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Ten things to read to gain an understanding of America

By Noah Smith  /  Bloomberg

Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America; by William Frey.

The US in the 21st century can be a bewildering place, even for its own residents. The political turmoil, the kaleidoscope of radical online social movements, the presence of vast wealth combined with often stunning inequality; these things not only baffle foreigners, they often mystify Americans as well. People living in the US often see only a small slice of the country, defined by their town, their occupation and their social circle.

Since the turn of the century, a number of important new trends have either emerged or intensified that have changed the nation to its core. Not all of these trends have been written up satisfactorily in books and papers, but many have. Whether you live in the US or out of it, here is a reading list that will help deepen your understanding of modern America.

No. 1. Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America

By William Frey

In 1980 the US was 83 percent non-Hispanic white. Since 2012, fewer than half of the children born in the country have been such. No one has chronicled this rapid demographic transformation better — or with a more neutral, clinical eye — than demographer William Frey. This book doesn’t just lay out the numbers, but shows detailed maps of how the ethnic composition of each of the country’s regions has evolved. The key fact is that Hispanics and Asians, once confined to a few regions and cities in the country, are rapidly spreading to outlying regions. There’s little doubt that this has created political and social unrest in areas that once had white supermajorities. It also has great relevance for electoral politics.

No. 2. The New Geography of Jobs

By Enrico Moretti

This slim volume by one of the world’s top urban economists explains why some cities in the US have flourished while others languish. Knowledge industries, and clusters of smart, educated workers, have become increasingly important not just to a region’s prosperity, but to its physical and social health. Large cities, technology hubs and college towns are pulling away from the rest in both economic and social terms.

No. 3. The China Shock

By David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson

This landmark economics paper, which really deserves to be turned into a book, details how opening up trade with China in the 2000s was fundamentally different from anything the US had experienced before. Whereas in past eras, manufacturing workers displaced by foreign imports mostly managed to find jobs elsewhere in the industry for similar pay, Chinese competition was so vast, sudden and comprehensive that most displaced workers ended up taking huge wage cuts or going on the welfare rolls. The sudden devastation of American manufacturing has undoubtedly had broad social implications.

No. 4. We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

In this series of essays, Coates, arguably the country’s most important writer and intellectual, vividly narrates the racial politics of the 2010s. The presidency of Barack Obama seemed to herald a new era in race relations, but a series of highly publicized police killings and the election of Donald Trump dashed that hope. The racial divide, and the events that have exacerbated it, are crucial to any understanding of modern American politics and society.

No. 5. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

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