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The New Jim Crow has been on my to-read list forever. It’s a much-cited work about mass incarceration published back in 2010, and I’m so glad I finally read it because I think it’s a foundational text, and a lot of other books I’ve read build on the ideas Alexander presents.

Alexander acknowledges the difficulty inherent in promoting the rights of convicted criminals. Criminals, she points out, are the only caste of people that we’re all allowed to openly despise. It’s very easy to argue that if people, specifically black men, don’t want to be incarcerated, they simply shouldn’t commit crimes. Alexander dismantles that argument by showing all the factors that lead many black men to commit crimes and why they are more likely to be arrested for those crimes. She also drives home the point that white people commit drug crimes at equal or higher rates than black people do, but are far less often arrested and imprisoned. She rightly points out that we are all criminals; we have all broken the law at some point. That hit me especially hard, as I got a speeding ticket the same week I read those words.

I had already read about the War on Drugs from a policy standpoint in Dog Whistle Politics by Ian Haney-Lopez, but Alexander’s focus on the impact of that policy on individuals was enlightening in a whole new way. I had no idea of the costs of being branded a felon, how many rights are taken away, sometimes for the rest of people’s lives. I also hadn’t given much thought to the effect of denying convicted felons the ability to get affordable housing, quality employment, and government benefits. It seems patently unfair to release people from prison and expect them not to reoffend when we provide no support whatsoever to help them rebuild their lives. Also, if you’re not convinced mandatory minimum sentencing laws are terrible, read this book and learn just how draconian they can be.

This book dovetailed nicely with another of my recent books, Reading With Patrick by Michelle Kuo. The general points made by Alexander were illustrated on a personal level in Kuo’s experiences with her former student, who was imprisoned for murder. Both authors humanize people who commit crimes, showing the social and political forces that led to their incarceration and making a compelling case for clemency. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative would be another great pairing, as would White Rage by Carol Anderson.

One of the biggest questions this book leaves me with is: what can I do to help? Alexander admits that a full answer to that question is beyond the scope of her book, but she does discuss what a new civil rights movement will need to look like in order to be successful. She says the fight needs to go beyond the courtroom and isolated cases and become a grassroots movement of the people. I thought this was incredibly prescient, as the book was published well before the advent of Black Lives Matter, a movement that in many ways seems to be exactly what Alexander was envisioning. It makes me even more eager to read the recently published memoir of one of the movement’s founders, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, titled When They Call You a Terrorist.


I don’t know about you, but I’ve been angry lately. My anger grew slowly over time, but it recently billowed up so big that I found I couldn’t handle even teeny tiny things going wrong in my life without having a gritted teeth, pillow-punching meltdown. It’s not a good way to live. Every time I’d read the news, every time I’d think about the ways in which life has gotten harder for vulnerable people in the past year, my rage would grow. It’s kind of crazy to me how something on a big scale, like the goings-on of the federal government, can result in me not being able to handle things in my life on a small scale, like extending other people basic courtesy. I want to be an informed citizen and voter, but I also need to be able to make small talk with my coworkers and smile at waitstaff at restaurants and not be a G-D Eeyore all the time at home with my husband. (He’s been very patient.) So I did what I always do. I bought some books.

The news cycle can be emotionally exhausting, but books allow you to sit with one topic for longer than five minutes. They provide thorough analysis instead of drive-by outrage, and--get this--sometimes they even pose solutions to society’s troubles. I’m not going to opt out of the news completely, but I do appreciate how books have allowed me to more deeply engage with issues while giving me hope for the future and basically not turning me into a puddle of gloom.

So here are some recommendations for books that made me a better person. As always, your mileage may vary, but it’s a good place to start.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

Powerful men who have used their positions to hurt women are being called out left and right these days, which is exciting and empowering but also distressing because we’re finally seeing how pervasive that kind of behavior is. This book ponders what would happen if women were able to physically overpower men. Teenage girls throughout the world suddenly have the ability to send electric shocks from their fingertips, and as the mysterious power spreads to adult women as well, the balance of the world begins to shift. Told through the eyes of a handful of compelling characters, The Power will make you question everything you think you know about gender politics.

Dog Whistle Politics by Ian F. Haney-Lopez

At first I wasn’t sure how relevant this book would feel to me considering it was published before the 2016 election, but it turns out dog whistle politics aren’t new at all, they’ve just become more overt in the Trump era. Haney-Lopez’s analysis of how politicians on both sides of the aisle have exploited the fear, anger, and suspicion of white people to garner votes and control the electorate provides useful context for people who are dismayed by the blatant bigotry they see in our country today. While I thought Haney-Lopez fell short when it came to his promised solutions, understanding the historical context goes a long way towards building a vision for the future, so that in itself makes the book a worthwhile read.

The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell by W. Kamau Bell

I love rambly memoir-style books written by comedians, and W. Kamau Bell’s riff on the genre does not disappoint. Bell covers everything from being raised by an activist mom who spoke to him like an equal, to his long, slow journey to becoming a successful comedian doing shows that are true to himself and his values, to his marriage to a white woman and parenting his biracial daughters. In performing the audio version, Bell comes across as affable and genuine, and he is willing to own his mistakes even as he learns to hold others to a high ethical standard.

The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae

Issa Rae has had an interesting life, and she still has a lot ahead of her. By my math, she had just turned 30 when this book was published, but she’s well traveled and has some impressive creative achievements under her belt. She tells stories of going to private schools, busting out her fluent French at a dance club in Senegal, and meeting with studio execs to pitch shows with a casual air. Would her memoirs have carried more oomph if she’d waited a little longer to write them? Probably. But she has some funny stories to tell and a unique voice, and I always love stories of people who know what they want to do with their lives and are willing to take risks to make it happen.

Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown

I have been aware of Brené Brown’s work for a while now but had put off reading her because sometimes self-help seems a little too...something for me. I’m very committed to the idea that I am perfect in every way and therefore need no help of any kind. I’m also cynical and get squicky when venturing too far into feelings territory. Of course, since Brown has made a career of studying vulnerability and shame, reading her book challenged me a lot and made me consider some uncomfortable ideas. The themes of Braving the Wilderness are seemingly contradictory: finding belonging and gaining the courage to stand alone. But Brown explains how the two are inextricably tied together. While I’m still wrestling with some of her claims, and I’m not sure I’ll ever fully agree with her on everything, I did take away one tidbit that for me was worth the cost of the book all on its own. She talks about how when we’re afraid, we want to cover the entire world with leather so that when we run up against things, they won’t hurt us. But of course that’s bound to fail because we can’t control everything about the world. Instead, we should put our shoes on. It’s a simple metaphor to express a simple idea, that we can only control ourselves and not the people or systems around us, but I realized I had been wasting a godawful lot of energy trying to bend and contort and force my world to be more accommodating of me, when what I should have been doing was armoring myself up a little bit.