Kendi lays a few deceptively simple building blocks as the foundation for this definitive history of racist ideas. First is how he defines a racist idea: “it is any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way.” It doesn’t matter if that idea is implied or explicit, state or unstated, inscribed in law or deed. If someone says that black people ought to be more like white people in any way, the implication is that black people are less and whites are more—and that is simply racist. Apply that rule to everyday discourse, to media representations of white and black folks, and to laws and policies and create disparities in wealth, incarceration rates, and educational access, and you see a world pulsing with racist ideas like radioactive contamination.
Second, he identifies three lines of argument about racial difference that have been in constant tension for the past seven centuries or so. Segregationist ideas deal in white supremacy and non-white inferiority; segregationists blame the problems of black people on black people or blackness itself. Assimilationist ideas blame the problems of black people on both discrimination and on black people; the classic “lift yourself up by the bootstraps” argument suggests that black people can exert effort to counter the weight of discrimination, but of course also implies there was something wrong with blackness to begin with. Antiracist ideas reject all of that: there is nothing wrong with black people–they are worthy of love, respect, and power.
Third, Kendi inverts the traditional narrative that hate and hateful people produce racist ideas. The history many people have been fed is that hate or ignorance is what produced racist ideas and that those ideas then led to everyday discrimination. He demonstrations over 700 years of history the exact opposite. His formula: “Racial discrimination–>racist ideas–>ignorance/hate: this is the causal relationship driving America’s history of race relations.” Moreover, “racially discriminatory policies have usually sprung from economic, political, and cultural self-interests, self-interests that are constantly changing” (pg 9). In this way, the actions of powerful individuals and groups create discrimination, and that discrimination generates racist ideas, which make other individuals and groups come to hate people of color. If the discrimination serves a particular economic or cultural interest, then that discrimination is what generates the lies and nonsense that are the grist of racist ideas, and those that ingest that poison become hateful and fearful.
Individual people, acting alone and in groups, make specific decisions to discriminate on the basis of race. In so doing, they generate racist ideas that fuel hate. Individual people with political, economic, and social power create racist ideas. For a very long time, the creation of those racist ideas was overt and blatant. It is now largely covert. Understanding the history of those racist ideas is critical to understanding the history of the United States. If you’ve visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture, then it becomes crystal clear that the history of racist ideas is the essential story of the United States. This book adds immense depth to that ongoing story.
But if racist ideas are made by individuals wielding power, they can be unmade. Knowing where they came from is an important place to start.
Kendi’s clever organization loosely follows five individual lives and the intellectual milieu sounding their ideas about race. So while the first section, on protestant political writer Cotton Mather, begins in the 1630s, it also reaches back to explain the origins of western racist ideas. Aristotle concocted a climate theory of race in the 4th century BCE, arguing that people in hot climates were incapable of the superior culture, science, and politics of cooler climates, namely his home of Greece. The Romans leaned on this climate theory of race to justify slavery within their empire, and then St. Paul described a human hierarchy in his letters, canonized in the New Testament. Puritans like Mather imported these ideas from Europe to America. but hundreds of year earlier, a Muslim writer in Tunisia, Ibn Khaldun, laid out a climate theory in his 1377 history, The Muqaddimah. He asserted that sub-Saharan African nations where “submissive to slavery,” but added the idea that darker-skinned people could physically assimilate in colder climates: their skin would lighten as they moved north, he claimed. But the climate theory Khaldun championed was in tension with an even earlier “curse theory” of racial difference based upon verses in the book of Genesis saying that God laid a curse upon Noah, marking the lineage of his son Ham as dark-skinned people. Climate theory allowed Islamic and Christian slavers alike to take captives of any color–including ethnic Slavs from around the Black sea–while curse theory would later become the driving idea behind the enslavement of black peoples alone.
A series of writers in the 15th and 16th centuries solidified the ideas that justified the expansion of the European slave trade. Gomes Eanes de Zurara argued that Prince Henry of Portugal welcomed the importation of slaves in order to turn them to “the true path of salvation.” Leo Africanus, himself a black Moroccan who was enslaved and later given to Pope Leo X, wrote a scholarly tract claiming that African nations were “beastly.” He passed off his denigration of African peoples as “truth” and demonstrated that racist ideas can spring from individuals of any race or skin tone.
So from the very beginning of this long line of racist ideas, we see individuals concocting ideas to serve a specific political or economic purposes. Classifying darker-skinned people as less than lighter-skinned people justified slavery, which made slave-trading empires immensely wealthy. Claiming that slavery could save the souls of captives reinforced the climate justification, and the “curse” theory also gave Christian slavers more intellectual fodder to bolster the economic arrangements that benefited their coffers. Cotton Mather’s consequential contribution, Kendi writes, was to lead “the way in producing the racist idea of Christianity simultaneously subduing and uplifting the enslaved African” (pg 75). Whites could defend their dominance and the oppression of black people using a version of Christianity that said their complexion made them better, but that their religion could recuse the souls of the people they enslaved.
Confusing? Just wait until Thomas Jefferson enters the scene. Kendi demonstrates that the writer of the Declaration of Independence was an extraordinary thinker in his ability to combine segregationist and antiracist ideas into the same sentence. Freed blacks could never be part of American politics, Jefferson wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia. Kendi quotes him: “Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries that have sustained; new provocations; real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions, which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race” (pg 108). In that jumble: the antiracist idea that whites have injured blacks, the segregationist idea that whites and blacks are differentiated by nature, a pro-slavery argument that abolishing slavery would be politically dangerous, and the antislavery idea that blacks could somehow be freed and then not allowed to be part of the state. Jefferson’s solution? Educate blacks, free them from slavery, and then send them back to colonize Africa. Kendi’s attempt to untangle the evolving contradictions in Jefferson’s writing, politics, and personal life is almost humorous, so contorted are the third president’s contributions to the bedrock of racist ideas in the United States.
During Jefferson’s time, Kendi also documents the crystallization of the racist idea of “uplift suasion” that would later underpin the “bootstraps” ideas that persist to today. Abolitionists argued that the eradication of slavery depended not on the ideas and decisions of whites, but on the behavior of freed blacks, who they thought should assimilated completely and adopt white culture, education, and conduct. In this way, white people who saw blacks behaving this way would be persuaded to drop their ideas that blacks were inferior. “The burden of race relations was placed squarely on the shoulders of Black Americans,” Kendi writes, a fact that persists into the present moment, and an important reminder to contemporary white allies that responsibility for undoing racism falls in large part to them, a fact long obfuscated by racist ideas like uplift suasion (pg 125).
From here, the historical trail Kendi follows is clear, infuriating, and an essential summary of the core ideas about who gets to be part of American society and who will be marginalized and exploited.
The section on abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison tracks the rise of anti-slavery ideas alongside the assimilationist ideas about black education, “soulfulness,” and returning to Africa. Kendi also captures the simple political expediency of Abraham Lincoln’s decision to empancipate slaves during the Civil War. The historian quotes the former president, who penned this in a Washington newspaper column: “My paramount objective in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery… If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.” So just to be clear: Lincoln saw that Union as being for the white people, not for the millions of slaves freed by his decrees.
The long narrative woven around the life of W.E.B DuBois follows the thinker’s evolution from a proponent of uplift suasion to the anti-racism that marked his later work. Born during the Civil War, DuBois saw the advance of black political power during Reconstruction, the horrific violence and state oppression in the south that returned black citizens to conditions that mirrored slavery, and he died in 1963, the day before the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The final chapters of this section capture an important counter narrative to the popular interpretation of how civil rights legislation advanced during the Kennedy administration. The terrible images of Bull Connor’s attacks, using dogs and fire hoses on black protesters in Birmingham, horrified and galvanized civil rights activists in the United States—but those same images, broadcast around the world to non-white, decolonizing nations severely hampered the Kennedy administration’s ability to develop credible diplomatic relations with those countries. The “domestic race problem,” in the words of a State Department official, damaged the U.S. reputation abroad. Kendi explains: “But not many inside (or outside) of the Kennedy administration were willing to admit that the growing groundswell of support in Washington for strong civil rights legislation had more to do with winning the Cold War in Africa and Asia than with helping African Americans.” Civil Rights legislation passed. American influence abroad continued to expand.
If the arc of ideas during DuBois’s lifetime bent towards racial progress, then the arc of ideas in the final section, organized around Angela Davis, clearly demonstrate Kendi’s observation that “racist policies could progress in the face of racial progress.” (He elaborated on that idea on the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration in this New York Times column.)
During her lifetime, Davis has been a target of the state’s repressive law enforcement apparatus, and she is still fighting to this day against political repression and incarceration of millions of people of color. During her lifetime, the most destructive segregationist and assimilationist ideas in American thought have shifted from the overt racism civil rights activists stared down in the 1960s to the “law and order” rhetoric that characterized conservative and Republican campaigns from Richard Nixon onward (and that Bill Clinton co-opted in the 1990s). In parallel, Kendi also unpacks how writers and thinkers like Davis pushed back against the layers of intersectional racism that doubly and triply repressed women of color, poor people of color, and queer people of color. Kendi quotes from Davis’s book, Women, Race & Class: “racism has always been a divisive force separating black men and white men, and sexism has been a force that unites the two groups.”
In his closing, Kendi points out that his history is not merely of racist ideas, but of the failure of many strategies used over to time to counter that variety of racist ideas. “Self-sacrifice, uplift suasion, and educational persuasion” have all failed, he argues. That last idea, educational persuasion, is of particular interest to me, in part because I work in education and in part because I tend to read books like Stamped From the Beginning with the intention of gathering facts to share in service of educational persuasion. But Kendi knocks that down, returning to his original framework: ignorance did not lead to hate, then racist ideas, then racist policies. “In fact, self-interest leads to racist policies, which lead to racist ideas leading to all the ignorance and hate,” he writes. That was true for Gomes Eanes de Zurara and Prince Henry of Portugal; it remains true for the Republican state legislators in North Carolina who gerrymandered congressional districts “with almost surgical precision” to isolate black and Democratic voters.
So what to do? Kendi ends the book talking about power and the necessity to focus pressure, advocacy, and protest on those who hold it: “An antiracist America can only be guaranteed if principled antiracists are in power, and then antiracist policies become the law of the land, and then antiracist ideas become the common sense of the people, and then the antiracist common sense of the people holds those antiracist leaders and policies accountable.”
So that is the work.