Ten Books on Poverty and Race in America–A White Woman’s Attempt to Learn More

Hands of Color

This year I have been reading to try to understand more about race and poverty in the United States, as I am a privileged white girl who spent her childhood in segregated neighborhoods in Texas and California and has never had the opportunity to get to know many people of color, or to appreciate their history as part of our shared American story—beyond what I learned in school, which wasn’t much. These books have really opened my eyes (and made me so angry) about the struggles of the poor and of African Americans in the United States, especially since the end of the Civil War, when things were supposed to get better with the abolition of the evil institution of slavery, but did not. I wish that we could change the systems that undermine the lives of poor people of all races, and those that have been set up to discriminate against African Americans and other people of color in this country. And we must change our hearts and minds to see those in need as people we should help, and each individual as a cherished child of God. These books are listed in the order I read them; reviews are those I posted on goodreads.com after finishing each book.

We were eight yearsTa-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, 2017.
This is one of the most important books I have ever read. I have always been appalled by the way black people are and have been treated in the United States, but this book helps me understand the depth of the discrimination, the tragedy, the systemic aspects of our history and culture that have held people back, and the depth of justified anger that people feel (or should feel) about how African Americans have been treated, intentionally and unintentionally, for 300+ years and counting. The writer has made me think about how I think and approach history and the world, and how lacking my education has been in this regard. Although he writes in the context of the years from the beginning of Barack Obama’s run for the presidency to the recent aftermath of the election of Donald Trump, Coates intertwines the history of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the New Deal, the creation of ghettos through segregation and redlining, the Civil Rights movement, the so-called law-and-order and welfare reforms that have resulted in undermining black family life and the mass incarceration of black men, and all the other sorry results of white supremacy that are ingrained in American culture. He also shares the stories of his life that have led him where he is now, as a respected and talented writer for The Atlantic and other publications. Coates is not ranting—he persuasively cites sources and explains why he thinks as he does and how his opinions have been shaped. And he makes suggestions about what can be done, although I do not have high hopes that anything will be done and, indeed, things seem to be getting worse in the Age of Trump. Nevertheless, eye- and mind-opening and highly recommended.

EvictedMatthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in an American City, 2017.
This book is heartbreaking and angering—Americans are doing a terrible job of taking care of the poor, who face “housing insecurity” and can’t seem to get ahead without a miracle in the extortionate private rental market. And their poor choices and bad luck, as well as the shortage of public or subsidized housing, keep them out of the inadequate public housing market. I don’t know where they find the hope to keep trying, because everywhere they turn a new emergency comes up that results in eviction, constant moving, homelessness, job loss, terrible conditions—it just goes on. And the landlords are profiting from grinding the faces of the poor—other industrialized countries manage to deal with these problems, and here, as with healthcare, the United States fall short. The author, an ethnographer, lived in inner-city Milwaukee and paints a detailed portrait of the vicious spiral of poverty. The author presents the facts and stories of people (who are sometimes hard to keep track of in terms of remembering who is who) for most of the book and then presents his conclusions and recommendations. This is a brilliant book that is hard to read because the horrible circumstances are multiplied many times over in American cities and so little is being done.

Just MercyBryan Stevens, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, 2014.
This is a heartbreaking, important book. The author and other lawyers and associates of the Equal Justice Initiative have been providing legal services in behalf of the falsely convicted, those whose trials have been so tainted by racial bias or lack of effective representation that they were farcical, those condemned to death in prison (formally or effectively) who committed their crimes when they were minors or who committed nonviolent crimes, and others whom the so-called justice system has failed spectacularly. There are many others with only slightly less daunting stories who should be helped and cannot be for lack of resources. The American justice system has been undermined by racial discrimination, stemming from slavery and continuing in the terrorism of the Klan and the institution of white supremacy after Reconstruction, the conviction of African Americans of minor or created crimes so that their labor could be sold to businesses (slavery by another name), the Jim Crow laws, the practice of mass incarceration, and the continued racism that infects almost every level of our society in the United States. Even the distrust of the mainstream media and the idea of “fake news” that are part of Trumpist politics in the twenty-first century got their start in the criticism and accusations of fakery in the reporting of unwelcome facts at the time of the Civil Rights movement. This book brings all this to a personal level with the stories of falsely convicted people and others that the author worked to free in Alabama and later throughout the United States through the Equal Justice Initiative.

PromisesKathryn Edin & Martha J. Kefalas, Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage, 2005.
This important book answers the question, “Why don’t those poor women get married before they have babies?” The authors were embedded in six poor African American, Puerto Rican, and white neighborhoods in Philadelphia for two years and interviewed hundreds of mothers. While the answers differ slightly for each ethnic group, the conclusions are that motherhood is one of the only ways of establishing a woman’s identity as a responsible adult in these neighborhoods (where women’s opportunities are so limited). The pool of marriage-able men is breathtakingly shallow, and motherhood is essential to these women—a life without children is a tragedy—but marriage is an ideal and a luxury that no one in her right mind would embark on without years of testing a man’s worth as a potential husband and without her own financial security. The actual conclusions are more nuanced than my summary, and the research is well-supported from a social science standpoint. The authors’ contrasts of the approach that makes sense to impoverished young women in the inner city with the attitudes that seem obvious to middle-class people with some financial security are especially valuable.

Doing the BestKathryn Edin & Timothy J. Nelson, Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City, 2013.
This companion volume to Promises I Can Keep, which focused on inner-city single mothers, tells the story of inner-city Philadelphia fathers, black and white, and their relationships to their children. These men are unable, due to economic and cultural restrictions and their own poor choices, to fulfill the traditional role of breadwinner for their children, and so they “do the best they can” on the providing front while concentrating instead on having quality time and being a real father (as opposed to “just a paycheck”) for their children. That they sometimes aren’t good at this role does not mean that their attempts do not have value for the children and especially for the men—many of them feel strongly the absence of their own fathers and are trying to make up for that with their children. Tragically, there is a tendency in some of these men, when the fathering role does not work out with one child, to turn their attention to another child with a different mother. They also expect their children’s mothers to be able to provide financially even if they, the fathers, cannot help, while still achieving all that is expected of mothers in terms of nurturing and emotional support—a very tough gig for mothers that does not result in financial or family security for children. Like the companion study, this book answers the question, “Why don’t they just get married?” These impoverished (in almost every sense) adults have not given up on marriage, but instead have such high expectations of marriage that they cannot meet them. And yet, the rewards of having children are so great that they do not see any reason to go without them, and they do not consider that they are doing the children any disservice by bringing them into this less-than-perfect situation. Thus the father-child relationship becomes paramount, while the children’s mothers become almost irrelevant and sometimes adversary to these fathers who are trying to do their best. These two books explain a lot about circumstances that have been the subject of inaccurate assumptions by more fortunate people. Perhaps Edin and colleagues could consider a study of the children of these parents, looking back on their childhoods and the assumptions that their parents and society make about them.

New Jim CrowMichele Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, 2010.
This important book should be read by all Americans, should be required reading in law school and law enforcement academies, and should be read by every defense attorney (public defender or private practice), prosecutor, and all those working in law enforcement and the correctional system. America began controlling black people (even free black people) via slavery, and then by Jim Crow, and now with the devastating impacts of the so-called War on Drugs. Although the provisions of drug enforcement laws appear to be race-neutral, they are in effect targeted at perpetuating a permanent underclass of African Americans and, to a lesser extent, Latinos. Like Jim Crow at the end of slavery, the War on Drugs was enacted after passage of the Civil Rights Act in order to appease (especially Southern) working-class and poor white people whose votes the powerful want to attract by being “tough on crime,” which has resulted in the mass incarceration (including a post-incarceration shadowland of unemployment, housing insecurity, and ineligibility for benefits) of an alarming number of black men and their families. Because of harsh police and prosecutorial practices, harsh sentences for small amounts of drugs such marijuana and crack cocaine, and mandatory minimum sentences, the U.S. prison system has become an investment for private and government entities, with devastating consequences for African American communities and the inner-city ghettos that were initially created by discriminatory housing practices during the Jim Crow era. Amounts and types of drugs that are commonly used by white high school and college students are overlooked or lightly punished by law enforcement, but the same drugs when used or sold by young people of color result in felony records and lengthy, even lifelong, prison sentences. The people working in the law enforcement and mass incarceration systems are not intentionally racist or biased for the most part. But our country’s attempts to create a color-blind or race-neutral society, including U.S. Supreme Court decisions that refuse to look at the effects rather than the causes of police and prosecutorial practices, have resulted in devastating outcomes for communities and individuals of color that can be overcome only by a restructuring of the economy and the Civil Rights movement. We should not be color-blind, but instead should be race-conscious and caring so as to alleviate the continuing shackles that metaphorically enslave so many African Americans in the United States. The author has done her research and makes a convincing case, well-referenced.

Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, 2010.
This has got to be the definitive work on the Great Migration (which I think of as the “Great Escape”) of African Americans from the South to the North after the promises of Reconstruction failed miserably in the South. That failure began about 1870; the migration that lasted until about 1975; an imperfect redemption was attempted with the Civil Rights Act of 1964—and the imperfections last through the present day. The author focuses on three people who embarked on the Great Migration in different decades, from different homes and situations, and who ended up in different places: Los Angeles, New York City, and Chicago. She follows them throughout their lives, describing what their lives were like in the South, how they managed to leave, and how their lives were up North. Wilkerson also gives more general history as background for the three focus stories and addresses the social-scientific thinking about the Great Migration as it has evolved. The author spent hundreds, if not thousands of hours interviewing and spending time with many people and their families who migrated and who stayed in the South—this is a formidable work, and in its quest to be definitive, sometimes seem to drag a bit. But it is a great accomplishment as a record of life in the United States, and of course, the disappointing fact that the migrants met with almost as much ill treatment in the North and West as they did in the South, which led to the urban ghettos, poverty, crime, drug abuse, and other problems whose roots can be traced to the failure of white Americans to accept the humanity of black Americans. Very interesting is the author’s comparison of black migrants to immigrants of other cultures and countries who migrated to American cities, were initially treated poorly by more-established folk, but were eventually able to be accepted because they could adapt culturally and linguistically while bringing the richness of their own languages and cultures to the American “melting pot” (actually more a tossed salad). Black Americans, however, were not allowed to adapt and be accepted as part of the majority culture because their skin color always marked them as the “other.” Yet they still accomplished so much and enriched American life through music, writing, humor, language, dance, activism, and in many other ways. Despite the new problems that coming North out of the post-Reconstruction South brought to the lives of black migrants and their families, none would have preferred to remain in the South. Wilkerson explores the bittersweetness and the outrage of this history carefully and well.

BetweenTa-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, 2015.
I did not learn as much from this book as I did from Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power, but it was a valuable read, nonetheless. The book is in the form of an extended letter to the author’s son, and the author is trying to educate his son about the history, tragedy, and pride involved in being an African American man or boy at this time in the world and in America. Coates’s feelings of sadness and fury over the way he and others have been burdened and their lives made narrow and fearful and limited by the historical and contemporary actions of “those who think they are white” come through repeatedly and tragically. The book is discouraging, but there is nothing else it could be. One can hope that Coates’s son, raised in a slightly more progressive time (or at least in a time when most people think they are being more progressive—white supremacists excepted) will help him have a better and safer life. But there is much to be answered for and much change needed before we can continue to overcome the national tragedy that is the way that black Americans have been and still are treated in this country—if it can be overcome. I gather that the author is not optimistic, although he is trying to see how he can be for his son’s sake, and no feeling of optimism is granted the reader. Coates is an excellent writer.

Seperate and UnequalSteven M. Gillon, Separate and Unequal: The Kerner Commission and the Unraveling of American Liberalism, 2018.
You would not think that a book about the work of a commission on the inner-city riots in the summer of 1967 would be that interesting, but this book is almost a page-turner, and it really puts things in perspective. When LBJ muscled Congress into passing the Civil Rights Act in 1964 (in part by allowing Southern segregationists to add amendments that took out a lot of its teeth), the economy was on the rise and hopes for the Great Society programs were high. The commissioners and staff who investigated the inner-city riots (Johnson was convinced that they showed a lack of gratitude on the part of African Americans for all he had accomplished for them) were shocked at conditions in the urban cores—conditions that few people outside those communities were aware of. Although some thought that increased attention to law and order was the answer, it turned out that police responses had in almost all cases begun and aggravated the intensity of the riots. And the report of the commission cited white racism as the underlying cause of the conditions that led to the riots. Unfortunately, the answer to almost all the problems was massive federal spending (due to nationwide racism and the pervasive history of racism) and desegregation of housing and employment in ways that many, if not most, white Americans were unwilling to consider. Spending on the Vietnam War was using up all the funds that might have gone to alleviate the plight of African Americans, even had the political will been present, and the economy took a downturn that further undermined possible funding. The author puts the commission’s work and report in the political and economic contexts of the time, and discusses how and why things have not gotten better, due to the militarization of the police, the so-called War on Drugs, the polarization of the American people through the Republican Southern Strategy that exacerbates racist fears, and other factors. He brings things forward to the Black Lives Matter movement and the partisanship of the electorate, and explains how the moment that could have allowed American liberalism to work toward solving some of the problems in the United States was lost.

NickeledBarbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, 2002.
The author spends a month each working at low-wage jobs (Merry Maids, Wal-Mart, waitressing, nursing-home caregiver, hotel housekeeping), so she can write a book about what life is like trying to support yourself on almost nothing. She seems surprised at how difficult it is to do that, even if you are sometimes working two jobs—and she had a couple of thousand dollars as a cushion against emergencies, was only supporting herself, had a reliable car, was a white, native speaker of English, and was able to pay first and last months’ rent and put down the security deposit required to get into an apartment (because she had money from her “real life”) in each city where she worked. I assume she had health insurance and other benefits from her other life, which were not offered by her employers to their actual workers. Although Ehrenreich tells the stories of the women she works with, including the demeaning aspects of some of their labor in wrenching detail, she does not seem fully invested in her experiment—she could walk away at any time. Further, she takes a superior tone toward those who are basically trapped in the jobs she spends a short time doing. Nor does she mention much about the sexual harassment that often comes with these types of jobs. While this book may be a good introduction to the world of low-wage work for those who have never had a job waitressing or housecleaning or the like, the author would have presented a more accurate picture of life in these difficult circumstances if she had cut her safety net and required herself to stick with one or two jobs for several months to a year, and live on that income alone, to make her life more like those of the women she tries to describe. Nevertheless, a valuable eye-opener and introduction to the difficulties of trying to live on next-to-nothing that resonates in part with those of us who have actually been forced to get by on these jobs.

I hope that readers of this blog will comment with recommendations for additional books that would help me learn even more about these subjects.