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Understanding Charlottesville: Race, Religion and the KKK

Most whites in the United States, from both the left and right, have been quick to distance themselves from the white nationalists in Charlottesville, denouncing their hate speech and attacks. But the repeated assaults on Blacks in America, the recurring acts of anti-Semitism, and the marginalization of and discrimination against people of different colors and faiths, have roots that stretch back to the country's founding. Prejudice will not simply fade away with time. Nor will a few indignant posts on Facebook or Twitter condemning discrimination and hate change a system that favors one group of people at the expense of all others. Right and left alike, those in the US that have any sort of privilege, whether it is based on race, religion or wealth, have a responsibility to do more. As writer Sa’iyda Shabazz underscores, this isn’t about politics. It’s about human rights.

One part of doing more is learning more. Take a closer look at today’s reality, and a deeper look at the past. As Jagger Blaec wrote for The Washington Post’s publication The Lily, “Charlottesville was painful. But it wasn’t a surprise to black people.” If you were surprised by Charlottesville, don’t let it happen again. Here are a few books to get started.


Top photograph of a 1959 rally in Little Rock, Arkansas, protesting the integration of a high school. Protesters carry US flags and signs reading "Race Mixing is Communism" and "Stop the Race Mixing March of the Anti-Christ". Image courtesy Library of Congress.

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Secret Plan for America

Nancy MacLean, a highly-regarded historian at Duke University, takes a scholarly approach to southern conservatism. And by southern conservatism she really means American conservatism, identifying the South as its cradle. The South is also home to 40% of America’s population, and Trump’s success in southern states (winning around 60% of the votes in Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and West Virginia) speaks to the need to understand the viewpoints and desires of this large swath of the United States. MacLean distills the roots of southern conservatism, as well as identifying those essential to its spread, notably economist and political thinker James M. Buchanan, and libertarian billionaires Charles and David Koch (who donate lavishly to Republican political advocacy groups and campaigns). While MacLean’s personal preferences are made clear in the book (just take a look at the title), and a few historians (particularly libertarian-leaning ones) have taken issue with parts of her interpretation of history, anyone who dismisses the analysis outright will be dismissing an important piece of the complex political landscape today.

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The Possessive Investment in Whiteness

Historian and American Studies scholar George Lipsitz examines the systems that underpin white supremacy, and the ways in which white supremacy is manifested. As he points out in the introduction, “…white supremacy is usually less a matter of direct, referential, and snarling contempt than a system for protecting the privileges of whites by denying communities of color opportunities for asset accumulation and upward mobility…” Lipsitz’s analysis goes beyond the Black/white binary to include European immigrants such as Italians and Irish, who faced fierce discrimination until acceptance of them served a purpose, as well as Asians and Latinos and the discrimination and exclusion they face. Although this book was written in the 1990s, it is as relevant today as when it was first published.

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Between the World and Me

If Jagger Blaec gave readers a glimpse of why Blacks weren't surprised by Charlottesville in her article for The Lily, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers readers a long, hard look. Between the World and Me is Coates book-length letter to his 15-year-old son about growing up Black (and poor) in America. Coates views hope as specious and white supremacy as an indestructible force. He reminds the reader of what words really mean—slavery “is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is as active as your own; whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods. . . . ”; white supremacy a term to “obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.” While some critique Coates for not emphasizing the power of personal agency (among other things), the book offers those who have not lived the experience of being Black in America the opportunity to step into one man’s shoes, if only through the written word. 

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Hillbilly Elegy

Vance is white, male, straight and Protestant. He studied at Yale Law School. Despite these hallmarks of privilege, Vance is also a self-declared hillbilly who grew up in Ohio’s Appalachia, in a household plagued by violence and alcohol abuse, where “poverty is the family tradition.” Released in 2016, his riveting memoir shot to the top of The New York Times bestseller list, providing a window onto the realities of the white poor in America’s rural and small-town states. To understand the current appeal of right-wing populism, one must understand the people who are drawn to it. (The interview with Vance that ran last year in The American Conservative is a recommended accompaniment.)

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Convenient Hatred

Why the Jews? Jews make up less than 0.2% of the world population (and less than 2% in the United States), and Judaism is the foundation upon which Christianity and later Islam were built. So why is anti-Semitism so persistent and pervasive? Starting with Judaism from before the time of Jesus and leading up to modern day, Phyllis Goldstein has written a dispassionate account of the persecution of Jews over the millennia, condensed into 400 pages. Goldstein provides social and historical context for the countries in which Jews have been (and are) persecuted. (One example: Jews were prohibited from owning land or working as tradesmen in Europe in the Middle Ages, so many took up money lending—an occupation that was forbidden to Christians at the time—leading to the stereotype of usurers.) What assumptions and beliefs has this global history of anti-Semitism left in each of us? 

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White Robes, Silver Screens

The images that came out of Charlottesville were potent: white men with faces twisted in anger, burning torches in hand. Some of the images seemed like shots from a horror movie—which Tom Rice would argue is no coincidence. Since its inception (its first incarnation was in 1865), the Ku Klux Klan has appropriated imagery and spectacle to spread its propaganda. Rice focuses on the KKK’s history with film, but also includes discussion in theater, radio, and newspapers. As demonstrated by Charlottesville, the media tactics Rice describes remain relevant today.

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Racism without Racists

Despite the hopes of some, particularly during the Obama era when the US elected its first Black president, we are not a color-blind society. As Eduardo Bonilla-Silva underscores in his book, anyone who “does not see color” (a claim primarily made by whites) denies the historical and ongoing discrimination that persons of color experience in the United States. With segregation, discrimination, unequal schools, unequal housing, and police brutality all firmly in place, systemic and structural change is needed to combat the effects of racism in the United States. First published in 2003, the fifth edition of Racism without Racists was released in June of this year.

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Reader, writer, globetrotter. Seattle native who has lived in six countries (current home: New York). Food obsessed. Bylines in NPR, Wall Street Journal, Vice MUNCHIES, Budget Travel and more.

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