This is an abridged version of a Facebook live broadcast by Asim Qureshi. You can watch it in full here:
We felt like it was important for us to make some kind of intervention around George Floyd’s execution by the police in the US. This is because you can’t decouple the notion of securitisation of Muslims from racist violence.
The policies that are enacted in the ‘war on terror’ don’t simply come out of thin air. It wasn’t like 9/11 happened, and all of a sudden there were these extremely repressive policies throughout the world that were being used to surveil Muslims.
That surveillance was built on a much older and larger architecture of racism and racist profiling, much of it originating during colonisation, and even before that within Europe.
But there is a specific form of racism that is taking place in America that has never really gone away, and which is embedded in the structures and the institutions of our society as well. It is also proliferating among the general public.
To understand it we need to think more deeply about where all of this came from. So to help us do that, we thought we’d give some ideas about books to read.
The obvious place to start is usually slavery and there are many books on the subject, but one that you should read is Sylviane Adiouf’s Servants of Allah, which is about the experience of Muslims who were transported to the Americas as slaves.
Then you’ve got Bilali Muhammad: Muslim Jurisprudist in Antebellum Georgia, written by Muhammed Abdullah al-Ahari and Bilali Muhammad, who was a Muslim who tried to hold on to his faith despite being a slave.
There’s some very good fiction with slavery as a central theme, Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, in particular stands out for me.
What follows here is by no means the definitive list of books on racism in America, but it has helped me to understand how racism works, and to draw lessons from trying to represent people caught up in the global ‘war on terror’.
1. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X Kendi.
This is a tome of a book, and it’s very dense, but what it does so well is to take racism at its narrative level, that is, Kendi looks at how the ideas that percolated deep in history came to be embedded within the discourse on racism in America, and within the constitution itself.
2- The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein
This book is really a meticulous presentation of the legal mechanisms that were used to systematically deny African Americans opportunities to escape poverty. Even things like the housing market, for example, or iniquitous mortgage arrangements were employed, or estate agents were pressured to sideline black people, and force them to live in certain areas, in ghettos, for example, to deny them access to opportunities.
3- The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr
Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the great civil rights activists of his era. He is often presented as quietist in his approach, but this is a misreading of his legacy. He was non-violent, but he built his own activism, and it didn’t mean that he wasn’t willing to take risks, or disobey unjust laws.
His letters from a Birmingham jail in particular are outstanding in the way he describes this conscience that we’re all supposed to have, that when we see unjust laws, which harm and drain the life out of all those who have been affected by them, the duty is to disobey the laws.
4- The Autobiography of Malcolm X
This is a life-changing read, because he writes in a way that really captures all of those innermost anxieties that I think most of us have about living in the West, especially as people of colour. There is this constant desire to be seen to be validated, to be part of wider society; nobody wants to live their life in a way that you feel exceptional, or that you feel spied upon. To read how he describes the transformations that he goes through, it enlightens your heart. It’s like having an intimate conversation, and you will see parts of yourself; you’ll read a snippet and you think: “I know exactly what that feels like”.
5- Assata by Assata Shakur
This book is by one of the top people on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, and it’s a profound book about a woman of the Black Liberation Army, a truly amazing individual who managed to escape her imprisonment in the end and who really fought a great deal for the rights of others. When you look at the history of the Black Panthers, at the history of these civil rights figures and the way in which they were trying to stand up, you see they had this amazing attitude of courage. They were defending their lives, but at the same time, there was serious intellectual work that went into understanding what moment they were in and making the most of that.
6- Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E Martin Jr
Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin have done some extensive work on this subject in this book, looking at all the biographies and autobiographies that were written by Black Panther Party members, and this book also includes extensive interviews with those who are still alive.
It is a thick book, and it’s not a light read. I think despite some of the reservations that I had with some of the narratives they were presenting, it’s an excellent account if you want to read one book that helps you to understand their legacy. The same tactics are being used against, not only CAGE, but a number of different activist groups within the UK. So we should be aware of how the state tries to delegitimise our work, to build resilience against those tactics.
7- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
Megg Alexander talks about the racial caste system in the US in this book, which is a really appropriate way of describing what we are seeing there right now. This book traces how in particular black men have become subject to the structures of law that are not there to really produce a safe society, but are there to over incarcerate – and this is a modern form of slavery.
If you look at the Thirteenth Amendment of the US Constitution, it specifically says that you cannot enslave anybody except for those convicted of a crime. By making exception for prisoners in terms of the way in which they can be treated by society, within a context where mass incarceration is taking place, and you add that to the private companies profiting from prisons, and governments wanting to make use of prison labour, it’s clear that there is a structure here that effectively enslaves people.
8- Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman Jr
I think this is one of the most devastating books that I’ve read on this subject. Forman is a lawyer who spent a lot of his time representing indigent black people. Here, he goes through the history of how privileged black people have been co-opted at stages to help cement the system of mass incarceration. This is why we need to be very careful about the way in which we as activists engage with the state. When we talk about institutionalised racism, people of colour can be just as complicit as anybody else, because it’s the structure itself that is racist, and it furthers it.
9- Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
Stevenson is a wonderful civil rights lawyer in America, and this book was recently made into a movie featuring the actors Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Fox. Here he explores the system of mass incarceration, but specifically the way in which black people are disproportionately given death penalty sentences. Projects like the Innocence Project exist in America specifically because of how problematic the legal system is when it comes to the death penalty. The way the prosecutorial system is constructed means that, rather than giving the benefit of the doubt, the aim is to try as hard as possible to attain a death penalty verdict. This is a very moving book, and beautifully written.
10 Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism by Safiya Noble
This was a very eye-opening book for me. I didn’t really know much about how racist algorithms are, and we are interacting with them on a daily basis. This book does an incredible job of helping to unpick how the racism that exists within liberal society is embedded within the coding of search engines. When we talk about structural racism, we’re talking about everything, even the tech industry, because the people who are coding in the first place have certain biases, and these biases become embedded in their programming.
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)