I’m taking us back to 2021 for this one! Keep reading to see a brief summary about the books that were my favorite and why.
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
In his book, Desmond uses rigorous sociological research and ethnography to show the brutal truth of poverty in America. It is written so well and does a fantastic job of capturing the individual experiences of tenets and landlords while at the same time showing how their experiences and decisions are intertwined. The stories are so unbelievable that they almost read like fiction. Fortunately I live worlds away from what was described in these pages so the truth of it, the unforgiving honesty in the facts, was equal parts shocking and depressing.
Every single person in this story made questionable decisions in at least one way, shape, or form and made it somewhat impossible to ever really feel sorry for them. You want to side with the landlord as they deal with tenets who don’t pay the rent but manage to buy drugs, cigarettes, and alcohol – but at the same time you want to scream when she charges people $600 to live in uninhabitable conditions. You feel for a tenet who is in need of mental health services until she becomes one of the oldest clichés in the history of the food stamp recipient – spending her entire month’s sum of assistance on one lobster and king crab dinner. At the end of the day, however, you have to keep reminding yourself as you read this book that no one is perfect. For a raw and real look at the cycle of poverty in America, read this. It’s so good I may read it again.
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein
Rothstein’s book provides an extensive look at what led to the nation’s cities and suburbs becoming racially divided. He argues that it was de jure segregation, not de facto, that led to discriminatory laws and policies. For those who may be unfamiliar with those two terms, de facto segregation happens as a result of individual prejudices, income differences, or the actions of private institutions like banks and real estate agencies. De jure segregation happens through laws and policy decisions passed by local, state, and federal governments. Throughout the book, Rothstein provides example after example of policies put forth by local, state, and federal governments that disrupted the integration of middle class white and black Americans’. Examples of de jure given by Rothstein include undisguised racial zoning, public housing that purposefully segregated previously mixed communities, subsidies for builders to create whites-only suburbs, tax exemptions for institutions that enforced segregation, and support for violent resistance to African Americans in white neighborhoods. This book makes a thorough argument for the US government’s role in the racial segregation of neighborhoods.
The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death, and America’s Dilemma by Alex Kotlowitz
Kotlowitz’s book takes us to western Michigan, specifically St. Joseph and Benton Harbor and offers a bleak account of race relations in the United States. While these two towns are only separated by the St. Joseph River, they are vastly different: St. Joseph is a prosperous lakeshore community and 95% white, while Benton Harbor is impoverished and 92% black. One day the body of a black teenaged boy from Benton Harbor is found in the river, and the investigation into his death reveals suspicions, anger, and distrust amongst the residents of both towns. Residents of Benton Harbor thought his death had something to do with race; St. Joseph residents thought he somehow fell in the river accidentally. Kotlowitz explores numerous avenues that contribute to these theories that exist within the towns, one of which is the trial of a white police officer from St. Joseph accused of shooting an unarmed black man. Also discussed was a Benton Harbor school board election in which the the superintendent was trying to remove the two white members of its board. Kotlowitz’s account portrays the lives and hopes of the towns’ citizens as they wrestle with this mystery – and reveals the attitudes and misperceptions that cripple race relations throughout America.
In June of last year, Kotlowitz shared in an article in The New Yorker that St. Joseph police reopened the case into McGinnis’s death – someone had come forward claiming to have witnessed his last moments. Read more of Kotlowitz’s article here:
Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America by Beth Macy
You may have heard or even watched Dopesick on Hulu. The limited series was based on this book by Beth Macy, which is a fantastic, well-researched book about opioid crisis. Through heartbreaking portraits of the families struggling to navigate through this epidemic, narratives from prosecutors attempting to hold those responsible accountable, and doctors trying to sound an alarm while saving their patients, Macy explores how Oxycontin exploded out of control in the small towns that make up Central Appalachian. Her ability to connect and gain the trust of the addicted, the grieving families, the exhausted medical professionals, and even a convicted heroin dealer shows her strengths as a reporter. According to Macy, the roots of the epidemic stem from multiple factors, a few of which are below:
- The government mandating that physicians make adequate pain control a priority
- Purdue Pharma, who aggressively marketed Oxycontin to doctors as effective without causing dependency. They also hid evidence that this was a highly addictive drug
- Some physicians writing large amounts of the narcotic Oxycodone, often for minor procedures
What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City by Mona Hanna-Attisha
In a story full of tragedy and negligence yet hope and resilience, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha shares her story of how she, alongside researchers, families, and parents, discovered that the residents of Flint, Michigan were drinking water that was contaminated with lead. Her discovery was met with backlash and doubts from her own government, yet she continued to fight for her patients and the disadvantaged residents of Flint. She knew that her scientific results were accurate and the rising blood levels of lead in Flint’s children were real. Hanna-Attisha argues that social-economic factors and government motivations/biases contributed to the why and how this catastrophe happened. It may seem cheesy, but this story is a great example of fighting for what you know is right, even if everyone around you doesn’t believe you. If Hanna-Attisha hadn’t listened to the evidence, conducted studies, and presented it, who knows how long Flint residents would’ve continued to consume lead-tainted water. While the story of the water crisis will make you angry and sad, you will be inspired by Hanna-Attisha’s (and others) perseverance in bringing the crisis to light and fighting the indifference and opposition, not stopping until the water supply was changed back and a remediation was put in place to help those affected the most – the children.
Why I really enjoyed these books…
I loved these books for a variety of reasons, but one of the main ones is all of them used facts and evidence to tell compelling stories about race, poverty, and even greed. I was able to use information I learned from one book to further understand information in the other books. I love learning new information through both qualitative and quantitative data, and Evicted, The Other Side of the River, and What the Eyes Don’t See use both. All of the authors presented the data and information effectively, and provided ample stories and examples to show, not just tell. The stories made it so much more personal and added necessary emotion to books filled with statistics, data, and background on policies/laws.
Look for a post soon about my reading goals for this year and what books I want to read!