1st Edition

A Brief History of the Subordination of African Americans in the U.S.
Of Handcuffs and Bootstraps

ISBN 9780367423223
Published February 13, 2020 by Routledge
126 Pages 1 B/W Illustrations

USD $160.00

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Book Description

This "brief history" presents the essential story of the subordination of African Americans in the U.S., captured in a 1968 cartoon by Pulitzer-prize-winning cartoonist John Fischetti. The drawing is of a black man handcuffed to a wall with cuffs labeled "White Racism." The caption reads, "Why don’t they lift themselves up by their own bootstraps like we did?" Bootstraps shows just how little lift-up there has been, and how the handcuffs of white racism have been and continue to be the cause.

Unique in its combination of comprehensiveness and brevity, Bootstraps is written in language for the general reader; yet its extensive endnotes will make it useful to both scholars and students. Its succinct overview of the subordination history includes an in-depth treatment of residential segregation – a legacy of slavery and a central problem of our time – and a response to the view that today’s racial inequality is due largely to African Americans’ own moral and cultural failures. By addressing a serious omission in the way we have educated our children, the book’s narration of our white racism history may make a contribution to a much-needed confrontation with our racist past.

Table of Contents


1. The Lack of Lift-Up

2. Cause and Effect

Conclusion: An Instrument of Change?

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Alexander Polikoff is Co-Director, Public Housing and Senior Staff Counsel for BPI, and has served as lead counsel in the landmark Gautreaux public housing litigation for more than 40 years. He is author of Housing the Poor: The Case for Heroism (1977), Waiting for Gautreaux: A Story of Segregation, Housing, and the Black Ghetto (2006), and The Path Still Open: A Greater Chance for Peace Than Ever Before (2009).

Elizabeth Lassar, J.D. (Northwestern University School of Law), serves as a policy analyst for BPI, a Chicago law and policy center, with a focus on projects and policies that expand meaningful housing choice for low-income families and people of color.


"In telling the brutal truth of anti-black subordination in America, from slavery to today, in one brief essay, Bootstraps is a great public service and required reading for anyone who wishes to dismantle historical amnesia and white supremacy."

—Sheryll Cashin, author, The Failures of Integration: How Race and Class Are Undermining the American Dream, and Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Law, Civil Rights and Social Justice, Georgetown University Law Center

"When so much of our public conversation is warped by hate mongering and disinformation, it becomes critical to know our history well. In this sharp book, respected civil rights advocates offer a kind of history of racial injustice in America for beginners, focusing on the black experience. Would that this stark history, including the truth about government efforts to "lift up" people of color, were required reading in our high schools, as the authors argue. But until it is, we will need concise and unflinching guides to what made our country what it is and what we must face squarely if we are to change it."

—Xavier de Souza Briggs, Vice President, Ford Foundation and author, Moving to Opportunity: The Story of an American Experiment to Fight Ghetto Poverty

"For too long, research institutions like mine have analyzed public policy issues where racial inequities run deep without always acknowledging the tragic history of racist injustice that produced them. Handcuffs and Bootstraps should be required reading for all of us. Its brevity ensures that every policy researcher – whether specializing in health, employment, education, housing, or justice policy – can absorb the fundamental story line and apply its lessons to our work. If we do, we’ll have a better shot at producing findings and recommendations that advance racial equity and justice in the decades ahead."

—Margery Austin Turner, Senior Vice President, The Urban Institute

"Alexander Polikoff and Elizabeth Lassar have written a lucid tract on why understanding the past matters so much. With great clarity, they lay out our racist history and puncture the myth that we are a land of equal opportunity. This brief treatise is worth carrying around in our back pockets, a reminder of who we are, and of the struggle before us." 

—Alex Kotlowitz, author, There Are No Children Here and American Summer