Understanding Systemic Racism and CRT: A Christmas Wish List

by John Ellis

With Christmas around the corner, many of us are busy updating our Amazon wish list or simply compiling a “Dear Santa” list the old-fashioned way. To the best of my knowledge, most of my friends stock their lists with books. To help determine some edifying books to include on your list, below I humbly recommend books dealing specifically with race and racism (both systemic and personal bigotry).

This holiday season, like those of the recent past, is fraught with conversation landmines. Racism, specifically Critical Race Theory and systemic racism, may currently hold the top-spot on the list of conversation topics most likely to generate acrimony and flat-out arguments. Sadly, many of the conversations/arguments, specifically among white people, demonstrate a lack of any real understanding of the history, arguments, issues, and even terminology that are part and parcel of a nuanced understanding of racism. This applies to both sides; many of the white people I know who claim to be pro-CRT possess only the vaguest understanding of what it actually is.

My hope is that this list will not only be helpful for my friends who are sympathetic towards CRT and believe that systemic racism is a thing but also to those who are adamantly opposed to CRT and believe that systemic racism is something invented by Marxists hell-bent on destroying America, as well as anyone in-between those two sides. To that end, I want to offer a quick word to those reading this who are anti-CRT: Are you sure that you don’t hold a straw man perspective on CRT and systemic racism? What and who are your sources for your information? To be blunt, I have yet to read an anti-CRT book or article that interacts with primary sources beyond a surface definition level. And that’s if they cite primary sources at all, which most of them don’t. Please consider reading some of the books on this list. I don’t know if you’ll change your mind or not, but at least be intellectually honest enough to confront yourself with robust arguments from what you consider the wrong side. Also, one last thing, if you are anti-CRT you may want to dive down the rabbit hole of paleoconservativism; Paul Gottlieb is a good entry point into that dark, twisted hole.

Now to the list. Please note that this is not an exhaustive list. There are hundreds if not thousands of books worthy to be on this list (some even worthier than my selections). This list reflects books that have aided me as I continue to learn about racism and grow in my understanding of what racism is and the dreadful havoc it continues to wreak on Black people in America. I’ve also tried to distill the books I’ve read on the topic into a list that reflects the best scholarship, makes for an interesting read, affected me, and a list that is somewhat manageable in terms of the number of books included.

Combatting Myths About Slavery

The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440-1870 by Hugh Thomas – At 800 pages, The Slave Trade can be a daunting book, but Hugh Thomas turned his exhaustive research that relied on a treasure trove of primary sources into the seminal book on the origins, growth, and decline of the slave trafficking of Africans via the Atlantic. Many of us think we understand the Atlantic slave trade, but most of us lack true knowledge of the complex history of one of this planet’s greatest crimes.

Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America by Ira Berlin – Chattel slavery in America can be divided into two sections: pre-cotton gin and post-cotton gin. Even some of those who recognize that the Lost Cause Myth is a lie of the devil and a hellish evil can fall into the trap of mythologizing and white-washing pre-cotton gin slavery in this country. Ira Berlin’s book helps provide a better understanding of chattel slavery’s growth and changes prior to the invention of the cotton gin.

Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb by Henry Bibb – Frederick Douglas, Harriot Jacobs, and Solomon Northrup wrote autobiographical slave narratives that are better known than Henry Bibb’s. Even The History of Mary Prince has found more contemporary readers (I think/assume). I encourage you to read those slave narratives if you haven’t, but I’ve chosen the Narrative of the Life and Adventure of Henry Bibb over better known slave narratives because I’m afraid that there can be a sense of dullness attached to reader responses to the better-known stories – familiarity breeds boredom, or something like that. Meeting Henry Bibb as he introduces himself via words vividly detailing his life as a slave, runaway, and then his involvement in the abolition movement conjures a visceral response in readers who have been otherwise strangers to this remarkable man prior to reading his autobiography.

My Folks Don’t Want Me to Talk about Slavery edited by Belinda Hurmence – Selections from the Federal Writers Project abound, and I encourage you to find and read them. Belinda Hurmence combed through the stories provided by the 176 ex-slaves interviewed in North Carolina and produced this short yet powerful book. One of her requirements for entry into the book was that the ex-slave had to be at least ten years old at the time of their freedom. Another helpful aspect of the book is the bibliography included in the back.

Stolen Childhood: Slave Youth in Nineteenth-Century America by Wilma King – This is one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read. As a parent – as a human being – reading the tragic recounting of slavery’s devastating effects on children was heartbreaking and infuriating.

How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith – Recently published, How the Word Is Passed is a beautifully written book about a devastating and wicked subject. Using his visits to monuments and historically significant places related to slavery for the context (and content) of his argument, Clint Smith tells the story of slavery in America. Deeply personal, very moving, and with the artistry of a narrative, Smith uncovers history in a way that will stay with you.

Reconstruction and the Jim Crow Era

Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 by Eric Foner – Similar to how many of us over evaluate our understanding of the Atlantic slave trade, we tend to think we know more about Reconstruction than we actually do. Regarded by the historical community as the seminal work on Reconstruction, Eric Foner’s book is a great way to fill in the gaps left by your 10th grade history class.  

The Great South Carolina Ku Klux Klan Trials, 1871-1872 by Lou Falkner Williams – If your upbringing was similar to mine, then you were probably taught that the KKK started out with good motives and that good people have been involved with them throughout the organization’s history. Bullshit! Read this book to wash that racist lie completely out of your brain.

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois – I’m going to guess that this is the book most likely to have been already read by those reading this article. For that reason, I almost left it off the list. I decided against it because understanding the lives of Black people towards the beginning of the Jim Crow era is essential and there is not a better book on the subject than The Souls of Black Folk.  

The Ways of White Folks by Langston Hughes – A collection of short stories, Langston Hughes offers a rare window into the concept of double-consciousness. And if you don’t know what that means, you should definitely read this book.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson – The Great Migration is one of the most impactful events in America’s history, yet many white people know very little about it. Isabel Wilkerson is a wonderful writer. She’s so good, that you’ll forget you’re being taught history while reading The Warmth of Other Suns.

Devil In the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King – Similar to Henry Bibb and the existence of many other worthy slave narratives, the Devil In the Grove is just one tragic story among many possible others about the fearful existence Black people faced in this country as Jim Crow fought back against the burgeoning Civil Rights movement of the mid-20th century. I chose it because I believe that it’s as good of a representative of that struggle as can be found. Prepare to be pissed off while reading it.

Praying for Sheetrock by Melissa Faye Greene – The passage of The Civil Rights Act in 1964 didn’t end Jim Crow; it forced it to change. Melissa Faye Greene tells the true story of how racism continued (and continues) to pervade America even after the victories of the Civil Rights movement.

Critical Race Theory and Systemic Racism

Black Power: The Politics of Liberation by Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael) and Charles V. Hamilton – Some of y’all are going to hate this book. Most of the rest will be discomfited by it and unsure what to think. That’s fine. But read it. Before you attack Black liberation philosophies and movements, make sure you’re not straw-manning them.

Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed The Movement edited by Kimberle Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, Kendall Thomas – If I were a betting man, I would bet a large sum of money that whenever anyone criticizes CRT that I will be met with the sound of crickets after I ask, “Please, tell me which primary texts of CRT you’ve read.” CRT is not the bogeyman that Tucker Carlson, Donald Trump, and the rest of the paleoconservative cabal would have you believe. That’s not to say that you won’t find points of disagreement. But at least have the intellectual integrity to disagree honestly and not because your favorite talking head or politician told you to.

We Won’t Go Back: Making the Case for Affirmative Action by Charles R. Lawrence, III and Mari J. Matsuda – The title of this book by this husband and wife writing team should explain why it’s on this list. Again, repeating myself somewhat from the book above, if you are opposed to affirmative action, at least craft your opposition to a robust defense of it and not in response to the intellectually-thin soundbites coming from your screen.

Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in America by Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields – The Fields sisters do an excellent job of making their argument in a non-confrontational way (not that Black people should care about the feelings of sensitive white people when talking about racism). A collection of essays, Racecraft not only provides helpful definitions and explanations of systemic racism but also anecdotes and data that back up the book’s argument.

Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva – Many Black scholars consider Racism Without Racists one of the most essential books within the discussion about racial inequalities and racism. I found it eye-opening. The sixth edition, which includes new material, including a section on systemic racism and COVID-19, is set to be published later this month (Nov. 24). I eagerly await the delivery of my pre-ordered new copy.  

Faces At The Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism by Derrick Bell – Stories are powerful. CRT’s father, Derrick Bell, uses his artistry as a writer by combining his immense intellectual knowledge of the subject with his existential knowledge of racism to argue that racism is permanent in America. This book will offend some of you. Good.

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity In a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown – There are a myriad of excellent choices if you’re looking for autobiographical experiences of contemporary Black Americans. I’ve chosen Austin Channing Brown’s memoir out of all the ones I’ve read because of the impact her book has had on my heart and my family (my wife and I read it with our daughter). The book hit so close to home for us because much of her experience as a Black woman took place within the context of white evangelicalism. I considered including I’m Still Here in the next (last) section, but this is also a really good book from which to learn a better understanding of what systemic racism is and what it does.

Racism and the Church

Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith – Divided by Faith is over twenty years old now, but, wow, is it still poignant – maybe even more so; definitely more so. After surveying over 2,000 people, Emerson and Smith concluded that Evangelicalism continues to perpetuate the problem of racism in America. You don’t believe it? Then read the book.

Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson – Hated by the far right, Michael Eric Dyson makes an impassioned plea to white America to stop ignoring the continued harmful heritage of slavery and Jim Crow. Dyson makes the argument that no real progress can be made in racial reconciliation and justice until white people start being honest about racism.

Woke Church: An Urgent Call for Christians in America to Confront Racism and Injustice by Eric Mason – I have heard more direct slander of Eric Mason out of the mouths of professing Christians (or via Tweets) than any other human being I can think of. Please read this faithful brother in Christ’s book and hear in his own words what he believes and does not believe. His arguments and calls to action are deeply rooted in Kingdom ethics.

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