Inequality, Opportunity and Poverty

Published — December 21, 2021

These books tackled inequality in 2021

A year of deep looks at discriminatory systems in government, education, policing, poverty and media.


Editor’s note: If you purchase any of the books highlighted here using the links we provide, you’ll be supporting independent bookstores and 10% of your purchase price will go to the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative news organization focused on inequality. For other titles relevant to our work, check out Public Integrity’s recommendations at

A book version of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times work challenging a white supremacist framework for the nation’s founding leads a strong field of books published about inequality in the U.S. this year.

The 1619 Project is significant not just for its ambition in reframing how generations of white historians, educators, artists and media have depicted the nation’s founding on Indigenous land and the role enslaved people had in building it. The backlash also matters. Critics of the 1619 Project, who have used an inaccurately and broadly defined “critical race theory” as a bogeyman, aim to silence discussion and scholarship about the deep-seated and structural racism addressed in pretty much every other book we highlight here.

Other notable works on inequality published in 2021 tackle segregation in public colleges and universities, the racist roots of the Second Amendment, the discriminatory systems fueling and perpetuating poverty, mass incarceration and policing, and the design of America’s tax system.

The 1619 Project

Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project builds on the work she wrote and edited for The New York Times. In more than 600 pages of essays, poems and fiction, the work seeks to “reframe our understanding of American history by placing slavery and its continuing legacy at the center of our national narrative.”

An accompanying book for all ages, Born on the Water, is a “lyrical picture book in verse [that] chronicles the consequences of slavery and the history of Black resistance in the United States.”

The Whiteness of Wealth

In The Whiteness of Wealth, law professor Dorothy A. Brown explains how the country’s tax code helps drive the country’s enormous racial wealth gap. From what is taxed and what isn’t, to real estate, retirement savings and marriage, she presents evidence of a system rigged against Black Americans.

The State Must Provide 

Adam Harris, a staff writer for The Atlantic, details the country’s violent fight to keep Black Americans from getting a college education. The State Must Provide explores the origins of historically Black colleges and universities and the funding disparities and double standards that persist to this day.

Broke in America

In Broke in America, National Diaper Bank Network founder Joanne Samuel Goldblum and  journalist Colleen Shaddox dissect the persistence of American poverty with chapters on discriminatory systems faced by families trying to access water, food, housing, electricity, transportation, personal hygiene and health care.

The Second

After writing the book on modern voter suppression and the through-line from Jim Crow to Trump’s election (One Person, No Vote), and a masterful look at the pattern of white backlash to civil rights gains (White Rage), Emory University professor Carol Anderson was back this year with The Second. It argues that the Second Amendment was “engineered to deny the rights of African Americans since its inception.”

Public Integrity spoke to Anderson following the “not guilty” verdict in the recent Kyle Rittenhouse trial and just before the convictions of three white men for the murder of Black jogger Armaud Arbery. 

“We’re seeing basically the roots of slavery operating in our courts today,” she said. “So what the Rittenhouse decision was about was that you could have white vigilantism and it could do the work of containing and controlling Black lives.”

We Do This ’Til We Free Us

With We Do This ’Til We Free Us, Mariame Kaba, an activist and educator who has worked to end youth incarceration, makes the case for abolition — of prisons, of police departments as we know them, of the country’s system of criminalization and justice — in this collection of talks, interviews and essays.   

News for the Rich, White and Blue

University of Illinois professor Nikki Usher challenges American journalism’s popular understanding of itself as a force helping the disadvantaged and powerless in News for the Rich, White and Blue. It depicts a media ecosystem run by journalists out of touch with the lives of regular people and making business model choices and investments that are widening the gap in access to quality information.

The Essential Kerner Commission Report

Jelani Cobb, a staff writer at the New Yorker, has made a landmark government report, published at a flash point in the country’s civil rights movement in 1968, accessible for a 2021 audience in The Essential Kerner Commission Report. In a new introduction to the report, which is rare for an official government report in how blunt it was in confronting systemic racism and police violence, Cobb shows how the report’s recommendations were mostly ignored in the years and decades that followed.

Looking for more? Other essential reads from the recent past include:

  • The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein’s 2018 look at redlining and housing discrimination.
  • Caste, an Oprah’s Book Club selection last year by Isabel Wilkerson of Warmth of Other Suns acclaim. It compares America’s history of racial discrimination to caste systems in India and Nazi Germany and shows through stories of real people the impact it still has on everyday life.
  • From Here to Equality, by Duke professor William A. Darity Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen. Published last year, the book details the failure of Reconstruction and lays out the case for meaningful economic reparations for American descendants of slavery.
  • Dog Whistle Politics, by University of California-Berkely professor Ian Haney López. It explains the appeal of Trump’s politics in 2015 before he swept into office using the tactics of racial resentment the book details from the Reagan and Nixon eras and beyond. 
  • Dying of Whiteness, by Jonathan Metzl. The book, published last year, includes extensive interviews with struggling white Americans who, because of the racial resentment politics described in López’s book, support politicians and policies that are literally killing them.

Matt DeRienzo is editor in chief of the Center for Public Integrity. He can be reached at

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