On my last book challenge day, I continue my cheating ways by again sharing two books. These are by the same author, American University history professor Ibram X. Kendi. They are Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America and Kendi’s most recent book, How to Be an Antiracist.
I read How to Be an Antiracist first. This book is brilliant, tightly reasoned, and introspective. As I read, I found myself diving into my own self-reflection, then coming up for air to learn more about Kendi’s ideas. Kendi’s willingness to share his own intellectual and emotional journey impels the reader to their own, sometimes painful, self-examination.
Stamped from the Beginning is a history of racist ideas, and addresses questions like, Where did the anti-black racist ideas that bedevil American society come from? How did they develop and why? What makes them so powerful and persistent? Tracing the origins of these ideas from the beginnings of the European trade in enslaved African people, Kendi draws on the lives of five significant figures from American history to help us understand these questions, beginning with Puritan minister Cotton Mather (1663 – 1728) and concluding with activist Angela Davis (1944 – ).
On a personal, visceral level, I can’t imagine the amount of stamina and determination that Kendi must have summoned as he spent years immersed in these repugnant, raw, and ugly justifications for the inhumanity of slavery, Jim Crow, and modern-day discrimination in his study of racist ideas. But he concludes that “racial inequality is a problem of bad policy, not bad people.” He says that racist ideas are rooted in the attempt to justify self-interested choices that have racist effects. So, for example, the expedient of kidnapping and enslaving people to provide cheap, expendable labor resulted in the need to reconcile these immoral actions with the Christian faith professed by most of the enslavers. From this, the huge, teetering edifice of anti-black racist thought in America evolved.
We are often taught the Enlightenment notion that beliefs shape thoughts which result in actions–the ideal of reason as the basis of action. But Kendi’s history of racist ideas reveals that this gets it exactly backwards. As you look at the sweep of history, human beings make choices and then develop thoughts and beliefs to justify them. Along those lines, I think of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s dictum that ideology is what allows people to do things they know are wrong. To the contrary, for good or ill, it seems that acts ultimately create ideology, or at least reinforce it.
Kendi says that “a racist idea is any idea that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way” and an antiracist idea is essentially the opposite. He proposes that, in a racist society, it is not possible to be “non-racist” in the sense of being “colorblind” or neutral as regards to race. Instead, the alternative to racism is antiracism. Further, all of us hold some measure of racist and antiracist ideas and attitudes, so to become more fully antiracist requires constant self-reflection and struggle.