Kendi on “The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America”

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Ibram X. Kendi visited Yale on October 3 for a conversation about his book “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” winner of the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction. Professor Kendi discussed the book with David W. Blight, Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition and Class of 1954 Professor of American History at Yale.

Professor Kendi is faculty at the History Department of American University as well as Director of The Antiracist Research & Policy Center. “Stamped from the Beginning” is his second book, the result of more than two years of full-time research to uncover the roots of racist ideas. By “racist ideas,” Kendi is referring to, in his own words and definition, “any idea that suggests a racial group is superior or inferior to another group, in any way.” 

“Once I was able to define a racist idea and an antiracist idea, as a historian, you just go out and search.” He began with the 1800s, but much like pulling on a thread that doesn’t seem to end, his reading traced all the way back to the 1500s. After countless revisions of outlining, Kendi organized his findings into five parts, each part of the book named after a key producer of representative racist and anti-racist thoughts of their era.

A key finding of this exhaustive study is, in Kendi’s words, that “racist ideas have in fact moved people for the good, but usually in the long run for the bad. The belief that slavery was making Black people into brutes” helped end slavery, but when slavery was abolished, this same belief was used to justify the idea that Black people “were not yet ready for civil rights.” In other words, highlighting discrepancies between racial groups helped expose inequalities, but more often such ideas became lasting roots of discrimination. Jefferson, who, as Kendi joked, “secretly loved Blacks,” nonetheless adhered to the “colonizationist” school of racist thought of sending black people back to Africa for the sake of peace and “emancipation.” When Black citizens refused to “voluntarily leave the country,” Jefferson became angry and accused them of being “unpatriotic.”

“At first I [approached the issue] believing that people producing these ideas either hated or didn’t know about black people,” Kendi recounted. “Many of the producers [of racist ideas] were some of the—by all accounts—the most brilliant minds [of their time]: Thomas Jefferson, Calhoun…Definitely not ignorant. How do you account for this?”

Kendi came to the conclusion that these racist ideas “came out of a need to justify racist policies that typically benefitted [the privileged].” There were only two ways to explain the adoption and existence of such racist policies: either that the Black population was inferior, or the policy is wrong. “Racist policies led to racist ideas,” Kendi concluded. “It’s probably better to focus on fixing policies than fixing ideas.” He acknowledges the fact that to fix policies requires first convincing people, which won’t be easy. His third book, How to be an Antiracist, aims to address this difficulty and offers concrete ways people can contribute “to the formation of a truly just and equitable society.” It is projected to be published in June 2019.