The Chronicle Review

Reframing Racism

David Massey for The Chronicle Review

In his new book, the U. of Florida’s Ibram X. Kendi "attempts to turn our thinking about race upside down."
December 02, 2016

Ibram X. Kendi hugged his wife, climbed to the stage at the National Book Awards, and turned to address the black-tie-clad literati gathered at Cipriani Wall Street, an event space in New York. His Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation Books) had just won the prize for nonfiction, and he acknowledged, among others, his 6-month-old daughter, Imani, whose name, in Swahili, means "faith."

"Her name of course has a new meaning for us as the first black president is set to leave the White House and as a man who was emphatically endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan is about to enter," said Kendi. "I just want to let everyone know that I spent years looking at the absolute worst of America. … But in the end, I never lost faith … that the terror of racism would one day end."

Winning a National Book Award would be a career capstone for almost any scholar. For Kendi, it’s all the sweeter coming so early in his career. Stamped From the Beginning is only his second book, and the assistant professor of African-American history at the University of Florida is only 34, the youngest person to win the award in nonfiction in more than 30 years.

A 'scholar-activist in the best tradition of black studies.'
Academic excellence did not come easily to Kendi. As a freshman at a public high school in Queens, N.Y., he got poor grades, doing "just enough to stay on the basketball team," he said by phone the day after winning the award. His parents moved the family to Manassas, Va., where Kendi became more interested in his studies — "because I had no friends and nothing else to do," he said, laughing.

After studying journalism and African-American studies as an undergraduate at Florida A&M, he entered the graduate program in African-American studies at Temple University. His parents, both now Methodist ministers, were student activists in college, inspired by black-liberation theology. Kendi, too, became active on campus, as well as in the surrounding North Philadelphia community, helping to establish a black student union and to organize a response to the Jena Six convictions, and working on local issues.

He also started studying academe and was struck by "the sheer scale" of the black campus movement. "Everywhere I looked, black students were organizing BSUs, demanding, and sometimes protesting," he said. This became the focus of his first book, The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). The students had good reason for their activism, Kendi thought. Entire scholarly disciplines could be linked, historically, to eugenicist roots and racist ideas.

He has been critical of his own field, writing in 2010 of the "decaying social mission of black studies." He challenged curricula that do not require black-studies students to systematically observe or participate in the black community. "Imagine a medical student who does not regularly visit a medical facility or … an aeronautical student who hardly ever flies a plane," he wrote.

His remedy for "the pervasive production of socially irresponsible black-studies practitioners" detached from the real concerns of the black community? Bring service-learning courses into the heart of the curriculum. In his first book, he also criticized the ways in which college-diversity administrators sometimes downplay "the very campus activism that once brought measurable diversity to their institution."

Stamped From the Beginning, which takes its title from an 1860 speech that Jefferson Davis gave on the floor of the U.S. Senate, was conceived as a history of the origins of black studies, but a conversation with his father-in-law, also a black campus activist, led Kendi to reframe the project. He discovered that as students "were challenging academia as racist, they were redefining racist ideas in the process."

The book that resulted, he said, "attempts to turn our thinking about race upside down." In it, he argues that it is erroneous to attribute racist ideas to "the boiling pot of ignorance and hate." Rather, racist ideas stem from racially discriminatory policies. Those policies lead to racial disparities, which in turn necessitate racist ideas as justification for the state of things. Behind the racist policies themselves often sits the straightforward self-interest of those in power.

Kendi writes that "racist ideas are ideas. Anyone can produce them or consume them," himself included; when beginning the book, he "held quite a few racist ideas." That was before he fully understood, through his research, that if one truly believes that racial groups are equal, racial discrimination is the only explanation for racial disparities.

In tracing the evolution of racist ideas, he enlists five tour guides: Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Angela Davis. Stamped From the Beginning assesses these thinkers according to how they, and many of their contemporaries, rationalize racial disparities. "Segregationists" blame black people themselves; "assimilationists" accept biological racial equality but blame cultural, behavioral, or environmental factors; and "anti­racists" point to racial discrimination. Kendi’s definition of a racist idea is simple: "Any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way."

Because Kendi considers the thought of "assimilationists" as well as that of "segregationists" to be racist, he believes that Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Du Bois, and President Obama, among many others, have had racist ideas. As the Washington Post critic Carlos Lozada put it in a review of the book, theirs is "the unending and unwitting racism of the well meaning."

Kendi also dwells on old, popular, and, in his view, doomed strategies to combat racist ideas: "Sacrifice, uplift, persuasion, and education have not eradicated, are not eradicating, and will not eradicate racist ideas, let alone racist policies," he writes. Why not? People with power will not forsake their self-interest.

What has proven effective in advancing antiracism, for Kendi, are "fiercely local" protests with energetic mobilization and "chesslike planning." They include "strikes, occupations, insurrections, campaigns, and fiscal and bodily boycotts," all of which clearly articulate their demands. But even strategies like these are of limited value. "An antiracist America can only be guaranteed if principled antiracists are in power," Kendi writes, and if antiracist ideas, policies, and accountability proliferate. Not something likely to occur anytime soon, in other words. Kendi, who has ranked "The 11 Most Racist U.S. Presidents," thinks Donald Trump will be among the most racist in history.

In Stamped From the Beginning, Kendi takes issue with those who, like Columbia University’s John McWhorter, assert that the election of Barack Obama ushered in a postracial America. "The postracial line of attack may have been the most sophisticated silencer" of antiracist efforts to date, Kendi writes. Others in the discipline agree. Yohuru Williams, a professor of history at Fairfield University, says the field is "under assault" by those "questioning whether black studies is viable in the so-called ‘postracial’ America."

Beyond that, Keisha-Khan Y. Perry, an associate professor of Africana studies at Brown University, says that "like area studies, black studies is still marginalized within some institutions, despite strides made in forwarding the discipline." She chalks this up to black studies’ fundamental mission of social justice as well as its diverse and interdisciplinary theoretical and methodological approaches. Kendi’s book offers a bold and impressive contribution to the current antiracism agenda, she says.

Williams calls Kendi a "scholar-activist in the best tradition of black studies," following the core directive of the field: "Work should be descriptive, prescriptive, and corrective."

Kendi, for his part, is working on a sequel.

David Wescott is a staff editor at The Chronicle Review.