This guest article is by ELGL member Matt Hirschinger, Colorado local government and DEI professional. Read all of Matt’s other articles at the Social Justice –> Government homepage.
Some time ago, I participated in ELGL’s “Hard Conversations About Race” Cohort. At the end, we received a list of book recommendations to continue our learning either from books that centered around race and other topics of diversity or were adjacent in that they discussed matters such as our conceptions of success and modern political rhetoric.
Below is my top lesson from each of these books, hopefully to spark interest for more people to check them out, or at the very least offer some food for thought.
“The Color of Law” by Richard Rothstein
Of every book I’ve read on social justice both on this list and outside of it, “The Color of Law” is the most applicable to local governments. It is one of the few places I’ve seen that discuss examples of how local governments intentionally and systematically contributed to our problems today regarding inequality and inequity as opposed to treating it as a national or regional (particularly Southern) issue. Its coverage of land use and planning is especially comprehensive.
The lesson I learned is that those of us in local government are not inherently part of the solution, are not automatically “public servants” simply because our salaries are paid from public funds. We must earn our place to be on the right side of history or else we will be on the wrong side.
“Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” by Carol S. Dweck
Leading with the theory that we approach life with either a growth mindset or a fixed mindset, this book pushes us to reflect on how we tackle some aspect of our lives ready to fail, learn, and come back stronger while other things we arbitrarily decide are due to natural talent only and there’s nothing we can do. All of us at different points have a growth mindset and a fixed mindset, and that we thrive far more with the former.
As I write this, it’s been near three years since the murder of George Floyd acted as the catalyst, as the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, leading to nation-wide protests and the call to action. Many of us have thrown ourselves into learning more about matters of equity and social justice these past few years while others remain convinced that they “just don’t get it” despite the endless resources available. The main takeaway from this book is one of the causes for this lack of initiative.
“Outliers: The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell
This book challenges our preconceived notions of how to be successful, of the idea that it is hard work (and sometimes “working smart”) alone that leads to success. We all need some degree of opportunity, or help, and this book shares what it is. From how the ultra-rich were just in the right time at the right place, to how those seemingly disadvantaged still had the right circumstances to help them overcome it, Malcolm Gladwell demystifies our rags-to-riches tales.
The lesson I took away was how to respond to the common pushback on diversity and inclusion efforts that people need to pick themselves up by the bootstraps, or just work harder, or better themselves, or any other argument that suggests that wealth = merit.
“Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism & Wrecked the Middle Class” by Ian Haney Lopez
Dog whistle politics follow a predictable and effective pattern. Say something that we can expect to be interpreted as bigoted, wait for the backlash, then claim we were misunderstood and it’s “PC culture” or “wokeness” that’s harming us. From McGovern to the modern day, the book shows historical highlights to how politicians have appealed to racial fears over generations.
My main lesson from this book is respect for how even simple tactics can divide and undermine efforts to make a more equitable society. We are foolish to think that being smarter or more clever guarantees success.
“Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America” by Ian Haney Lopez
A follow up to the last book, this one suggests that we need to talk about race and class problems together to effectively push for more progressive ideals. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, we can bring everyone along for the ride.
Most eye-opening was the book’s discussion of how most Americans are a contradictory blend of liberal and conservative ideals. Most of us will nod our heads to both attack against corporate greed and welfare states, will celebrate both projects to lift communities and the tenacity of an individual to beat the odds. The trick is how to pull on the common threads we want without tripping over the ones we don’t.
“Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” by Bryan Stevenson
The true account of a man who represented death row inmates, the story covers one client clearly wrongfully accused of murder along with other tragic cases the lawyer worked on. For those of us in privilege, the accounts are surreal to how such injustice can happen and how hard it is to repair and heal.
Above all the others on this list, “Just Mercy” offers a lesson of what’s at stake. Beyond numbers and historical accounts are stories of real people facing terrible oppression and we as a society aren’t doing enough about it yet.
“I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness” by Austin Channing Brown
This reading offers the perspective of a professional, a woman, a Black American navigating her working and religious life in the face of racism. We see from her lens the hypocrisy that calling someone out for being rude or thoughtless can end up causing management to lash out against the wrong person. We see how white fragility plays out, and how it creates harm.
Anger. Reading the author’s chapter on “Creative Anger” was cathartic. Our feelings are valid, we should be angry at inequities, and we owe it to ourselves to channel our anger (along with any other emotion) to do what’s right.
“My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies” by Resmaa Menakem
Written by a social worker, this book focused on the physical as opposed to the mental. The author points out how we can physically react to those who are different than us, act with our “lizard brain” in ways we don’t realize. Connecting this phenomenon to centuries of abuse, the book offers us insights in how to physically heal so that we can better take in the more academic and philosophical arguments to further equity and inclusion.
As someone who leans heavily into the philosophical, this book challenged my way of thinking. It affirmed that we need to focus on physical needs when we train others in diversity, not just appeal to their higher ideals.
“Radical Candor: How to Get What you Want by Saying What you Mean” by Kim Scott
The author’s main goal is to show us that we must be direct in our feedback and also care about people to have the best results. Some in leadership are direct but don’t care and act like jerks which can create short term success but ultimately fail in the long term. Even worse according to the author is to care but not be direct, letting problems at work and elsewhere fester until they are too big to fix and people are fired and businesses crumble.
I, like many, have fallen into the habit of caring about people, but also protecting their feelings to the point of not offering direct feedback. My biggest lesson is reflecting on how I was never served by those who cared but weren’t direct with me, and how I have to do better with being direct myself, including when working for greater equity.
There are other great books I’d recommend, and plenty of other reading lists out there. My ask is not for everyone to read every book on this list and beyond (though you certainly can). My ask is to learn, to grow, to take the initiative to read what will be most helpful to each of us to make a better impact.