A young historian has created a clearer picture of what racism is and how it continues to adapt to every new circumstance. He recently spoke at University Book Store in Seattle.
Ibram X. Kendi says there is nothing wrong with black people. There’s nothing wrong with women or sexual minorities or Native Americans. But there is something very wrong with policies that disadvantage so many people who have been defined as deficient.
Kendi won the 2016 National Book Award for nonfiction for his effort to bring some clarity to the development and operation of racism in America. His book, “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” is ambitious, well-researched and worth the time of anyone who wants to understand racism.
The book is a history of racism that begins before colonization of the Americas and advances to the present. Instead of the usual racist-antiracist arguments, he describes a three-way debate that runs through history, and he uses five people from different eras as anchors for his narrative, from Puritan minister Cotton Mather to activist scholar Angela Davis. He also demonstrates that self-interested discrimination gives birth to racist ideas, not the other way around.
People who benefited from slavery spread the idea that black people were inherently inferior and better off under the hand of a white Christian master. People today explain deficits in education by talking about deficits they see in black children rather than deficits in educational systems or tax, hiring, housing and other policies and practices that disadvantage black families.
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He spoke Thursday at the University Book Store in Seattle. Kendi, a newspaper reporter turned historian, is an assistant professor of African-American history at the University of Florida, Gainesville.
Constant police shootings of young black men started him researching the history of racism. And he admits that he began with an idea he shared with many people — that racism is evil, but that black deficiencies are also part of the problem.
We can all improve ourselves, but discrimination against black people and the exploitation of black people required the justifying narratives provided by racist ideas, and those ideas are sometimes shared even by people who want better outcomes for black people.
Kendi writes that, “For nearly six centuries, antiracist ideas have been pitted against two kinds of racist ideas: segregationist and assimilationist.” Both kinds of racist ideas try to explain why white people do so well and black people suffer the harmful end of multiple disparities.
The segregationist says black people are lazy, dumb, dangerous and ugly, while whites set the standard for all that is good, so they have separate places in society.
The assimilationist, often with good intentions, says racism is real and has harmed black people. Black people have the capacity to change — to become more like white people — with a little help and time. (Remember when the country tried to educate the Indian out of Native Americans?)
The antiracist says people are people, and differences in outcome can be traced to discriminatory policies. There is nothing wrong with black people. The fault lies in intentional roadblocks to black success.
People of any race can hold any one of the three positions, he said, and the specifics of the positions change over time, evolving as racism adapts to new circumstances.
Kendi shows a history in which progress and new versions of racism arise almost simultaneously. Slavery is defeated, but Jim Crow arises. Jim Crow is beaten and mass incarceration begins.
The country elects its first president who has a black parent, and a movement arises to take back America, to make America great again. A lot has been written after this last presidential election about forgotten blue-collar white guys coming together to support Donald Trump — this despite the harm his policies could cause them, as well as the people those guys think are getting undeserved benefits.
Kendi writes about the times when white elites have crafted messages that divide white and black people and draw white people to support rich folks who do nothing good for them. People, for instance, who died trying to preserve the wealth of big planters, but who believed they were fighting for their own honor.
Kendi says the solution to racism is not in educating the consumers of racist ideas, but in tearing down the racist polices those ideas exist to support.
Thursday, Kendi said all those disparities in income, employment, incarceration, health outcomes, all of them are evidence of racism. “I don’t need a white-only sign in my face,” he said. “There is nothing more overt than a racial disparity.” The disparity either means there is something wrong with black people, or there is discrimination.
He’s right. We need to eliminate some sentences from our repertoire. Racism is real, but black people … Sexism is real, but women … There’d be less bias against gays if they’d …
We need to act like we were all created equal and fight against policies that undermine that equality for the benefit of people who gain through discrimination.