Industry leaders on 8 books you must read for Black History Month

In February, we honor Black Americans by celebrating Black History Month. While at Ladders we believe the quest for racial equality should be an everyday discussion and priority, this month can serve as a reminder to roll up your sleeves and dig in.

The first step in making strides as a professional to become an ally and supporter for this underserved and underrepresented community is education. And luckily, many powerful books can shape the way you think, how you hire, how you lead, how you manage and who you are as a professional — and a human. Here, we spoke with prominent Black leaders across various industries for their top recommendations:

‘The Better Allies Approach to Hiring’ by Karen Catlin 

While this is a quick read at 66-pages, it offers significant impact, according to Tomi Fadeyi-Jones, founder and principal. Inside, you’ll find best practices, stories, examples, checklists, and rubrics to fundamentally shift how you hire so you can create more diverse and inclusive teams.

“It covers areas such as your careers page, your job description, the candidate pool, and the interview process,” she continues. “The tips and takeaways will provide actionable steps to help you recruit and hire people from underrepresented ethnicities and genders, with non-traditional educational backgrounds, with gaps on their resumes, or from older generations.”

‘Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?’ by Martin Luther King, Jr.

If you ask Greg Brinkley, the founder of APEXology Leadership, this is the legendary Dr. King’s magnum opus. While Brinkley says he’s read many of his works, this book provides an in-depth look into the societal icon’s thoughts. What can you expect? “It’s reflective in what gains and missteps the Civil Rights Movement had made, and prescient regarding the fate of the movement and race relations in the country,” Brinkley describes. “This book reads with as much relativity and practicality now as it did in 1967. In fact, this work — and the thinking he possessed that produced it ‚ was light years ahead of its time.”

Regardless if you are Black or white, democrat or republican, wealthy or working class, he says this book is a sobering must-read for every American. In addition to other fascinating — and at times, terrifying — truths, this read illustrates what we can learn from history and its turbulent past. “If we have any chance of equality in this nation, I argue that Dr. King’s last, most gripping work must be at — if not near — the top of the booklist. This is simply because, as Dr. King poignantly puts it, ‘The fight is far from over,’” he adds.

Caste: The Origins of our Discontent’ by Isabel Wilkerson 

It was one of Oprah’s top reads — and called an instant American classic and the keynote non-fiction book of this American century so far, according to Joy Altimare, the chief marketing officer at EHE Health. As she explains, it takes one of the most complicated topics and simplifies it for the entire population. Rather than saying ‘white,’ ‘race,’ or ‘racism,’ the author calls them what they are: ‘dominant caste,’ ‘favored caste,’ ‘upper caste’ and ‘lower caste.’

“Wilkerson is a historian, so her ability to reference it as proof points when educating the reader on a key topic allows for a seamless navigation among tough topics,” Altimare explains. “If you want real proof of the systemic racism that plagues our country and communities — read this and buy it from your friends and family.”

‘So You Want to Talk About Race’ by Ijeoma Oluo 

For many white professionals, discussing racial issues can be uncomfortable and stressful, even if you hope to change yourself. That discomfort is part of the process of learning and unlearning, and Fadeyi-Jones says this book will help you lean-in to those nerves.

She calls this book a ‘wonderful tool’ to broach difficult conversations with candid advice and resources. “Through facts, statistics, anecdotes and some humor, the author challenges you to reflect on your own beliefs and provides answers to the questions you always wanted to ask,” she explains. “Issues related to affirmative action, cultural appropriation, intersectionality, microaggressions, police brutality and the school-to-prison pipeline are covered — as well as how to address them. This is a must-read if you want to be clearer, smarter, and more direct when it comes to talking about these issues.”

‘White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism’ by Robin J. DiAngelo

Authored by a white female sociologist who worked as a diversity trainer and consultant, this book aims to unmask, deconstruct, confront, and challenge her race community’s thought process.

This book is written primarily to a white audience, Brinkley notes, sense it addresses and defines familiar terms that trigger avoidance or defensive attitudes. “However, this book is not a mere textbook approach to these issues: she goes there in describing racism as a power system fundamentally and intricately intertwined in the roots of our country,” he continues. “She also pulls back the rug on the reasons why many white people often struggle to even talk about racism. As well as their difficulty in seeing themselves as complicit in maintaining the white power structure And the panoply of frameworks within which they work to consciously or unconsciously use whiteness to their advantage: all at the expense of multiple generations of Black people.”

Brinkley says what sets this book apart from the facts and realities is that it also offers solutions and advice to make critical, meaningful change. “This is a fascinating read that will serve as an inexhaustible resource in the libraries of leaders as well as the rank-and-file. It will also be useful as a touchpoint to assist in efforts to promote diversity and inclusion — as well as help to thwart efforts to stall them,” he raves.

‘Inclusive Leadership: From Awareness to Action’ by Ernest Gundling and Cheryl Williams 

As the name suggests, Fadeyi-Jones says this book is an excellent first step in becoming a more inclusive leader since it provides context, topics and prompts. By reading through examples and recommendations, she says this book helps professionals move through their unconscious bias and good intentions and to start using practical, inclusive actions in everyday work.

“This book outlines the current inclusion landscape, the business case for inclusion and diversity, the problem of ‘bias fatigue,’ and the importance of both empathy and psychological safety,” she continues. “It also addresses how you can create inclusive workplace environments that produce strong business results.”

‘The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You’ by John C. Maxwell

This might seem like an odd pick for Black History Month, but Brinkley adds it to his must-read list because of the author, who he calls America’s and the world’s expert on leadership for more than 40 years. Maxwell defines leadership as ‘influence, nothing more or nothing less’, and he seeks to demonstrate this through his life experiences as a pastor, entrepreneur and speaker.

“The laws that Maxwell unfolds through observations and visual charts are timeless, understandable, and easily applicable. I attribute this to his congenial yet direct approach of letting the leadership examples speak for themselves and testify to the validity and reliability of these principles,” Brinkley continues. “His transparency regarding his past leadership successes and failures is refreshing to read, as it offers hope to existing leaders of the ability to chart more effective courses for the people they lead. It will also equip young, emerging leaders with the framework to craft their own leadership journeys no matter their background.”

‘Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And other conversations about Race’ by Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD 

As one of 23 black students within an all-girls secondary school of 900 students, Altimare is very familiar with the trend that where all Black students sit together during lunch. “It speaks to the need to feel comfortable, familiar, and safe during the day when you are consistently navigating micro-aggressions throughout the day,” she explains.

This book explores if this self-segregation a problem to address — or a coping strategy. The author, Beverly Daniel Tatum, a renowned authority on the psychology of racism, argues that straight talk about our racial identities is essential if we are serious about enabling communication across racial and ethnic divides. “These topics have only become more urgent as the national conversation about race is increasingly acrimonious,” she continues. “This fully revised edition is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the dynamics of race in America.”