A Story of America

Coming Soon


By Michael Eric Dyson

By Marc Favreau

Formats and Prices




$16.99 CAD

Finalist for the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Award 

New York Times bestselling author Michael Eric Dyson and critically acclaimed author Marc Favreau show how racial inequality permeates every facet of American society, through the lens of those pushing for meaningful change

The true story of racial inequality—and resistance to it—is the prologue to our present. You can see it in where we live, where we go to school, where we work, in our laws, and in our leadership. Unequal presents a gripping account of the struggles that shaped America and the insidiousness of racism, and demonstrates how inequality persists. As readers meet some of the many African American people who dared to fight for a more equal future, they will also discover a framework for addressing racial injustice in their own lives. 


CHRISTIAN COOPER, a Black man, out for an afternoon of bird watching in Central Park, had asked Amy Cooper to put her dog on a leash in a place where it was forbidden for dogs to roam free. Amy pulled out her cell phone and started to dial.

“I’m taking a picture and calling the cops…. I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.”

Amy had decided to remind Christian where he was. This was a white place.

On April 29, 2018, a white woman named Jennifer Schulte aimed the same message at a Black family picnicking in a park in Oakland, California. Do what she says, she ordered, or she’d call the police. Two Black men in Philadelphia arrested for simply being in a Starbucks. Black people followed in stores, Black drivers trailed by police in white parts of town. No American, Black or white, is surprised when stories like these make the news, because we all take these color-coded places for granted, even though America pretends to be color-blind.

White places are parks, streets, stores, neighborhoods, even schools—anywhere white people decide that they should be in control. Black people are careful to teach their children about color-coded places; being color conscious is a matter of safety for kids who might get mistaken as a threat. Black parents learned it from their parents, who learned it from theirs. Color coding and the battle against white spaces are part of the story of America.

Mary Church in the 1880s.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC



Fights Back Against Segregation

Sixteen-year-old Mary Church lingered on the bustling train platform in Bowling Green, Kentucky, clasping a first-class ticket to Memphis. When her train approached, Mary asked a white porter for directions to the first-class car. But after mounting the steps, she discovered that his instructions led her to the wrong place. She found herself on a train car separated by a wooden screen into two parts: the front, where white men sat in the smoking section, puffing on pipes and cigarettes, and the back, where African American men and women squeezed uncomfortably onto crowded benches.

It was the fall of 1879. The Civil War had ended fourteen years earlier. Slavery was abolished in 1865, but for most of Mary Church’s young life, Americans—in Congress, in the South, and all over the country—had been arguing and battling over whether Black people like her could finally enjoy the rights and freedoms promised by the Constitution. By 1879, most white Southerners were hell-bent on saying no.

People like Mary’s father, Robert Reed Church, however, were not going to take no for an answer—and he taught the same lesson to his daughter.

Born into slavery, Robert Church survived the Civil War only to be shot in 1866 by a white mob rioting against Memphis’s increasingly prosperous Black community. He survived again, and refused to let the attack slow him down. In a few short years, Robert Church managed to build a thriving business along the Mississippi River, buying up land and attracting customers, to become the South’s first Black millionaire.

Church understood as much as anyone that freedom was not simply the absence of slavery.

• It was about safety and the right to move freely without harassment.

• It was about building a future, through wealth and property.

• It was about the ability to make a living.

• It was about finding decent housing.

• It was about building great schools to educate children.

• It was about standing proudly as equal citizens.

And to secure all that, African Americans needed to represent themselves in the halls of power.

White southerners piled on with other assaults on Black freedom, beyond the attack in Memphis. They founded the Ku Klux Klan in 1866, a vigilante army meant to keep Black people out of politics and to force them back onto white-owned plantations, and they passed the Black codes—a set of state laws that seemed ominously like slavery. But four million free Black people, and their white allies in Congress, weren’t having it. Backed by the federal government in the form of constitutional amendments, new laws, and federal troops, they pushed back hard against white supremacy.

“Reconstruction,” as their new movement was called, upheld the right of all men (it was still restricted to men) to vote, hold office, serve on juries, and perform the other basic responsibilities of citizens—regardless of race. It was a simple idea: For the first time in its history, America approached something like a true democracy by protecting the rights of all people, Black and white. For this reason, some historians have even called Reconstruction the “second American Revolution.”

In Memphis, where Mary Church lived, nearly 40 percent of voters were African American in the 1870s and 1880s, and they elected more Black legislators than would hold office again until the 1990s.

In 1870, Hiram Rhodes Revels of Mississippi became the first Black person to be elected to the US Senate; in 1874, he was joined by Blanche K. Bruce. Since that time, no African American person has held that office in Mississippi.

In total, more than 1,500 African Americans held political office in the South, including Governor P. B. S. Pinchback of Louisiana, the only Black person to hold a governor’s office until well over a century later, when Douglas Wilder was elected governor of Virginia.

To those who lived through it, Reconstruction was like the world turned right side up.

By 1876, however, many white people across the United States had begun to think twice about their commitment to democracy and to protecting equal rights. In 1877, the federal government withdrew the very troops who made sure that Black and white people received equal treatment under the law. Former enslavers and their allies now felt free to launch their counterattack—and when they did, they targeted Black voters.

White supremacists stuffed ballot boxes with fake votes for white candidates. They intimidated African American voters at polling places. And when all else failed, the Ku Klux Klan stepped in to remove democratically elected governments by force.

Reconstruction was not destroyed in a day. Instead, white politicians, planters, and militia chipped away at it, year after year.

As Mary Church entered young adulthood, Black and white Southerners were locked in a battle of wills—and sometimes battles with actual guns—over whether the South would be governed by democracy or by white supremacy. And the places where Black and white people mixed, especially trains and streetcars, were quickly becoming flash points.

“Instantly I knew this was the Jim Crow coach which I had never seen but about which I had heard,” Mary said, using the common expression for racial segregation. And it was exactly the place that her father had sought to keep his Black daughter away from, by buying her a first-class seat.

As the conductor made his way down the aisle, Mary explained the mistake to him, hoping he might direct her to the first-class car.

Instead, he gave her a look “calculated to freeze the very marrow of my bones,” Mary remembered.

“This is first class enough for you, and you stay just where you are,” the man sneered. She tried to leave the car but the conductor blocked her way.

Mary weighed her options. Her father had paid for a first-class seat, but was it worth the fight?

“As young as I was,” she remembered, “I had heard about awful tragedies which had overtaken colored girls who had been obliged to travel alone on these cars at night.”

When the train approached the next stop, Mary told the conductor that she was getting off. It was a huge risk for an African American girl, at nighttime, in the South. “But of the two evils,” she thought, “I decided that leaving the train was the less.”

“I am getting off here,” she said, “to wire my father that you are forcing me to ride all night in the Jim Crow car. He will sue the railroad.”

Mary’s stubborn protest angered the conductor, and he struggled to pull her suitcase from her hands. “I held on to it with a vise-like grip,” she said. But when their tug-of-war began to attract the notice of the few passengers remaining on the car, the conductor relented at last.

“You can go into that car if you want to,” he begrudged her.

Mary Church made it home safely, but her first encounter with Jim Crow changed her. She returned to Oberlin College after break, and three years later became one of the first Black women in American history to graduate from college. While at Oberlin, she met the legendary civil rights activist Frederick Douglass, and she followed his example into a life of speaking up against the forces of white supremacy.

For most of Mary’s young adulthood, white people enforced racial segregation erratically on trains, in streetcars, and in other public spaces. White southerners believed that this patchwork left too many holes open where Black people—people like the proud Robert Church and his well-educated daughter—might squeeze through. By the 1890s, the time had come, they believed, to close the gaps.

Segregation didn’t just happen naturally: It was part of a plan by white supremacists to return Black people to a second-class status, one as close to slavery as possible, and to unravel the last remaining accomplishments of Reconstruction.

What finally turned the tide fully against Black people, not only in the South but everywhere in the United States, was the very institution whose job it was to uphold the rule of law.

In 1896, the nine justices on the US Supreme Court handed down their decision in a case titled Plessy v. Ferguson. The case had originated with a Black plaintiff named Homer Plessy, who attempted to ride a whites-only streetcar in New Orleans and was arrested, tried, and convicted for this “crime.” Plessy’s lawyer, Albion W. Tourgée, appealed that decision and argued before the court that segregation’s “only effect is to perpetuate the stigma of color.” The court affirmed Plessy’s conviction and ruled that, despite the promises of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution (declaring “equal protection of the law” to all citizens, regardless of race), it was perfectly acceptable for states to establish racial segregation. From then on, “separate but equal” would be the law of the land.

Before the court’s decision, Black people could at least attempt to claim their constitutional right to equality: equal schools, equal homes, equal employment opportunities, and more. But after Plessy v. Ferguson, the nation swapped its patchwork of laws and customs for the ironclad rule of racial inequality.

With the law on their side, white southerners leapt at the chance to clamp down on Black people’s desire for freedom and independence. Segregated streetcars and trains were only the beginning. White schools fired Black teachers. Black students, where they could attend school at all, met in drafty, unheated structures. Hospitals turned away Black patients, and libraries closed their doors to Black borrowers. Theaters created separate entrances for Black people, forcing them to sit apart, in the worst seats. Restaurants hung signs that read WHITES ONLY. Laundries were segregated by race.

They even tried to make God co-sign white supremacy: Black people had to swear on separate, segregated Bibles in southern courtrooms.

Outdoor spaces offered no refuge. John W. Brown recalled that as a child in Virginia, “anything that was public was also white. For example, the public park, the public playground, they were white.” Especially in the hot summer months, pools and beaches kept Black people away, often under the threat of violence.

As the campaign to exclude Black people heated up, segregation seeped into even the smallest crevices of daily life.

“The Jim Crow law made friends into enemies overnight,” Mamie Garvin Fields recalled. As a young girl growing up in South Carolina, Mamie played marbles and ate lunch with her white neighbors from across the street. Their families helped one another: “When they didn’t have sugar, or they didn’t have tea or coffee, they’d send over to borrow some.”

“Now here comes Jim Crow,” she said. When the first segregation laws passed, her neighbors took to calling her “ni—–.” White children threatened to shove her off the sidewalk. Fights broke out between Black and white students from the local school.

“The law made it that we weren’t really neighbors anymore,” she said.

Black people learned that segregation demanded a new kind of etiquette—from Black people only. When the legendary Black intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois, a northerner, accidentally bumped into a white woman on the street in Nashville when he was a student at Fisk University, he removed his hat and apologized sincerely. The woman screamed at him in response, leaving Du Bois, the first Black person to earn a PhD from Harvard, at a loss for words.

“Was it because I showed no submissiveness?” he wondered. “Did I fail to debase myself utterly and eat spiritual dirt? Did I act as equal among equals? I do not know. I only sensed scorn and hate; the kind of despising which a dog might incur.”

Reminders of their new legal status haunted Black people everywhere. Black people could not enter a white home through the front door. They had to step off the sidewalk if a white person passed by. At a local post office in Mississippi, postal workers scratched out the words “Mr.” or “Mrs.” on letters addressed to African American recipients.

No Black person believed for a moment that “separate” could ever be “equal.” Racial segregation was meant to demoralize, dehumanize, and destabilize Black people.

When African Americans found life in the South suffocating, a train trip to the North, even in a segregated car, offered some breathing space for people who had grown tired of daily slights and injustices.

The North, however, had its own racial rules, although they were not always written into law. In fact, white people in the North pioneered discrimination against free Black people before 1865, and many of these lessons were simply imported by the South after the Civil War.

Black people in the North endured racist insults and violence. In the summer of 1919, a Black teen went swimming in Lake Michigan and accidentally crossed an invisible color line on a Chicago beach. Before he could turn around, a group of young white men hurled stones at him until he drowned. A young boy named Dempsey Travis recalled how this terrifying event affected his family. “I was never permitted to learn to swim,” he said. “For six years, we lived within two blocks of the lake, but that did not change [my parents’] attitude. To Dad and Mama, the blue lake always had a tinge of red from the blood of that young black boy.”

Beaches from Boston to Los Angeles were no safer. Pools routinely barred Black swimmers, except, in rare cases, on specially designated days. Amusement parks like Cincinnati’s Coney Island were off-limits to Black children.

Away from the big cities, “sundown towns” lurked in nearly every state. These all-white places required African Americans to leave before sundown, some posting signs warning Black people to stay out—a practice that continued as late as the 1970s. (One of us vividly remembers being warned against getting caught after dark in suburban Dearborn while growing up in Detroit in the 1960s and 1970s.) In 1909, the town of Anna, Illinois, became all-white after a nearby lynching; in 2018, residents of the town openly admitted that its name stood for “Ain’t No N—–Allowed.”

Black people were extra careful when traveling anywhere by car; a wrong turn could mean running out of gas too far from a friendly gas station, sleeping on the back seat, or worse. Many Black people traveling any distance depended on the Negro Motorist Green Book, a special travel guide that listed hotels, gas stations, restaurants, and other establishments that welcomed African American guests.

Segregation steamrolled the nation, forcing Black people into tighter and tighter spaces. But still they found ways to push back. The growing restrictions were concrete evidence of how hard African Americans resisted the new limits on their freedom.

In 1905, the resistance took shape when Black leaders, including W. E. B. Du Bois and newspaper publisher William Monroe Trotter, organized the Niagara Movement to advocate for equal rights for Black people. By the time an anti-Black riot erupted in Abraham Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois, three years later, the Niagara Movement had swollen to 170 members in thirty-four states. The violence in Springfield convinced the Niagara Movement’s leaders that it was time to forge an interracial alliance of people to fight white racism. In 1909, Black leaders from all over America joined with white allies to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Mary Church (by now Mary Church Terrell) was one of the NAACP’s founding members. Through the darkest days of Jim Crow, NAACP activists—and ordinary people across the country—took extraordinary risks to resist white supremacy.

On January 27, 1950, seventy years after challenging the train conductor in Bowling Green, Mary Church Terrell waited her turn at the entrance to Thompson’s Restaurant in Washington, DC.

At eighty-six years old, Mary was one of a dwindling number of people who could remember the days before segregation. She had spent her entire adult life under Jim Crow. But all around her, the segregated city buzzed with thousands of white government workers, politicians, taxi drivers, and streetcar operators, all of them insensitive to the racial inequalities that still afflicted the capital of the world’s largest democracy. Even the restaurant in the US Capitol building refused to serve African American diners.

None of this was new to Mary Church Terrell; she understood that America’s capital city was also the capital of American racism. In February 1915, in the White House, President Woodrow Wilson hosted the premier of the wildly popular silent film The Birth of a Nation, which celebrated the triumph of white supremacy over Reconstruction—and depicted African American men (played by white actors in blackface) as rapists. In 1919, white mobs attacked the city’s Black neighborhoods; Black veterans of World War I joined local citizens to prevent a massacre. It took a daring First Lady named Eleanor Roosevelt to finally desegregate the White House in the mid-1930s, but she was in a distinct minority of white people. In the 1930s and 1940s, spectators in the gallery of the US Senate could hear the likes of Mississippi senator Theodore Bilbo, who hurled racial epithets openly while his colleagues looked on and said nothing.

Backed up by the highest court in the land and by America’s most powerful politicians, Jim Crow backed down only when a movement of brave citizens decided not to give up on democracy.

Three companions joined Mary that afternoon as she crossed the threshold into Thompson’s: Reverend William Jernagin, Geneva Brown, and David Scull. The small band made their way through the cafeteria line, picking out cake, salad, and other bites to eat. When they reached the cashier, a waitress standing nearby called over a man in a white uniform. He introduced himself to the group as the restaurant manager.

Then he told Terrell and her friends they could not eat there.

“Why not?” Jernagin demanded.

“Because we don’t serve colored people here,” the manager replied.

“Do you mean to tell me that you are not going to serve me?” Mary asked.

Terrell’s question was a carefully rehearsed ploy. She had remained an activist into old age, looking for every opportunity to undermine the power of Jim Crow.

With the help of two lawyers, Mary and her friends had staged the episode in order to file a lawsuit, one that would strike at the heart of the city’s segregated society. The real drama would play out not in Thompson’s segregated dining room but in a Washington, DC, courtroom.

Harking back to an earlier era—a time when Mary was still a young child—Mary’s legal team revealed that Washington still had two laws in force that no one seemed to remember. Passed in the 1860s and 1870s, the laws stated that all restaurants, theaters, bars, and hotels had to admit “any respectable, well-behaved person without regard to race, color or previous condition of servitude.”

Defenders of segregation liked to argue that keeping the races separate was only natural—a practice that reflected people’s desire to live apart. But DC’s “lost laws” revealed that the opposite was true: that white supremacists had imposed segregation’s unequal rules on people who longed to live as equal citizens.

On June 8, 1953, the US Supreme Court ruled that Mary Church Terrell—and all people—could eat, sit, or ride anywhere they wished. It was a quiet victory, compared with the momentous decision the court would hand down eleven months later, when Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, declared “separate but equal” unconstitutional, overruling Plessy v. Ferguson once and for all.

Mary Church Terrell lived just long enough to learn about Brown v. Board of Education, drawing her last breath at ninety years of age, two months after witnessing the last gasp of legal segregation in the United States.

Seventy years after Mary’s quiet victory, the ghosts of Jim Crow still stalk America’s public places. Legal segregation is long dead, but Black people are still watched, followed, and policed in spaces that are designed for relaxation but expose them to discrimination.

Instead of relying on laws to do the work of segregation, America has built an ever more elaborate system for maintaining America’s white places. Police harass Black motorists and pedestrians. Real estate agents steer Black buyers away from white neighborhoods—a practice that also serves to keep neighborhood schools segregated. White people call the police whenever a Black person seems “out of place,” which usually means anywhere that is majority white. Color coding is as real and as dangerous as it was more than a century ago.

Black Americans today, no less than Mary Church Terrell as she boarded her train in Kentucky, understand the intended message of these encounters with police, businesses, and their own neighbors. When people respond by declaring that Black Lives Matter, their words echo the arguments of Terrell, the early NAACP activists, and thousands of other people who have devoted their lives to banishing segregation’s long shadow.

They know that the promise of Reconstruction—of a nation where race plays no role in how Americans are treated—is still an American dream.

AHMAUD ARBERY liked to run. His days as a high school football star were behind him, but he kept fit with long workouts that trailed through the neighborhoods near his home on the outskirts of Brunswick, Georgia.

It was hot on that February afternoon in 2020. Did Ahmaud stop for a drink of water? A video camera in a nearby house, which was under construction and empty, showed a man passing through and back again, tracing a path to an outdoor faucet.

Two white men, a father and son, grabbed their guns, jumped into a pickup truck, and raced after Ahmaud. A third man joined the fateful chase in his truck to cut off Arbery’s route of escape. When they caught up with him, Ahmaud and the son scuffled. Gunshots echoed through the quiet streets.

One thing was certain. The white men were still alive, and armed. Ahmaud Arbery lay on the sidewalk, dead.

And then nothing happened. The local authorities decided not to charge Gregory and Travis McMichael with a crime. They walked away, free men. It took a video of the killing, national outcry, multiple changes in jurisdiction, and three months for charges to be brought against the three men who were eventually convicted of murder.


  • A YALSA-ALA Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adult Award Finalist
    School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
    A New York Public Library Best Book of 2022 
    A Cooperative Children’s Book Center Children’s Choices list pick 
    A Bank Street Best Book of the Year
    A Children's Book Council Teacher Favorite
  • "Michael Eric Dyson is one the greatest intellectuals and thought provokers of our time. In this book he and Marc Favreau realize we are the fruit of generations of giants who labored for and demanded a more equal America. Read Unequal to learn their stories—and our own."—Common, Grammy Award-winning artist, author, actor, and activist
  • "With clarity and insight, Unequal illuminates how racial inequality is built into every aspect of American society. In gripping prose, Michael Eric Dyson and Marc Favreau draw clear lines between past and present struggles for racial equality to reveal what is required of us if we truly want to live in a society without racism."—Robin DiAngelo, #1 bestselling author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism
  • "Michael Eric Dyson has long offered a vital perspective on race in America. Unequal is a stunning accomplishment, where Dr. Dyson and Marc Favreau transport readers across the country and across time to show the devastation and insidiousness of racial inequality, while also offering hope and inspiration to those fighting for equality."—Joy-Ann Reid, bestselling author and host of The ReidOut on MSNBC
  • * "Empowering, profound, and necessary, purchase for all collections serving young adults."—SLJ, starred review
  • * "Crucial…This searing look at attempts to block students 'from learning the truth of inequality in the United States' encourages readers to acknowledge the deep-seated presence of structural racism in America. A must-read and a must-teach."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
  • * "This accessible, riveting collection will inspire readers to claim responsibility for helping to ensure that the U.S. one day lives up to its most ethical professed ideals. Grounded in evidence and optimistic: uplifts the social power of studying Black American freedom fighters."—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
  • * “This is a necessary resource and will inspire students to promote social justice.” —SLC, starred review

On Sale
Dec 12, 2023
Page Count
368 pages

Michael Eric Dyson

About the Author

Dr. Michael Eric Dyson is an award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of over twenty books, a widely celebrated professor, a prominent public intellectual, an ordained Baptist minister, and a noted political analyst. He is a two-time NAACP Image Award winner, and the winner of the American Book Award for Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster. His book The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America was a Kirkus Prize finalist. He is also a highly sought after public speaker who is known to excite both secular and sacred audiences. A native of Detroit, Michigan, he currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee. This is his first book for teens. Follow him on Twitter @michaeledyson and on his official Facebook page (facebook.com/michaelericdyson).

Marc Favreau is the acclaimed author of Crash: The Great Depression and the Fall and Rise of America and Spies: The Secret Showdown Between America and Russia, and co-editor (with Ira Berlin and Steven F. Miller) of Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Emancipation. Favreau is also the director of editorial projects at The New Press. He lives with his family in New York City and Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.

Learn more about this author

Marc Favreau

About the Author

Marc Favreau is the acclaimed author of Crash: The Great Depression and the Fall and Rise of America,Spies: The Secret Showdown Between America and Russia, Attacked! Pearl Harbor and the Day War Came to America, and (with Michael Eric Dyson) Unequal: A Story of America. Favreau is also the director of editorial projects at The New Press. He lives with his family in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.

Learn more about this author