Books about racism are one of the year’s most important topics. Discover the books on racism that belong on your antiracist reading list.
What authority do I have to talk to you about racism?
Absolutely none. I’m a middle-class white woman who grew up in rural Ohio and now lives in the suburbs of Utah. As you can guess, my worldview is rather limited.
I’ve debated writing an antiracist reading list because I have no authority and no experience to pass on. I would be a complete failure at critically reviewing any of these books.
However, more than anything, I need to read books about racism. If I am to be an ally, I need to understand the experiences of Blacks in America so that I can do my part and stop being part of the problem.
I compiled this list of books on racism for my own personal use, but it felt selfish not to share. This blog is part of my contribution to the world, and I want to use my voice to speak up for what’s important to me.
These are the books about racism that I’ve read or plan to read. I do not claim that these are the best books about racism – you’ll want to turn to a better authority for that. Instead, they are the books that have landed on my radar and probably belong on yours.
Antiracist Reading List
Ibram X. Kendi
Ibram X. Kendi has penned the premier work on racial justice in America. Kendi’s premise is that the opposite of racist policies is antiracist policies that actively aid in creating more equity between races. Using history, law, ethics and, science, Kendi shows what an antiracist society would look like and helps illustrate how we can contribute to the building of a more equitable world.
Layla F. Saad
What started as an Instagram challenge has turned into an expanded book about dismantling the privilege within ourselves. Using a 28-day format, Me and White Supremacy uses journal prompts and moving stories to help white people examine their privilege, understand allyship, and change the way they respond to race.
A former NFL player and current Fox Sports analyst, Emmanuel Acho takes on the hard questions that many white Americans are afraid to ask but need to know to be more informed. Based on his hit Youtube series, Acho presents his topic as a way to help people increase their understanding and change their behaviors to help end racism in America. With Black Lives Matter being a hot topic right now, no surprise that this is one of the best new books to read about racism.
One of the top books on racism I keep hearing about is Oluo’s breakout book. Oluo takes on some of the biggest topics of the day on racism: white privilege, police brutality, Black Lives Matter, microaggressions, and more. Oluo will answer the questions white Americans are afraid to ask to establish a way for you to discuss race in America.
What happens when a white person’s assumptions about race are challenged? The normal reaction is defensiveness, which white author Robin DiAngelo calls white fragility. Unpacking why whites are so fragile, DiAngelo shows how much this defensiveness hinders cross-racial discussion. Of all the books about white privilege, White Fragility is considered the most controversial.
Why do so many people think of racism as a zero-sum game where advances for minorities only come at harm for the majority? With a specialty in studying the economy, Heather McGhee takes an extensive look at how racism hurts us all. McGhee looks at the root of the problem and the incalculable costs of racism and paints a brighter vision for America.
Beverly Daniel Tatum
Tatum’s bestselling book on the psychology of racism is considered a classic. If you walk into any racially integrated high school, you’ll likely notice that all the kids gathered into groups of their own race. Tatum ponders if such self-segregation is a problem or a coping mechanism. Tatum argues that the only way for America to communicate about racism is by talking frankly about our racial identities.
History Books about Racism
Ibram X. Kendi
On top of teaching you how to be an antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi has written the top book on the history of racism in America. Covering the Puritans and the Founding Fathers all the way to the civil rights movement and modern-day activists, Kendi shows that racist ideas and discriminatory practices have permeated American history since its inception.
Created by Nikole Hannah-Jones
In 1619, a ship arrived in the Virginia colony with the first enslaved people from Africa. Thus began the unprecedented system of slavery that has shaped America ever since. Based on The New York Times Magazine‘s Pulitizer Prize-winning articles, The 1619 Project combines essays, poems, and works of fiction to chronicle how the legacy of slavery impacts America today.
From the First World War to the 1970s, a mass exodus ensued of Blacks leaving the South and settling in northern and western cities. Wilkerson’s book highlights three stories from The Great Migration: Ida Mae Gladney who left sharecropping in 1937 for a blue-collar life in Chicago; George Starling, who left Florida in 1945 for Harlem where he fought for civil rights; and Robert Foster, who moved from Louisiana in 1953 to become a personal physician.
Among the top books to read right now is an examination of caste by bestselling author Isabel Wilkerson. When you think of castes, India’s strict caste system likely comes to mind. Wilkerson argues that America has its own hidden caste system, a hierarchy that has influenced the United States both historically and currently. Using fascinating stories, Wilkerson points out that on top of race and class, our understanding of caste systems must also change if we are to better ourselves as a nation.
Edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain
A one-volume “community” history of African-Americans edited by Ibram X. Kendi (author of How to Be an Antiracist) and Keisha N. Blain. From the year before the Mayflower to the present-day, over ninety of today’s Black authors explore history through various methods to give this book a unique feel.
Even though Jim Crow laws have all been thrown out, legal scholar Michelle Alexander argues that we live in a new era of Jim Crow. Mass incarcerations of Black people have set up a new caste in America – preventing Black people from voting, holding jobs, and trapping communities of color in a vicious cycle of poverty. If you want to read books about racism in America, this examination of the American justice system should be at the top of your list.
A. J. Baime
Born with mixed-race heritage to parents who were born as slaves, Walter F. White’s skin was light enough that he could easily “pass” as white. A leader of the Harlem Renaissance and an important member of the NAACP, White used his ability to lead a dual life, going undercover to investigate some of the worst racist murders in America. White’s leadership shaped public opinion, pushed forward the Civil Rights Movement, and altered the mission of the NAACP toward legal and political activism.
Written as a letter to his son, Between the World and Me explores what it means to be Black in America. Coates skillfully switches between larger concepts of racism in American history and the pain of racist violence to more personal concerns between a father and son. Part autobiographical and part history lesson, Between the World and Me is an honest look at what it means to be Black.
In a seeing contemporary look at America, Clint Smith shows how deeply slavery has imprinted on the United States. From Monticello to Angola Prison in New Orleans, Smith takes you on a tour of monuments and landmarks through America showing how slavery has shaped the nation.
Further Reading: Must-Read Books by Black Women.
As a young idealistic lawyer, Bryan Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice defending the most desperate of clients, and his memoir is one of the best books on racism in the justice system. One case, in particular, stands out: Walter McMillian, a young man on death row who is obviously innocent. Stevenson inspires his readers to consider how compassion is needed for true justice to be served. An exceptional read, Stevenson will help you realize how unjust our justice system is.
Largely forgotten and believed to be a work of fiction, historians in the 1980s finally proved that Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was Harriett Jacobs’s memoir of her life as a slave. Told in a brilliantly clear and compelling narrative, Jacob shines the light on the hypocrisy and sexual abuse inherent in master-slave relationships. Eventually, Jacobs escapes, living in hiding in an attic for seven years before moving to the North.
Patrisse Khan-Cullors & Asha Bandele
A powerful memoir from one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. Growing up in Los Angeles to a single mother, Patrisse Khan-Cullors is all too familiar with the persecution and prejudice Black people face in America. After Trayvon Martin’s killer went free, Khan-Cullors could not hold back, standing up for Black lives everywhere and urging you to do the same.
Austin Channing Brown
Austin Channing Brown grew up as a Black Christian woman in middle-class white America, and her memoir bears witness that racial injustice is woven into the very fabric of America. Brown points out how often we often fall short on our goal to promote diversity, and details what we can do to learn to love Blackness.
Former United States President Barack Obama’s 700+ page memoir came out days after the 2020 presidential election. Describing his political journey, Obama recounts the grassroots movement that helped him rise to the presidency and details the politics and diplomacy from his term in office. Along with intimate insights into his presidency, Obama thoughtfully ponders the reach and limits of presidential power. Not necessarily a book about racism, it just felt appropriate to include the memoir of America’s first Black president.
For those interested in reading an essay about racism, you can’t go wrong with James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. Originally published in 1955, Baldwin’s classic work showcases what life was like in Harlem for a Black man at the dawn of the Civil Rights Era and what it means to be a Black man in America.
Malcolm X with Alex Haley
Malcolm X was one of the most influential persons in the 20th century, and you can read about his life as told to acclaimed author Alex Haley. Entering prison as Malcolm Little, he embraced Islam while inside and emerged as Malcolm X, a fierce advocate for Black empowerment, Black pride, and pan-Africanism.
Feminism & Racism
In a series of essays, Mikki Kendall argues that today’s feminist movement has some glaring blind spots. Instead of focusing on increasing privilege for the few (and usually white) women, Kendall says that modern feminists need to understand how race, class, sexual orientation, and ability intersect with gender. Kendall argues that basic needs, such as food insecurity, quality education, a living wage, and medical care, are all feminist issues.
In a series of essays, Roxane Gay documents her journey as a woman of color. With sharp and funny commentary, Gay explores how our current culture and the meaning of feminism today has influenced her, and how she has learned to better understand herself.
Tressie McMillan Cottom
Tressie McMillan Cottom’s essay collection tackles what it means to the author to be a Black woman. With keen intellectualism, McMillan Cottom discusses everything from beauty to pumpkin spice lattes to showcase how you can find meaning in places others miss.
Annoyed that Sheryl Sandberg’s famous book, Lean In, didn’t account for women of color, Minda Harts started her own mission to help Black women navigate the corporate world. In The Memo, Harts lays out a career guide that navigates the struggles of women of color. A great read for women of color or those in the corporate world, Harts gives extremely helpful and specific advice, especially about networking and mentorship.
Books About Racism: Fiction Titles
Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter works hard to find balance in her life between her poor neighborhood and the elite suburban prep school she attends. Yet, when Starr is the only witness to the fatal police shooting of her best friend, she finds herself in the middle of a national headline. With all the recent coverage of police shootings, Thomas’ novel adds a new layer to the conversation on this important topic.
Take My Hand is inspired by the true story of government overreach in the forced sterilization of poor Black girls. In 1973, Civil Townsend is excited to use her new nursing degree to make a difference in the lives of her African-American community in Montgomery, Alabama. However, Civil is shocked to find her first patients are two young Black girls (ages 11 and 13) on birth control and begins to question the ethics of her work. Take My Hand is a thought-provoking historical novel that informs you while keeping you gripped by an emotional story.
Another excellent entry in fiction discussing Black Lives Matter, Stone has penned an instant bestseller. Justyce McAllister has left his rough neighborhood behind to become top of his class at his private school. Though even an acceptance letter to Yale doesn’t stop him from his classmates’ scorn and racism. Just trying to get through his senior year, he starts a journal to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to help cope. Yet when he and his best friend encounter an off-duty police officer one day when they are just out for a drive, Justyce’s whole life is affected.
Sharon M. Draper
One week at her mom’s. One week at her dad’s. Not only is Isabella’s life split in half by her parents’ divorce, but also she feels as if her own identity is divided in two. Half-white and half-Black, Isabella’s split custody parallels her split racial identity. Sharon M. Draper’s middle-grade bestseller explores Isabella’s need to figure out how a blended girl bridges the gap in a world full of duality. Not nearly as light-hearted as the pink striped cover suggests, Blended is a more serious discussion on important topics for kids today – divorce, racial profiling, and blended families. One of the best books about racism for kids, Blended is also a great explanation of Black Lives Matter for middle schoolers.
If you are looking for adult fiction books about racism, An American Marriage was one of the top books of recent years. At first glance, newlyweds Celestial and Roy seem like the perfect American couple. He’s a young executive, and she’s an emerging artist. However, as life comes into play and Roy is unjustly imprisoned, their marriage begins to fall apart. Discussing love, marriage, and race, this thought-provoking read is one to add to any reading list.
Blogger Alix Chamberlain has built herself a brand empowering women. When she moves to Philadephia, she feels overwhelmed by her two young daughters and comes to rely on her babysitter, Emira Tucker. While watching Alix’s two-year-old, Emira is shocked one day to be stopped by a grocery store clerk, only because she is a Black woman with a white toddler. Reid certainly sparks a conversation about racism and privilege, as both Alix and Emira’s boyfriend have completely different views on the same event.
Christine Pride and Jo Piazza
Told from alternating perspectives, We Are Not Like Them tells of a friendship between two women, one white and one Black, that faces its ultimate test. Jen and Riley have been best friends since kindergarten but their lives have taken different directions lately – Jen pregnant with her first baby and Riley the first Black woman anchor at the local Philadelphia station. When Jen’s husband, a police officer, is part of a shooting of an unarmed Black teenager, Riley is assigned to cover the career-making story.
Therese Anne Fowler
In a gentrifying North Carolina neighborhood, the clash between new and old has deadly consequences. Professor Valerie Alston-Holt has lived in Oak Knoll for decades. It’s where she raised her son Xavier, who is off to college soon. But things go horribly wrong when her new neighbors move in. Brad Whitman’s monstrosity of a house damages the root system of Valerie’s precious oak tree, an unforgivable offense in Valerie’s eyes. Yet despite the differences in race, class, and lifestyles, Xavier falls in love with Whitman’s stepdaughter.
One of the top classic fiction books on racism, Toni Morrison’s horror story shows the scars left behind by slavery. Although she escaped slavery by running to Ohio, Sethe is still not a free woman. She can’t seem to get the horrors of Sweet Home out of her mind and is haunted by the ghost of her baby. When a teenage girl arrives claiming to be Beloved, Sethe’s past finally catches up to her.
What Books on Racism Do You Recommend I Read?
What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with my list of Books About Racism? What antiracist books am I missing from my list? As always, let me know in the comments!
More Nonfiction Books to Read: