“What if at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, we wrote that Jefferson was a racist, misogynist rapist who owned human beings, and had a really good library? What if his plaque said all of these things and that he was a founding father?”
Mary Dempsey fired off the question to the five other members of her Zoom-based book club one Tuesday night in late September. She wanted the group to examine America’s unconditional reverence for white men who did horrible things and question why the historical record was grossly unbalanced and whitewashed.
The members of her book club, all of whom were white and spread out across Washington, DC, and the Philadelphia region, included two parents and their daughter and three longtime friends. They met every six weeks to discuss a book, and that evening’s text was Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning With the Myth of the Lost Cause by West Point historian Ty Seidule. The conversation, however, had quickly taken them on a new tangent.
“I’d be really against that, Mary — putting out at the memorial that he was a disgusting guy as well,” Byron Fiman shot back. “I would put things about that in the history books, but being able to separate them: He was a wonderful leader, wonderful president, and a bad guy.”
“I don’t think he considered Blacks humans — they were something different,” Carmen Vaughan volunteered.
The discussion was just one of many the group has had since it launched along with a slew of other antiracist book clubs in June 2020, after the murder of George Floyd by a then-police officer in Minneapolis ignited massive racial justice protests around the world.
On social media, as cities from Portland to Miami became the sites of major uprisings, groups of white people, along with some people of color, joined together to announce their plans to read in order to fight racism and become aware of how inaction equals complicity. It wasn’t enough to be “not racist,” so many strived to be actively against racism — to be “antiracist.”
Dozens of Instagram profiles like “educators_antiracist_book_club,” “blmbookclubsc,” “abc_antiracist_book_club,” “antiracist_book_club_,” “antiracist_bookclub,” “anotherantiracistbookclub,” and “antiracistbookexchange” popped up, and hashtags like #whitefragilitybookclub became popular. The profile feeds were colorful, with inspirational quotes about the need to be brave and take the first steps toward antiracism.
Organizers established reading schedules, wrote lengthy inaugural posts to entice strangers, and posted surveys to determine their reading lists. They shared photos of authors for inspiration and snappy tweets from activists and thinkers, like one from author Ijeoma Oluo: “The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism. ... Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself.” On Facebook, the activity was identical — thousands of people in dozens of groups shared news articles and announced their plan to read books.
Members pledged to learn more about racial inequality, sending antiracism books flying off the shelves, including Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race, Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, and Carol Anderson’s White Rage.
By November 2020, however, when then-President Donald Trump was voted out of the White House, much of the chatter across these groups had slowed, with many profiles going completely silent by Black History Month in 2021.
Today, just a few of the antiracist book clubs formed during the height of protests soldier on. They’re taking their time to learn how America got this way — and why violent, racist terror persists — but are at a loss for how to incite change. Amid a backdrop of debate over critical race theory and Republicans’ attempts to ban antiracist teachings and trainings, they want to acknowledge and reckon with America’s racism, but they’re stuck under the weight of all the history they never learned.
The bonds of family and friends are one reason it felt natural for the DC-Philly book club to keep going, reading and regularly meeting to unpack new takeaways about the marginalization of people of color throughout American history. The conversation went in countless directions, displaying the group’s eagerness to cover ground, and after going through several rounds of circular discussion and debate, they arrived at a familiar dead end — one that was obvious, though perhaps not to some of them.
“How do you pierce that complacency of people who don’t have skin in the game? The people who, for example, are beyond childbearing age, so abortion isn’t an issue for them. Or they’re just white and privileged and this doesn’t affect them,” Carmen Vaughan asked the group. “Why is it that so many of us are so complacent?”
“Why are you that way?” her daughter, Emily, replied.
“Huh?” Vaughan asked.
“What have you done since the Texas abortion bill?”
“Right,” Vaughan acknowledged. “That’s a good question.”
Throughout August and September, I sat in on three antiracist book clubs, some of them several times. One had about a dozen members scattered across the country in cities such as Los Angeles, New York, and Wichita, Kansas. The group began as a small localized community of white women on Facebook in the wake of Floyd’s murder but expanded after several months with the addition of men and people of color.
They meet every week to discuss just one chapter of a book, taking their time to sit with what they’ve read and consider how it plays into their lives. Recently, they plowed through two dense chapters of Resmaa Menakem’s My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and discussed microaggressions — the subtle moments of discrimination that build up over time — and feeling helpless in the face of racism. Some white members opened up about moments they felt like they’d been racist in the past week, and members of color described the psychological toll of what it was like to be Muslim in the years after 9/11 or to be a Black girl facing racism at the hands of a high school teacher.
A virtual Virginia-based club of five (there are a total of 10 mostly white members who rotate in and out based on availability) used a lunch break to discuss their text — the six-hour PBS documentary Latino Americans — in honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month.
This club developed from a Facebook group of about 50 people, mainly colleagues in education, that came together in June 2020. The group has been strict about only reading books written by people of color: Crazy Brave: A Memoir by Joy Harjo, The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemison, On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed, and A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman.
Before sharing their thoughts on a subject, members would take several minutes to express gratitude for the group, pointing out how their conversations pushed them to make different choices in their everyday lives.
“We’ve spent a year and a half on this incredible journey of self-discovery, challenge, and accountability,” Shannon Goff, a Southern California-based member of the multi-time-zone club, said in a phone interview. “We’ve created a space where it’s safe to say, ‘I fucked up.’”
In phone calls, members told me that they want to overcome the insurmountable feeling of knowing so little. In some small way, they want to undo the one-sided education that has blinded them for far too long. Oppression runs deep in the annals of American history, they confirm each time they get together, and they act like archaeologists excavating tragedies buried deep.
Their continued effort is in direct contrast to a modern-day culture war being carried out in schools. As police killings gave birth to these book clubs, the outcry — and calls to understand systemic racism in the wider context of American history through undertakings like the New York Times’s 1619 Project — has inspired conservative pundits and legislators to carry out an agenda against critical race theory by introducing and passing legislation to counter its instruction.
In turn, any teachings that confront race, racism, discrimination, and slavery are being labeled as dangerous indoctrination, with consequences for teachers and school leaders. A Tennessee teacher was fired for teaching a poem about white privilege and a Ta-Nehisi Coates essay about Trump’s presidency negating Barack Obama’s; a Texas administrator told teachers that any books used to instruct students on the Holocaust had to provide “opposing perspectives”; the role of texts by Pulitzer Prize-winning Black women authors like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison in the classroom is being questioned.
Ultimately, student education stands to suffer the most. There’s growing backlash from the left, too, as critics blame “wokeness”— another hodgepodge term assumed to mean being too fired up about injustice — for Democrats’ inability to pass landmark legislation under President Joe Biden.
As some of the country pushes back against social justice progress, the book clubs try to hold the line. But they’re admittedly stuck in their own loop, their own pendulum swing of false progress. They so desperately want to gain knowledge — and they do — but to what end?
In one-on-one conversations with Vox, book club members said they were simply excited to dish about the facts that caused them the most intellectual distress, like federal housing policy that prevented Black people from building wealth through homeownership (learned from Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America) or that American Indians had developed sophisticated societies in the Western Hemisphere by the time Europeans razed their civilizations (learned from Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous People’s History of the United States), though they admit they don’t know what to do with the information.
“I’m now thinking about how nonwhites have experienced America,” John Vaughan of the DC-Philly book club said. “It never entered my consciousness. Until recently, I didn’t think too much about it.”
His wife agreed. “The books that we have read have brought home the enormity of the problem, how widespread and how deep it is,” Carmen said, who like her husband was reading books by writers of color for the first time in her life. “They have made me understand, finally, in my 70s, what institutional racism is. I never quite got that before. I was always thinking on a one-to-one level and missing the forest for the trees.”
“I don’t feel that I’m somehow obligated to do anything in particular. I don’t feel white guilt or anything like that. I’m conscious of all the injustice meted out by the white ruling class in this country. I’m aware of that,” John said. “I’m white, and I’ve been privileged all my life, and yet, quite honestly, I don’t feel personally guilty for anything. I didn’t personally do anything bad.”
They feel resigned to the same “benign neglect” that they’ve chosen their whole lives, the couple told me. But John, on his way to retirement, feels hopeful that he can pursue activities connected to social justice. Carmen, already retired, is still searching for what to do. “I march. I vote. But there’s still a feeling of futility. I have the best wishes to do something about it, but I really don’t know what. I’m a reader so, when in doubt, go read about it, I guess,” she said with a laugh.
The sentiment is the same for other people across the other book clubs. Many want to do more but say they can’t find the time. They’re also unsure of what more they can do.
Danielle Victoria, the founder of the Virginia-based book club, told me the experience has encouraged her members to call out racism when they see it and advocate for their students. For her, as a biracial, white-presenting woman, she’s learned more about the difficulties her Black father faces as he moves through the world. She worked with her fellow book club members to raise money for various causes and get active in local elections. “It’s made us much more compassionate and not so stuck in cancel culture,” she said.
Publishers greenlit a flurry of books about race and racism after observing demand for such stories skyrocket in 2020; the flood of books on the topic is expected to keep swelling into 2022. In late May 2020, sales of civil rights titles saw a jump of 330 percent and books about discrimination jumped 245 percent, according to the industry tracker NPD BookScan. Two books in particular were sold out everywhere: Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.
Both authors say they believe that more education about racism can move the country forward, but they caution that the book clubs can be a virtue-signaling trap.
“We can’t address a problem that we don’t recognize, but if reading is not followed by action, it is functionally meaningless,” DiAngelo said in a phone call. DiAngelo has been writing about whiteness for 25 years, she told Vox, but it’s her third book, White Fragility, published in 2018, that struck a nerve in 2020. Most of the book clubs Vox observed on Zoom and social media started with DiAngelo’s book, with some appreciating the context it provides and others taking issue with her tone.
One book club member, a white woman, told me that DiAngelo is not the right messenger on antiracism because DiAngelo is a white woman. Others have argued that the book is merely self-help that centers whiteness and doesn’t inspire greater outward action. DiAngelo recognizes her role in what’s been criticized as “the antiracism-training industry,” and said she expected that the public hoopla around antiracism reading would die down. (Kendi, too, has critics, who say his antiracism work as a Black public intellectual is part of a broader system that monetizes talking to white people about race, and that his quest to label policy as either racist or antiracist is flawed because it lacks nuance.)
“I worried this would happen,” DiAngelo said. “The media put it in front of people and people responded, but they aren’t responding now that the media isn’t putting it in front of them.” Plus, the comfort of racial apathy is highly seductive, she added, explaining that there’s an immediate excitement in getting involved and engaged, but that often, it’s not interesting anymore when it’s time to do the hard work. These book clubs involve a level of self-focused marveling — “Looking at ourselves is a form of whiteness, but we do have to look at ourselves,” DiAngelo said.
Kendi shared in DiAngelo’s hope for the promise of the book clubs to foster change. “I was pleased to see so many people deciding to organize themselves into groups to read these books together. At the same time, I knew that some people were organizing or joining them because it was the thing to do,” he told Vox. “I was hoping that while people joined because it was the thing to do, they might also end up being transformed.”
DiAngelo and Kendi are left with the question of what the decline in activity means. Is antiracism dead? Are people tired? Are some readers still just feeling relief over a presidential election that took place more than a year ago?
For DiAngelo, the shift in attention away from antiracist education is about how adaptive the system of racism is. “We can see that there was enough of a cultural shift that following the summer of 2020, the country almost looked like the pre-civil rights era — the Voting Rights Act has been fundamentally dismantled, that there are municipalities and school districts where it’s literally illegal to say racism exists,” she said. “That we can be in the place we are in now shows you how racism adapts. I hope that is sobering and reinforces how racism is highly protected. We can’t relax or let our guard down.”
Kendi said he believes the backlash against critical race theory has led some readers to be less public about their antiracism journeys. “In so many places in this country, people have been threatened and ostracized and ridiculed for simply wanting to educate themselves about the truth,” he said.
“I definitely think that the backlash against those of us who are writing about racism has had its effects,” Kendi added. “I think that the levels of engagement and attention now are not at the level that they were about this time last year.”
But the authors don’t want to discount the reading and learning that book club members have done.
“We do need to be able to trace the past into the present. If you see the past as separate from the present, you’re going to come up with deeply problematic explanations for current conditions,” DiAngelo said. And it always helps to be less racist in your personal life, especially when white people have the power to take years off the life of a person of color by packing on the stress that comes with racism. Being less racist on a personal level isn’t a small thing, DiAngelo said, but it isn’t going to change the structures that are curbing voting, for example.
“Awareness itself doesn’t necessarily lead to structural transformation,” Kendi said, sharing the recommendation that the book clubs use a session or two after reading a particular book to decide as a group or individuals how they are going to directly apply what they’ve learned to their lives. “That could be helpful because it builds into the structure of the book club, not just the reading, not just the growing awareness, but the actual action,” he said.
Organizing a protest matters, DiAngelo said, but she’d like to see people really think about their skills and see how they can effect change within their fields and local communities. But ultimately, the reading is a starting point that people must follow up on: “If you can’t see systemic racism and you can’t see your relationship to it, how are you going to challenge it?” DiAngelo said.
Antiracist book clubs aren’t the only thing on the wane. The latest polls on Americans’ attitudes toward Black Lives Matter show that support for the movement that surged in the immediate aftermath of Floyd’s murder quickly receded and has stayed the same for the past year, according to a Pew survey. Similarly, support has ebbed for defunding the police.
The decrease in support for these movements aligns with the nature of what is known as “white racial sympathy,” Jennifer Chudy, a political scientist at Wellesley College who studies white racial attitudes, told me. White racial sympathy is when a white person feels distressed over the suffering of a Black person or Black people, but history shows us that white racial attitudes aren’t stably sympathetic toward Black people, Chudy said, and are dependent on the type of Black person killed by an officer or the circumstances of the tragedy that happened to them.
This is why Chudy believes that the book clubs must serve as catalysts for future engagement in political change, not just spaces where white people avoid the “What next?” question of how to take their discussions from Zoom to the political sphere. If they’re not calling their representatives, attending protests, volunteering for campaigns, and voting for candidates who promote an antiracist agenda, they’re upholding the status quo, despite being steeped in antiracist literature, Chudy explained.
For Kendi, it’s imperative that, despite the current backlash against antiracism, we recognize that a critical mass of people still believe in racial justice and can deliver radical change. “Among those who continue to appreciate Black Lives Matter, do they now have a stronger awareness of the movement for Black lives? We should also pay attention to how supporters are even more firmly committed to building a different type of world,” he said.
DiAngelo says white people in book clubs should stay the course until they can be fundamentally changed. “People will often ask me, ‘What do I do?’ If you have integrated an antiracist perspective into your worldview, that becomes less of a question because it’s so much a part of how you see the world and how you respond to the world. And it becomes more of how to be in the world rather than ‘What do I do?’”
More than a year in, even Goff, the Southern California book club member, wasn’t so sure.
“Part of our frustration in the [book club] is that many members want to nip this thing in the bud,” Goff said, referring to systemic racism. “But it’s not going to happen. This is a long-term century’s change. Maybe by the time we reach the end of our lives, we’ll see the needle move more than a tiny bit.”