by Ellen Isaacs
Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram Kendi is indeed, as it claims to be, a very complete history of the origin and practice of anti-black racism in the United States. The story begins with the development of racist ideas of African inferiority as the rationale for the capture and brutalization of Africans for enslavement by the Portugese in the 1400s. The author then traces the history of the importation of these racist ideas to the Americas to justify slavery and the continuation of discrimination to this day.
What is particularly thought provoking is the author’s characterization of seemingly non-racist ideas as being all too often actually racist in content, ideas which he characterizes as “assimilationist.” Assimilationists hold the idea that black behavior is inferior and attribute this inferiority to environmental factors, such as climate, culture, poverty or discrimination. In other words, the standards and culture of the predominant white society are assumed to be superior and the failure of blacks adopt that standard must be explained and overcome. Until twenty years ago, when DNA mapping proved we are all one species with more individual than group variation, most subscribed to the view of black and white being biologically distinct groups. Assimilationists, however, even now see blacks as a whole having less desirable traits than whites. Anti-racists, on the other hand, recognize disparities that result from ever-present discrimination, but do not see black people as having been rendered inferior. They see blacks as individuals, who each harbor strengths and weaknesses, but deny that there is any such thing as group traits that can be attributed to all or even many blacks.
Kendi also wishes to make clear the causes of racist ideas. He disputes the oft-repeated concept that racism arises out of ignorance or inborn human proclivities, which then cause discrimination. Conversely, racial discrimination leads to racist ideas, and then to ignorance and hate. Racial discrimination springs from “economic, political, and cultural self-interest…Capitalists seeking to increase profit margins have primarily created and defended discriminatory policies out of economic self-interest.”(pp 7-8). In his conclusion, he reiterates that “If racism is eliminated, many white people in the top economic and political brackets fear that it would eliminate one of the most effective tools they have at their disposal to conquer and control and exploit not only non-whites, but also both low-income and middle-income white people.” (p508) Thus it is a matter of power, not the lack of education or moral betterment, that maintains the sway of racist ideas. “Power cannot be educated away from its self-interest.”
In between these broad statements about racism are 500 pages of details of American history, many of which will be familiar to our readers, but some not. It is interesting to recall that William Lloyd Garrison, a leading abolitionist of the early 1800s, fought for an immediate end to slavery but only gradual equality, reflecting the common belief that blacks had been rendered so incapable of thought and judgment by their bondage as to be unable to function independently. Others proposed removal of ex-slaves to Africa or other distant lands – colonization – feeling that they could never be equal citizens in the U.S. As to the path to liberation, Garrison opposed violence, such as Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, and hoped that moral persuasion would end the heinous practice of slavery.
Frederick Douglass, a runaway slave and the leading 19th century black abolitionist, saw the need for black organizing, but thought that the environment of Africa and the experience of slavery had made the black man into a socially and morally inferior being. After completing his education at Harvard, he believed that some blacks could equal whites through education, what Kendi calls “upward suasion,” and that most white Americans could be rid of racist ideas through their own education. Thus he simultaneously harbored anti-racist, assimilationist, and upward suasion ideas.
Abraham Lincoln, the politician credited with the actual end of slavery, did not see the Civil War as a struggle to end that practice, nor had he a belief in black equality. In 1862, Lincoln said, “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.”(p219) The actual Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 freed about 50,000 slaves in Union occupied Confederate states, but continued slavery for nearly half a million in border states, in order to woo their owners to Union loyalty.(p221) Lincoln also favored colonization of freed slaves to either Haiti or Liberia, feeling that the black race could never be equal to the white. Only with the end of the Civil War and the 13th Amendment were all slaves finally liberated. Thus the circumstance of Lincoln’s presidency during this tumultuous struggle for national unity has endowed his legacy with anti-racist content, when he was actually a racist opponent of slavery.
Many other anti-racists, such as W.E.B. Dubois, Malcolm X and Angela Davis are profiled in depth in these pages, more than we can delve into here. But a portrait very relevant to the present is Barack Obama, the embodiment of racial reconciliation, the usher of the post-racial society. Although the Democratic Party had expected Hillary Clinton to be its nominee, Obama’s skillful oratory and optimistic call for change captured the electorate. He first had to confront anti-racist ideas when his friend, the pastor Jeremiah Wright, was quoted as saying, “The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America’. No, no, no…God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human.”(p490) Obama described Wright as having a “profoundly distorted view,” and explained that because of discrimination blacks had disrupted families and defeatist attitudes. He blamed the poor attitudes of young black people for leading them to unproductive lives as opposed to fewer opportunities and little wealth resulting from discrimination. Although Obama often called for an end to discriminatory practices, he just as often called for an end to poor black behavior. The millions who had been thrilled by the advent of the first black president were immersed in the illusion of the end of racism, a wish far-removed from reality, as that president promoted assimilationist and not anti-racist views.
Kendi is clear that a “society of equal opportunity,without a top 1 per cent hoarding the wealth and power, would actually benefit the vast majority of white people much more than racism does”. (p504) He disparages the concept of white privilege and declares it in the interest of whites to be free of racism – “altruism is not required.” However, it is a weakness of the book that does not make the point that the anti-racist movement must be multiracial, both in membership and leadership. He does not critique the rising tendency for organizations founded by black anti-racists, such as Black Lives Matter, to become nationalist and exclusionary of anti-racist whites, perhaps a reason they are funded by the ruling class (Soros and the Ford Foundation in this case). No movement can be large enough or strong enough to threaten the power of the 1% unless it is multiracial. Nor can we overcome the trenches of separation dug deep between us unless we organize and fight together. Kendi does say that protests are not enough and must be part of a larger strategy to alter the structure of power. But for simply learning what happened on the journey of racism and thinking about what racism really means, this is a highly worthwhile volume.