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On the floor for the U.S. Senate, debating a bill to fund education for black Americans, Senator Jefferson Davis explained “this government was not founded by negroes nor for negroes,” but “by white men for white men.” This education bill was based on the false notion of racial equality, according to Davis, the “inequality of the white and black races” was “stamped from the beginning.” It was April 12, 1860.


Ibram X. Kendi’s book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America explains racism this way: “any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way.” Many Americans think there is something wrong with Black people. To say there is something wrong with a group is to say something inferior about that group. All racial groups have lazy, unwise and harmful members, as well as industrious, wise, and harmless members. No racial group, according to Kendi “has ever had a monopoly on any type of human trait or gene –not now, not ever.” Kendi goes on to differentiate between the three sides to racial arguments: segregationists, who blame Black people themselves for the racial disparities, antiracists, who point to racial discrimination as the reason for racial disparities, and the assimilationists, who argue both sides, saying that Black people AND racial discrimination are to blame for racial disparities. Assimilationists are particularly tricky. They often embrace biological racial equality, but point to environment – climate, discrimination, culture, or poverty as the reasons for inferior Black behaviors. As a result, assimilationists encourage Black Americans to just be more like White Americans culturally and physically.


And while we are discussing terms, Kendi defines racial disparities as the ways that racial groups are not statistically represented according to population. For example, Black Americans constitute 13.2 percent of the population, but do not own 13.2 percent of the wealth, make up 13.2 percent of the prison population, or account for 13.2 percent of deaths by the police. Instead, Black Americans own 2.7 percent of the wealth, make up 40 percent of the incarcerated population, and are twenty-one times more likely to be killed by the police than white Americans.


So what explains these racial disparities? Kendi argues that since the fifteenth century, it has been a three-sided battle – antiracist ideas against segregationists and assimilationists, with good and evil both failing and triumphing. Consider, for example, the ways that Americans claimed Black cultural, behavioral (or both) inferiority yet refused to acknowledge those claims as racist. Instead, they claimed the inferiority of Black Americans was due to God’s word, nature’s design, science, or ‘common sense.’


In 1960s America, discussions of race became more covert, but racial policies did not. Of course antiracists have made significant progress, but so have racist reformers. The abolition of slavery encouraged racial progress, but the legalization of Jim Crow policies instituted racist policies. The outlawing of Jim Crow encouraged racial progress, but legalization of more covert discrimination policies have led to our current reality.


For me, Kendi’s most powerful point was this one: “time and again, powerful and brilliant men and women have produced racist ideas in order to justify the racist policies of their era, in order to redirect the blame for their era’s racial disparities away from those policies and onto Black people.” Most of us are taught that ignorant and hateful people produced racists ideas, and then they instituted racist policies. But Kendi contends that racial discrimination led to racist ideas, which led to ignorance and hate. One of my history professors always claimed that history was really just humanity looking for ways to excuse their bad behavior.


I hear an awful lot of assimilationist talk, in addition to racist and antiracist talk. What does it look like to be a white American who is antiracist?



Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, (New York: Nation Books), 2016.

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

9 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    This is helpful.

  • Magnificent once again. Thank you for your insights. I think that this book will be added to my summer reading list.

    Blessings,

    Mark

  • Jon Lunderberg says:

    Thank you for an insightful review of “Stamped from the Beginning”. Last August (2019), NPR interviewed Ibram Kendi when he was promoting his new book, “How to be an Antiracist”. A friend recommended that I read “Stamped from the Beginning” first. The history and the stories Kendi tells in “Stamped from the Beginning” helped me see and understand situations from different perspectives.

  • Rowland Van Es says:

    You can test yourself of hidden racial and other forms of bias at the following site https://www.tolerance.org/professional-development/test-yourself-for-hidden-bias

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Rebecca, for your sketch of Kindi’s book, “Stamped from the Beginning.” Of course Kindi has a strong bias in his take on racism. His view is just one of many views and not the definitive way of looking at racism. He is boldly socialist leaning and strongly anti-capitalism. He will point out the harm that U.S. capitalism has done as a contributor to racism without pointing out the good of capitalism in making the U.S. one the strongest democracies of the world and perhaps the largest contributor to foreign aid to other countries. He would like reparations made to Black Americans in the form of social programs that will favor, not just the poor, but especially Afro-Americans because of their sad history. Is that what we need, a larger welfare program? Kindi is not the sole authority on racism. He is one of many, and one with a far left leaning perspective. He may be insightful with his three sided perspective on racism, but recognize it as his perspective and is open to criticism like any other view. So don’t be too quick to jump on his bandwagon.

    • Rebecca Koerselman says:

      Interesting redirect on Kendi’s ideas. I’m not one for bandwagons, but I do find ideas compelling. I think Kendi’s ideas are thought-provoking, particularly on race. As a white American, I find listening to Black American voices and ideas to be important.

      • Thank you for the information on the term “antiracist” that I’ve been hearing, and for the description of parallel terms, Rebecca, and for your counter perspective on the author, RLG. Both are very thought provoking.

    • Daniel J Meeter says:

      The largest contributor to foreign aid? If you don’t count military aid? And you compare by per capita?

  • Matt Huisman says:

    “As a result, assimilationists encourage Black Americans to just be more like White Americans culturally and physically.“

    What does it even mean to be ‘like White Americans’? Other than being the ultimate cultural appropriators, I’m at a loss.

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