We Are Not Yet Equal: Understanding Our Racial Divide

Book review by
Lucinda Dyer, Common Sense Media
We Are Not Yet Equal: Understanding Our Racial Divide Book Poster Image
A must-read history of racism and oppression in America.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Even for teens who read history, there's a lot to learn, particularly in long, detailed section on Reconstruction that describes how President Andrew Johnson (who felt America should be "a country for white men") resisted efforts to protect lives or civil rights of blacks in former Confederate states. Readers who've grown up with classmates from many ethnic backgrounds may be shocked at astonishing amount of hate, violence generated by Brown vs. Board of Education and subsequent efforts to desegregate schools not only in South but also in North.

Positive Messages

If we honestly confront and learn from our past, there can be hope for a future with true equality for all.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Overflowing with countless stories of brave men, women who risked and often gave their lives seeking freedom, equality. Role models from the very small (6-year-old Ruby Bridge bravely showing up to the first day of class at an all-white school) to the towering (Thurgood Marshall, who successfully argued Brown vs. Board of Education before the Supreme Court and went on to become a Justice of that same court).

Violence

When writing about these periods in American history, terrible violence is a given. Black men, women, sometimes children are routinely lynched, murdered. In Georgia in 1918, a "five-day lynching orgy." Homes, businesses are destroyed by white mobs. Some instances graphically and shockingly described: body parts from lynchings given out as souvenirs; a pregnant woman lynched, set afire, mutilated.

Sex
Language

The "N" word is used throughout the book.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A chapter entitled "Crack" details the events that set in motion a drug "plague" that would devastate black communities across America.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that We Are Not Yet Equal: Understanding Our Racial Divide is the young adult adaption of Carol Anderson's White Rage, a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. The book examines five milestones of progress by the black community (Reconstruction, the Great Migration, Brown vs. Board of Education, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, and the election of Barack Obama) that were met by such racist and violent responses from white citizens, lawmakers, and judges that those hard-earned successes were rolled back. Violence is constantly in the background of the book (lynchings, murders, the burning of black homes and businesses). Several instances, including the lynching and mutilation of a pregnant woman, are graphically described. This is a riveting and timely history of America's racist past and present.

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What's the story?

WE ARE NOT YET EQUAL looks back at five pivotal moments in American history -- Reconstruction, the Great Migration, Brown vs. Board of Education, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, and the election of Barack Obama -- when black Americans saw a chance to gain full equality but had that dream shattered by "white rage." Although the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution passed after the Civil War promised freedom from slavery, full citizenship, and the right to vote (black men only), the era of Reconstruction would see President Andrew Johnson and white Southern lawmakers and judges do everything in their power to deny black Americans those rights. During the Great Migration, 1915-1940, some 1.5 million blacks moved to the North seeking both equality and economic opportunity. The reaction in the South? When violence, threats, and laws couldn't stop the exodus, local officials literally stopped trains from running and tore up the tickets of black travelers. In the North, new arrivals often found themselves forced into segregated neighborhoods and schools by white communities unwilling to welcome them. In 1954, Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court case that ruled racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, gave rise to more violence as Southern school districts and lawmakers refused to abide by the court's ruling. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were hailed as a turning point for America, but led to state laws that disenfranchised millions of black voters. The book ends with the election of Barack Obama, the subsequent rise of campaigns against so-called voter fraud laws requiring IDs to vote, the shootings of young black men, and the 2013 Supreme Court decision that Anderson says "gutted" the Voting Rights Act. A brief epilogue notes the election of Donald Trump and the author's challenge to "rethink" what America might have become if all its citizens had equal access to education, housing, and the right to vote.

Is it any good?

This powerful, sobering, and often frightening look at almost 150 years of "white rage" against black Americans should be a must-read for teens and parents alike. We Are Not Yet Equal covers an enormous amount of historical territory and is filled with dates, events, and legal rulings that may be unfamiliar to many readers. But the book is above all a gripping and inspiring story of black men and women who were determined to make better lives for themselves and their children and refused to back down against staggering odds and violence.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the "white rage" detailed in We Are Not Yet Equal. Do you agree with the author that this rage is still a problem in America? Have you ever seen that kind of hate in your community or school?

  • Do you think you would've had the courage to be one of the first black students at an all-white school and be escorted to class by police because of threats against your life? Then to sit in class surrounded by students and even teachers who felt free to tell you how much they hated you?

  • The author wants you to think about what America would be like today if black Americans had been given the opportunity to vote, had equal access to good education, and been able to take advantage of economic opportunities long denied them. How would our schools, our government, and our neighborhoods be different?

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