our current racial situation in the United States and some of the history that lies behind it. Of course, I have not read everything and, indeed, there are a few specific books that I still have intentions of reading, but I have read enough that: (1) I feel like my grasp of the situation is far better than it was previously, and (2) I feel confident making a few recommendations.

Though I hope these recommendations are beneficial for anyone, they are intended for a specific group: Christians who believe in the equality of all people and thus, deplore racism, but who also are uncertain or skeptical of the existence of “systemic” or “structural” racism. I suspect that many of my readers fall into this category, and so I am specifically recommending the three books below, because I used to fit into that category myself, and these books were very helpful in shaping my own views.[1]

Rather than write a full-on review, I will simply introduce each book and share why I found it to be helpful.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindnessby Michelle Alexander: This is not a fun read. On the contrary, it was devastating. Alexander lays out, in detail, how the American criminal justice system disproportionately punishes people of color in a variety of ways (ways that are certainly tied to socio-economic status, but which cannot be completely explained by social class). This is a helpful book to begin to understand a particular aspect of systemic racism and the way that it has creatively adapted throughout our nation’s history: when slavery was abolished, Jim Crow segregation took its place. When segregation was outlawed, mass incarceration took its place.

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, by Richard Rothstein: in many ways, I felt this was The New Jim Crow applied to the housing industry in the United States. It talks about all sorts of creative ways in which government officials—at the federal, state, and local levels—orchestrated the largely segregated society that still exists today in our country (zoning ordinances, neighborhood covenants, blockbusting, white flight, establishment of ghettos, construction of interstates, and more). The Color of Law shares tons of data and statistics, but is written in a narrative style that is easy to follow and understand.

The Color of Compromise: the Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, by Jemar Tisby: this book specifically addresses the American Church, and confronts the reader with the uncomfortable reality that throughout American history, white Christians have largely (though not entirely) turned a blind eye toward racism, and many times have actively supported and furthered racist agendas. Tisby does not shy away from hard truths, but he writes with clear affection for the church, and offers helpful suggestions moving forward.

This is an admittedly short list, and certainly there are a host of other helpful resources out there. I wanted to keep the list short, because I always find it overwhelming when someone suggests a list of a dozen must-read books. Most people simply do not have the time to do so. Three books is a much more manageable number. But also, I specifically include these books for a few reasons:

  • They tend to be more objective than subjective, based on historical data, research studies, and specific policies than personal perception or anecdotes (there is nothing wrong with the latter, but I think the former tends to be more convincing to a skeptical crowd).
  • They are not based on white guilt, but they do suggest a collective responsibility. It does not make sense for people to feel guilty about things entirely out of their control, but it certainly makes sense to take stock of the situation we all find ourselves in and do the best we can to improve it.
  • They do not promote the sense of paternalistic white saviorism that I have sensed from some who are seeking to respond to racial inequities.[2]

These books were really helpful for me; I hope they are for you!

[1]  When I say that I “used to” fit into that category, I am not suggesting that my devotion to Christ or my rejection of racism has changed (far from it!), but merely indicating that where I was once somewhat ambivalent about the reality of systemic racism in contemporary times, I am now firmly convinced of it.

How to go about addressing that reality is an issue for another time, but until we acknowledge the existence of a problem, we can’t do anything to address it.

[2] I am hardly the first one to pick up on this tone. I think it comes from a sincere desire to help (“we (white people) made this mess, and it is up to us to fix it!”), but it easily becomes patronizing (“we know what is best for you; step aside and let us come make your lives better”) and denies people of color of agency and dignity.