On Monday, May 25, George Floyd was killed during his arrest by Minneapolis Police Department officers Derek Chuavin, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane, and Tou Thao. I, like many other people around the world, were sickened by the death of George Floyd. As well as the murder of Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, and so many other unarmed black people killed at the hands of U.S. police officers.
As my social media filled with posts about racism in America and white privilege, I realized that I didn’t really know anything about the long history of racism and white privilege. I live in a very diverse town and was never taught to treat someone differently or see someone as inferior based on their skin color. It wasn’t until the Charlottesville protests in 2016, being disgusted by the hate that was occurring a mere two hours away from my house, that I really realized how alive racism is in this country.
Following George Floyd’s death, I strived to educate myself as much as I could on systemic racism, white privilege, and the history of oppression in America. I knew I couldn’t be an ally or properly advocate without truly knowing what has happened to explain how we got here, and how it’s still so bad.
In my quest of educating myself, I read some award-winning books and watched some of the rawest documentaries. This brief list is just a few of the many resources out there on systemic racism in the U.S. that are truly eye-opening and quite honestly, terrifying.
Stamped from the Beginning
Written by Ibram Kendi, scholar of race and policy in America, Stamped from the Beginning won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction. This was the heaviest read I’ve read in a while, but in my opinion, it’s the best resource of the ones listed.
The 700-page book is an in-depth analysis of American history and racism that shows how generational thought has caused so many people in the U.S. to have racial biases without realizing. Kendi details the history of racism and discrimination in the U.S., dating back to the slave trade. He chronicles this history through five Americans’ life stories: Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Angela Davis. With each one, Kendi shows how even those who helped the civil rights movement or the slave trade may have contradicted their advocacy and advanced or challenged racist thinking.
Although in many American classrooms, it’s generally taught that following the civil rights movement, things got better. But Kendi argues that racism today is far more entwined in our society’s thought, even though a black president was elected.
Overall, this book was a phenomenal account of anti-black racist thinking and discriminatory policy in American history that shows the intricacies of systemic racism, and how they continue to stay alive. If you are going to pick this up, don’t be intimidated by the number of pages. This book exposed how much I wasn’t taught in school when I really should have. It made me understand so much more about the society I live in and how things that happened hundreds of years ago impact my own thinking.
This documentary, like Stamped from the Beginning, analyzes the history of racist anti-black thinking and policy in America, but focuses specifically on the 13th amendment and the prison and criminal justice systems. A group of activists and scholars discuss the history of the U.S. prison system and how it really began.
The 13th amendment outlawed slavery with the exception of it as a punishment for committing and being convicted of a crime. This exception provided a loophole at its establishment to continue to treat black people in the U.S. as slaves immediately following the Civil War by arresting them on extremely minor, or even nonexistent crimes. The 13th amendment wasn’t even ratified by all states initially: the ratification in Mississippi didn’t become official until 2012.
This explains the root of the racial bias that all black people are criminals: with the mass incarceration of black people immediately following the Civil War and continuing through the civil rights movement – and even to today – has allowed this bias to exist and will remain unless there is a massive restructuring to the justice system and an overall dismantling of racist biases.
The documentary also touches on the Jim Crow Laws and segregation, detailing how this combined with the flaws in the criminal justice system have permanently plagued the country with the racist view that black Americans are somehow inferior.
The documentary is extremely well researched and put together. The voices of several different people explaining how systemic racism is in the criminal justice system, accompanied by clips of lynching’s, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), and police brutality is heart breaking and eye opening.
Between the World and Me
This brief 152-page book, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, is a letter to his son discussing the realities of living as a black man in America. Coates pulls from his own experiences growing up in Baltimore, after his son was born, and when he met Mabel Jones, the daughter of a sharecropper.
Coates tells that he was constantly in fear of violence from both police and the streets while growing up. As he got older, he worried about code-switching: In linguistics, code-switching is when you alternate between different languages in conversation. In Coates’ case, it was to align with the varying social norms in different settings like the professional world and the streets. Coates also tells about something he calls “the dream.” He argues that white people experience the dream – a sort of picture-perfect life – and are able to do so through white privilege, but are often ignorant of it because realizing the history of slavery and oppression and how they gained from it will ultimately shatter the dream.
The underlying tone of the book is very bleak. To Coates, although racial biases could improve, white supremacy is not something that will go away – it’s something that black people will continue to struggle with.
Time: The Kalief Browder Story
This docu series consisting of six episodes, also on Netflix, shows more about the criminal justice system and the biases against black men. This documentary makes the topic personal by telling the story of Kalief Browder and showing the violence he faced in jail and the pain that his family went through.
In 2010, 16-year-old Browder was arrested by the New York Police Department for allegedly stealing a backpack. After being questioned for only a brief period of time, Browder was sent to Rikers Island where he was beaten, placed in solitary confinement, and was stuck there for three years. Browder was offered a deal to plead guilty and could go back home, but he couldn’t admit to grand larceny, assault, and robbery when he hadn’t done a thing. Eventually, all charges were dropped. But the trauma that Browder experienced in Rikers Island for those three years led to his suicide in 2015.
This documentary is heartbreaking. It’s one thing to watch a documentary like the 13th where they discuss the problems with the justice system, but it’s completely different when you listen to firsthand accounts and witness the pain it has caused on just one family.
As I watched all of these documentaries and read these books, I came to the grave realization that racism had lived in so many aspects of my life and I hadn’t even recognized it. So much American history that I should’ve learned, was just conveniently left out in my many history classes that made me believe that racism was not as big of an issue any more. I think it’s incredibly important for everyone to recognize this and educate themselves on the true history of racism and oppression in this country, because otherwise there’s no way that we as a country will grow.