The Books Briefing: How to Remake America

A look at the country's profound fractures and what it might take to mend them: Your weekly guide to the best in books

Protesters march through the street on May 28, 2020 in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Stephen Maturen / Getty Images

The Constitution denied Danielle Allen’s enslaved ancestors the right to full citizenship—but she still believes in its ability to shape America for the better. Revisiting documents and moments from this country’s founding to parse how they can guide our future is the the central idea of The Atlantic’s new series “Making America Again.” The project offers a look at the United States’ profound failures (including current-day happenings such as the pandemic and racist police killings) and what it might take to mend them.

The staff writer Adam Serwer considers the failure of Reconstruction, drawing from historical texts such as The Dance of Freedom, by Barry A. Crouch, and The Death of Reconstruction, by Heather Cox Richardson. Serwer argues that today’s catastrophes offer the opportunity to finally remake America as a multiracial democracy. In Stakes Is High, which was excerpted in The Atlantic, Mychal Denzel Smith makes the case for sweeping reform, writing that incremental change won’t fix policing.

Some believe that the possibility for expansive reform after the pandemic may extend to other arenas as well. In The Riches of This Land, the journalist Jim Tankersley looks at what measures might help rebuild the middle class. Works such as Triumph of the City, from the economist Edward Glaeser, and The Race Underground, by the journalist Doug Most, provide insight into the ways that visionary responses to calamities have changed urban life before—and might change it again today.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.

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What We’re Reading

Djeneba Aduayom

The flawed genius of the Constitution
“The Constitution’s slow, steady change has regularly been in the direction of moral improvement. In that regard, it has served well as a device for securing and stabilizing genuine human progress not only in politics but also in moral understanding.”

📚 The U.S. Constitution
📚 Journals of the Continental Congress
📚 The Federalist Papers, by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay

Illustration by Arsh Raziuddin; photographs by Alex Lau; Earl Gibson III; Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times; Getty; Joe Raedle; Library of Congress; niAID; Zaid Patel

The new Reconstruction
“The necessity of post-pandemic rebuilding also provides an opportunity for a truly sweeping New Reconstruction, one that could endeavor to resolve the unfinished work of the nation’s past Reconstructions.”

📚 The Dance of Freedom, by Barry A. Crouch
📚 The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander
📚 The Death of Reconstruction, by Heather Cox Richardson
📚 From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime, by Elizabeth Hinton

Artwork by Hank Willis Thomas. Strike, 2018. (© Hank Willis Thomas. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.)

Incremental change is a moral failure
“Regardless of the other responsibilities police have assumed, they have consistently inflicted violence on the most marginalized people in society.”

📚 Stakes Is High: Life After the American Dream, by Mychal Denzel Smith

Illustration by Mark Harris; images from Interborough Rapid Transit Company; National Weather Service; Wiley & Putnam / Artokoloro / British Library / Alamy; Thomas Kelly / Library of Congress

Get ready for the great urban comeback
“The 21st-century city is the child of catastrophe. The comforts and infrastructure we take for granted were born of age-old afflictions: fire, flood, pestilence. Our tall buildings, our subways, our subterranean conduits, our systems for bringing water in and taking it away, our building codes and public-health regulations—all were forged in the aftermath of urban disasters by civic leaders and citizen visionaries.”

📚 Triumph of the City, by Edward Glaeser
📚 The Race Underground, by Doug Most


We killed the middle class. Here’s how we can revive it.
“As America climbs out of its coronavirus recession, it must reinvest in its middle class, and in the people who will bring good, middle-class jobs forth in the economy.”

📚 The Riches of This Land: The Untold, True Story of America’s Middle Class, by Jim Tankersley

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she’s reading next is Transcendent Kingdom, by Yaa Gyasi.

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