December 3, 2020

Dispossession, White Fragility, Antiracism: Book Reviews

I am ignorant of a great many things. The interests and concerns of minorities in America are among them. I've spent my whole life, thus far, in a largely white male environment. Interactions with the few black friends in high school, college, at church, and at work were always civil, professional, and superficial. No one ever talked of the black struggle. Most people don't bring those things up in "polite company". Like religion and politics, such topics aren't always well received. That's too bad.

Anyway, over the last couple of years I have been intentionally seeking out voices I previously wouldn't have listened to, and reading stuff I normally wouldn't have read. I've begun researching, learning, and employing critical thinking and introspection over all that. I'm on a journey to understand racism and racist policies, how they are seen by and affect those impacted, how to not perpetuate it, and how to eliminate it. I invite you to join me on a similar journey of your own.

I recommend "Black in 2020", a webinar series from Duke University's Black Alumni Association, which you can find on youtube. It's an excellent series. I've also started watching movies and documentaries on this theme. Unfortunately, I didn't keep track of all that I've watched or my thoughts on them. 

I did make notes on some of the books I've read. Here are some of those notes. I highly recommend all of these books.

Dispossession: Discrimination against African American farmers in the age of civil rights. Pete Daniel. 2013.

Dispossession is a weighty tome, full of evidence of discrimination on the part of our own government, particularly the USDA, Farmers Home Administration (FmHA), and Farm Service Agency. I had no idea. Sure, I knew discrimination was all around, but I had no idea the extent to which it infiltrated our government or how it persisted into the 2000s. This book is backed up by evidence. It's almost nothing but documented case after documented case. 

It would have helped me to understand the cases better if I had first read a short history on those agencies, when they came into being, and what their purposes were supposed to be.

I originally named this blog post after this book because it was so impactful to me. Then I read some other books that were equally impactful.

Poppa Didn't Play That. Mildred Burrell. 2020.

Poppa Didn't Play That is a quick and delightful read. There are only a few mentions of racism and discrimination in this book. The book isn't about that. This book is about one particular family. It's about their family life. It's a human-interest story. I was glad to read this after reading Dispossession; I needed something lighter.

Black Farmers in America. Ficara & Williams. 2006.

Black Farmers is mostly a book of photographs of black farmers. I've enjoyed studying the photos, the people, what I can see on their faces and in the background. There is one long well-written essay included in the book that's well worth reading. 

White Fragility. Robin Diangelo. 2018.

Diangelo supports "the fashionable argument that blacks cannot be racist because they lack power". More on that when I discuss Antiracist below. Diangelo says that people of color may "hold prejudices and discriminate... but they lack the ... power that transforms that prejudice and discrimination into racism." (pg 22.) Therefore, she says, that only whites can be racist. I don't take offense at that. Most authors do well to carefully define their terms, and it helps to frame the topic.

Diangelo's point seems to be that White people don't need to get bent out of shape by discussions of race and racism. She says if "I understand racism as a system into which I was socialized, I can receive feedback on my problematic racial patterns as a helpful way to support my learning and growth." (pg 4.) "All humans have prejudice; we cannot avoid it." The problem is that we are taught that prejudice is bad and that only bad people are racist, that it's binary, either one is a racist or they are not. (ch 5.) We want to think of ourselves as good, moral people. Therefore, we won't admit to having prejudice, or any racist opinions or thoughts. Therefore, we shut down our self-awareness, don't reflect, and therefore can't entertain any thoughts of change -- we can't see or remove any bias or prejudice we have. "[A] simplistic definition of racism -- as intentional acts of racial discrimination committed by immoral individuals -- engenders a confidence that we are not part of the problem and that our learning is thus complete."

Diangelo then defines discrimination as action based on prejudice. She says that turns into racism when backed up by social or institutional power. "Racism is a structure; not an event." Racism goes beyond individuals and individual actions. "Racism is a system." "Ideology is reinforced across society..." (pg 20-21.) "Constantly reinforced."

"A racism-free upbringing is not possible, because racism is a social system embedded in the culture and its institutions. We are born into this system and have no say in whether we will be affected by it."  (pg 83.) So, don't feel guilty about the existence of this system. But do accept responsibility for our role in it. (pg 149.)

Diangelo doesn't try to solve the problem of systemic racism. She does try to get white people involved, to get us to see it, to learn how to think about it and talk about it, and how to not think and talk about it. This book has given me a great deal of appreciation for what black people go through daily. (I say that realizing that this book is written by a white person.) I would have gotten much less out of this next book, Antiracist, if I hadn't read White Fragility first.

How to be an Antiracist. Ibam X. Kendi. 2019.

Kendi takes "a refreshingly strong stand against anti-white racism in the book, rejecting the fashionable argument that blacks cannot be racist because they lack power", a quote from Coleman Hughes taken from the Wikipedia article on Kendi. I couldn't have said it better myself, other than to add that he takes on all kinds of racism beyond just black/white/color/ethnicity. In his book, Kendi walks us through his own journey of racism toward anti-racism.

Kendi defines antiracist as "one who is expressing the idea that racial groups are equals and none needs developing, and is supporting policy that reduces racial inequity." Antiracist ideas are better than segregation, integration, and assimilation.

But Kendi's main point seems to be that it's best to focus on racist policies because racist policies are the cause of societal problems. Policies create the culture. Racist policies support and perpetuate racism. Change the policies and you'll change the culture. Our upbringing here in the culture in the US makes us racist, all of us, regardless of gender or color. Kendi defines racist as "someone who is supporting racist policies or expressing racist ideas". We all do that in various ways at various times. We don't need to get defensive. Rather, let's admit it, confess it, acknowledge the source, and struggle to support antiracist ideas. "...racial inequity is a problem of bad policy, not bad people."

I had the most trouble with Kendi's chapters on gender-racism and queer-racism. "To truly be antiracist is to be feminist." I had to look up feminism: advocacy of women's rights on the basis of equality of the sexes. Ok. I can go along with that.

Kendi: "We cannot be antiracist if we are homophobic or transphobic." I had to look up homophobic, which in my mind is an unfortunate and unhelpful term because it's not really about a phobia, a fear. Rather, it's simply "dislike of or prejudice against gay people". The point is that whether queer or straight we're all human. 

My purpose in writing this blog post is to encourage everyone to read these books, particularly other white, evangelical Christian, males like myself. Therefore, let me editorialize for a bit. Hopefully, this will help you see that you can maintain your Christian beliefs and still get lots out of this book. This book is not anti-Christian. 

A Christian should be able to see any LGBTQIA individual as a human and love them. A heterosexual Christian should not see themselves as better than or superior to a homosexual. Christians see many things as sins and know that they themselves have committed most of them. Like Paul, a humble Christian might seem themselves as the "chiefest of sinners". There is so much that can be said on this difficult topic, but that's not the point of this post. Since I am writing to the white heterosexual evangelical, I think I can stop there. 

I support the liberty of religious organizations and certain small businesses. They should not be compelled to do things against their conscience, beliefs, and faith. The refusal to make a same-sex wedding cake lawsuits come to mind. Likewise, churches shouldn't be required to allow same-sex couples to rent their facilities. But I also believe that it's reasonable to allow same-sex couples to have the same health-care protections and allowances as heterosexual couples. What comes to mind is that if a hospital allows a heterosexual spouse into the ICU, then they should allow a same-sex partner into the ICU. Then comes the tax codes. This gets tricky. Maybe if Christians don't want benefits to be afforded to same-sex partners, then perhaps heterosexuals shouldn't get those benefits either. Just eliminate the benefit.  In any event, Christians demand allowances for religious beliefs. Individual Christians and their religous organizations don't have to support same-sex unions, and shouldn't feel bad about their convictions. In such a case, that would be an instance of not holding or supporting queer-antiracist ideas. But that's no reason for a Christian to not like this book or to avoid it. This concept isn't binary. No human can be completely anti-racist, in every instance, in every situation, and I believe the author agrees with that statement. Every Christian should read this book, and they'll get much goodness out of it. An intelligent person can hold multiple conflicting ideas in their head at the same time. 

In Conclusion

What surprised me the most about these books is that none of them made me mad. At no point did I get defensive. (Well, that's not true. I did get slightly defensive in a few cases, but I did what the books suggest, which is to self-examine why I got defensive. That helped me either acknowledge or even change a couple of unhealthy beliefs, attitudes. Then the defensiveness went away.) At no point did any of these books say I was a bad person. They each opened my eyes to some things that I was previously blind to, and for that I am grateful. I highly recommend all of these books.

Update 12/8/20

UNFORTUNATELY, whereas I was previously quite content in my ignorance, those books awakened and aroused in me white guilt. I have begun reading a book by that title, White Guilt, and I am now disturbed by how disturbed I've become beyond the level of which I was disturbed from reading those prior books. Bummer. Once I'm done reading that and perhaps Shelby's other book and possibly also a book entitled racism without racists, I'll post another update or another whole blog post.


  1. Thanks for posting this. I wanted to pick a good non-inflamatory analytical book on the subject read it to get a good understanding. What you described seem like worthy candidates.

  2. Thanks for sharing. Very thoughtful comments. I have read and appreciated the insights from the Kendi book. Need to add the others to my reading list! Would also recommend, "So you what to talk about race" by Ijeoma Oluo, if you haven't read it already.