There are some books that just demand space on your bookshelf—not just because they’re interesting but also because these books break new ground in a way that will enrich your intellectual life. A new book on racism, Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, written by Ibram X. Kendi, Ph.D., a University of Florida professor of Africana studies, is such a book.
The winner of the 2016 National Book Award for nonfiction, Kendi has done something that’s damn near impossible: write a book about racism that breaks new ground, while being written in a way that’s accessible to the nonacademic. If you’ve ever been interested in how racist ideas spread throughout the United States, this is the book to read. The Root talked to Kendi about what inspired the book, why white people have a hard time dealing with their own racism and whether racism can ever be eliminated.
The Root: So what was the inspiration for a book on racist ideas? It seems like a daunting task to chronicle the development of racist ideas from even before the United States.
Ibram Kendi: I started working on Stamped around the time we heard the name Trayvon Martin, and I finished around the time some of us started saying her name, Sandra Bland. I begin the prologue mourning those human beings who died at the hands of police, telling readers that these “heartbreaks are a product of America’s history of racist ideas as much as this history of racist ideas is a product of these heartbreaks.” I dedicated Stamped to “the lives they said don’t matter.”
I must say it certainly was a daunting task, but no more daunting than the task of all those black families who are burying the loved ones with the fatal wounds of racism. It certainly was a daunting task, but no more daunting than the task of all those black felons who are struggling to find jobs. It certainly was a daunting task, but no more daunting than the task of poor black parents trying to secure Christmas gifts for their children. My task of chronicling nearly 600 years of racist ideas was daunting, but I always reminded myself that it was no more daunting than the task of actually trying to survive under the foot of racism.
TR: Racism is one of those American topics where everyone has an opinion but very few people have knowledge about the topic.
IK: Yes. So many people have such strong opinions, and oftentimes those opinions are weeds of racist ideas not rooted in facts. And then they close their minds off to the actual facts. But that is the story of racist ideas. I read through libraries of racist ideas over nearly six centuries that have claimed there is something wrong with black people as a group. I have yet to come across a single theory of black inferiority that is true and grounded in fact. I have only come across strong opinions.
TR: In Stamped, you break down history’s actors as being in three different groups. Can you please explain the groups and how you define them?
IK: I define a racist idea as any idea that suggests a racial group is superior or inferior to another racial group in any way. In Stamped I cover anti-black racist ideas, showing the two main groups of racist ideas: assimilationist and segregationist.
Segregationist ideas say black people are permanently or genetically inferior; black people are incapable of being civilized and developed; and their inferiorities are the cause of racial disparities.
Assimilationist ideas say genetically equal black people became inferior due to their degrading environment, whether that environment is hot climates, cultural pathology or the history of oppression. Assimilationist ideas convey black people as temporarily inferior, with the capacity to be civilized and developed one day; and they claim both black inferiority and racial discrimination [as the] cause of racial disparities.
If segregationist ideas convey that black people are inferior by nature, then assimilationist ideas convey that black people are inferior by nurture. Anti-racist ideas suggest black people are neither inferior by nature or by nurture; that the racial groups are equal, and racial discrimination causes racial disparities. Stamped chronicles this three-way racial debate over the course of history.
TR: When we think of individual and systemic racism, white Americans tend to think that they’re not racist, but the cliché of the ignorant white redneck is the racist. But you detail how racist ideas came from America’s best and brightest. Can you talk more about that?
IK: Well-educated whites fabricated the cliché of the ignorant white redneck to exonerate themselves of their racism, just like white Northerners fabricated the cliché of the racist South to exonerate their region of their racism. White Americans, generally speaking, have never thought of themselves as racist.
Hardly any of their segregating, colonizing, enslaving and slave-trading predecessors thought they were racist. They proclaimed that they were speaking the truth, the truth of science, of nature, of logic, of religion. It is all about how you define racism—and nearly everyone in history, nearly everyone today, defines their hierarchical ideas and discriminatory actions outside of racism.
TR: One question people always ask is whether one can end racism. What do you think?
IK: Racism is a collection of racist policies that lead to racial disparities that are substantiated by racist ideas. Over the course of American history, anti-racist activists have succeeded in terminating racist policies and ideas and narrowing racial disparities. But oftentimes, in the aftermath of this “racial progress,” racist activists have succeeded in creating new racist policies and ideas, a historical development I call the progression of racism.
I write about these two groups of activists to show that racism has always been a power struggle, an enduring contest of wills. Racism is not inevitable. Racism is only guaranteed to never end when anti-racist activists stop believing they can end it. Racism is only guaranteed to never end when anti-racist activists stop struggling to end it.
Lawrence Ross is the author of the Los Angeles Times best-seller The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities. His newest book, Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses, is a blunt and frank look at the historical and contemporary issue of campus racism on predominantly white college campuses. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.