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14 August 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 6:01pm

Stamped from the Beginning charts the uncomfortable history of American racism

Ibram X Kendi offers an un-yielding narrative of racist ideas, violence and harm – but also resistance.

By Sadiah Qureshi

In Between the World and Me (2015), Ta-Nehisi Coates contends that the great question of American history is not whether “Lincoln truly meant ‘government of the people’”, but what America has, from its inception, “taken the political term ‘people’ to actually mean. In 1863, it did not mean your mother or your grandmother, and it did not mean you and me. Thus America’s problem is not its betrayal of ‘government of the people’, but the means by which ‘the people’ acquired their names.” Stamped from the Beginning provides a lucid, accessible survey of how “the people” were racialised over 500 years.

Ibram X Kendi uses five “tour guides” to narrate his book: the Puritan minister Cotton Mather, the founding father and president Thomas Jefferson, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and the scholar-activists WEB Du Bois and Angela Davis. Each life helps to highlight important shifts. Over the longue durée, Kendi shows that every generation has invented new ways to be racist. Early colonists fled persecution but failed to leave behind the racist theologies of Britain and Europe. Blackness was attributed to the “curse of Ham”, the punishment that one of Noah’s sons suffered for mocking his father.

Mather, who was admitted to Harvard at 11, spent his life preaching that Christianity could uplift the enslaved. After the 1750s, scientific racism proliferated as black people were said to make natural slaves or belong to a different species to white people. After the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, racists turned to evolution to entrench racialised discrimination. In 1860, Senator Jefferson Davis, later president of the Confederate States of America, defended slavery by claiming that the “inequality of the white and black races” had been “stamped from the beginning”. In the present day, racists draw upon discredited standardised tests to claim genetic differences between racial groups.

Kendi focuses on America, but it is worth noting that these ideas also flourished across Europe, although the notion that humans were not a single species enjoyed significantly greater popularity in America. For centuries, the mutability of racist ideas has allowed whiteness to remain in power while inventing new lies about blackness and blaming victims for their oppression.

Kendi defines a racist idea as “any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way”. The definition is elegantly concise but leads to conclusions that many will find uncomfortable. Almost everyone recognises “segregationist” theories of innate and immutable difference between races as racist. However, for Kendi, “assimilationists” frequently accept and promote racist ideas even while calling for racial equality.

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In 1954, Judge Earl Warren ruled that separate schooling could never be equal in the Brown v board of education case. Yet his landmark dismissal was rooted in his assumption that black children were intellectually inferior and would benefit from being schooled with white children in white schools. He did not imagine that white children were being harmed by segregation or that black children did not inherently require “improvement”.

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Perhaps the most common assimilationist tactic has been “uplift suasion”, the attempt to outrun racism by being educated or morally upright, as exemplified by WEB Du Bois, the first African American to earn a doctorate from Harvard and, in more recent popular culture, The Cosby Show, in which the Huxtables succeed in living the American dream through hard work and self-reliance. Striving may seem like an innocuous motivational strategy but, as the book shows, uplift suasion places the burden of overcoming oppression solely on black people without dismantling institutionalised racism, such as in the education and prison systems. Meanwhile, anyone who does beat the odds is seen as extra­ordinary, not as evidence of broader potential under equal circumstances.

Kendi confidently re-evaluates the writings of many celebrated abolitionists and African-American heroes and concludes that racism often underpinned their strategies. Despite their progressive politics, Kendi discerns racism in the words of people as revered as Frederick Douglass and Barack Obama. In 2008, during the presidential campaign, Obama delivered a speech on race. He acknowledged America’s racist past, but he rejected activist anger because he felt that it “keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition” in overcoming a “legacy of defeat”. For Kendi, Obama’s dismissal of justifiable anti-racist anger and his claim that African Americans were at fault as a racial group were classic examples of racist assimilationist rhetoric.

In Kendi’s estimation, consistently anti-racist activists have been much rarer, although Zora Neale Hurston and Angela Davis stand out. Davis was already active in the Black Power movement when she began teaching at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1969. The state’s young governor, Ronald Reagan, urged the university’s board to fire her because of her membership of the Communist Party; she was ousted the following year. Since then, she has spent decades exposing contemporary racism, especially as it targets black women.

Kendi draws from his own experience by suggesting that learning to be anti-racist requires personal effort. Admirably, he admits that he “held quite a few racist ideas” when he began writing and only slowly realised that the “only thing wrong with black people is that we think something is wrong with black people”. Intriguingly, Kendi is currently writing his next book recounting his journey to anti-racism. His emphasis on self-reflection and the labour required to be truly anti-racist is instructive. It is too easy to assume that we are not part of the problem if we openly espouse racial equality; yet, even the most well-intentioned person can be motivated by racist ideas.

Kendi’s most important insight might help rethink anti-racist activism. Racism is often explained as the consequence of racist ideas. Kendi rejects this causal relationship as ahistorical. For him, racist ideas did not preceed racism. Rather, racist policies designed to maintain America’s foundational white supremacy birthed racist ideas. As Frederick Douglass noted: “When men oppress their fellow men, the oppressor ever finds, in the character of the oppressed, full justification for his oppression.”

Many believe that racism will be defeated by showering racists with evidence disproving their fallacies. For Kendi, such strategies – whether uplift suasion, educational persuasion, or self-sacrifice – are bound to fail, precisely because they invert the causal relationship between policy and ideas. He argues that the powerful have not and will not abolish racial discrimination “as long as racism benefits them in some way”. One might expect Kendi to be despondent, but he believes that eradicating discriminatory policies will consign racist ideas to the past. He suggests that we are at a critical moment because anti-racists have created their own positions of power from which to demand justice. I write this shortly after the police officer Jeronimo Yanez’s acquittal of the manslaughter of Philando Castile in Minnesota and the death of Rashan Charles following his arrest in London. Sharing Kendi’s optimism is difficult, but perhaps it isn’t necessary as long as the fight continues.

Stamped from the Beginning is an un-yielding narrative of racist ideas, violence and harm. However, the book is also a history of refusals. From the enslaved choosing to run away, lead rebellions and fight for their freedom to the Black Power movement eschewing anti-blackness, resistance has secured accreting freedoms. Those rights helped to make it possible for Barack Obama to be elected US president. As he took office, many pundits insisted that America had entered an era of post-racial equality. Kendi rejects this disavowal of contemporary racism and dedicates the book “to the lives they said don’t matter”.

Writing as the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, the Charleston Nine and Sandra Bland came to light, Kendi traces the structural violence at the heart of American history and argues that now is the time to secure lasting change. Crucially, his anti-racism is rooted in Kimberlé Crenshaw’s notion of intersectionality. We are all urged to refuse racism, sexism, elitism, homophobia, ethnocentrism and class bias in favour of embracing humanity and ensuring that the dispossessed secure the right to be their “imperfect selves”. To be imperfectly human should never be a white privilege, or a black death sentence. 

Sadiah Qureshi is a senior lecturer in modern history at the University of Birmingham

Stamped from the Beginning: the Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America
Ibram X Kendi
Bodley Head, 592pp, £18.99

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This article appears in the 09 Aug 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon