* “The Passing of the Great Race,” by Madison Grant (1916)
“Nigger Heaven,” by Carl Van Vechten (1926)
Van Vechten was the Harlem Renaissance’s ubiquitous white patron, a man as curiously passionate about showing off black people as zookeepers are about showing off their rare species. Through this best-selling novel, he gave white Americans a racist tour of the safari of Harlem, casting assimilated blacks in the guise of tropical exotic lands being spoiled by white developers.
* “The Weary Blues,” by Langston Hughes (1926)
“Gone with the Wind,” by Margaret Mitchell (1936)
The Pulitzer Prize-winning jewel of the plantation fiction genre, this was Americans’ second all-time favorite book behind the Bible, according to a 2014 Harris Poll. Mitchell portrays white enslavers as noble, slaves as shiftless, docile and loyal. Mitchell did for slavery what Dixon did for Reconstruction and Burroughs for Africa.
* “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” by Zora Neale Hurston (1937) and “Native Son,” by Richard Wright (1940)
“An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy,” by Gunnar Myrdal (1944)
As Americans fought against Nazism overseas, this Swedish economist served up an encyclopedic revelation of racial discrimination in their backyards. If there was a scholarly trigger for the civil rights movement, this was it. Myrdal concluded that “a great majority” of whites would “give the Negro a substantially better deal if they knew the facts.” Segregationists seethed, and racial reformers were galvanized to show the truth of Jim Crow.
* “Race: Science and Politics,” by Ruth Benedict (revised edition, 1943)
“To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee (1960)
This instant classic about a white lawyer defending a black man wrongly accused of rape was the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” of the civil rights movement. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy,” a neighbor tells the lawyer’s daughter, Scout. She’s talking about their reclusive white neighbor, Boo Radley, but the African-Americans of 1930s Alabama come across as singing spectators, thankful for the moral heroism of Atticus Finch. The white savior remains the most popular racist character in American letters.