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How Racism Spreads: Ibram Kendi Discusses His Book and Research

By Gregg Sangillo

Ibram Kendi's book explores the history of racist ideas in America.

Ibram Kendi's book explores the history of racist ideas in America. "Racist ideas are not meant to be true. They’re meant to be believed,” he says.

On the weekend a woman was killed protesting white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, former president Barack Obama quoted the late Nelson Mandela on Twitter. Borrowing from Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Obama wrote in three statements: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love. For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

This became the most “liked” tweet in the social media platform’s entire history. Yet it also raises a profoundly important question: If people aren’t with born with racist hate, how are those noxious ideas so widely disseminated?

A great place to explore this subject is Ibram X. Kendi’s award-winning book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Kendi is a new American University professor in the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of International Service, and he’s launching the Antiracist Research and Policy Center here. He’ll be presenting his vision for the center in the SIS Founders Room on September 26. He is also participating in "Black Lives from Campus to Congress," a September 12 forum celebrating the launch of the new African American and African Diaspora Studies major.

Over the summer, he spoke with University Communications and Marketing about what he discovered while researching and writing Stamped from the Beginning. The conversation below has been edited for clarity.

UCM: When you wrote this book, what were you seeking to find?

Kendi: “I was seeking to discover and chronicle the history of racist ideas in America. And I initially had to define what a racist idea is, and I ended up defining it as any idea that suggests a racial group is superior or inferior to another racial group in any way. And I didn’t really expect to go as far back into history as I did. I did not expect to leave America and go back to England. And leave England and ultimately arrive at the beginning of racist ideas in 15th century Portugal. I was as surprised as anyone that these ideas stretched back so far and were as pervasive. And that they’re still pervasive today.”

UCM: So, is your theory that racist beliefs actually stem from racist policies?

Kendi: “Yes. I began the research assuming that people created racist ideas to suggest there was something inferior about black people, born out of ignorance or even hate. And then I assumed that these people who had these ideas were the very people who instituted, or even defended, policies like slavery, segregation, or even mass incarceration. But through doing the research, I started distinguishing between the producers of racist ideas and consumers, and decided that I wanted to write a history of the producers. I wanted to not only write a history of the ideas, but I wanted to contextualize those ideas and describe the environment in which they were being born. And I realized that these people who were producing these ideas were producing them to defend existing racist policies. And typically those racist policies benefited them in some particular type of way—either economically, politically, or even culturally.”

UCM: If you go back to the early periods of slavery, I assume white plantation owners wanted to use slaves for unpaid labor and economic profit. So, to justify that, did they spread these ideas that African Americans were inferior?

Kendi: “Yes. And racist ideas usually come out when these ideas are being challenged, so you need to have some sort of rationale for continuing these policies. For instance, the abolitionist movement largely rose in the early 1830s, and sort of crystallized in 1835, when the new American Anti-Slavery Society sent all these abolitionist pamphlets all over the country, including the South. So, Southerners, particularly slave-holding Southerners, felt like they were under attack. What these abolitionists did very smartly was they turned the justification for slavery being a necessary evil on its head, and showed, ‘No, it’s an unnecessary evil.’ So, John C. Calhoun—who was probably the most important intellectual defender of slavery at the time—stood up before his colleagues in the US Senate and stated that slavery is a positive good. And then that became the new justification for slavery. Then in 1840, the new Census that was conducted included a category for insane people, and this new category found that black people were ten times more likely to be insane in the North than in the South. And the message was, ‘You see, freedom is literally driving black people crazy. Slavery is actually better for them.’ Then Edward Jarvis, the researcher who originally circulated those statistics, looked closer at the data. He found that some Northern towns had more black insane people than they had black people. And he said, ‘I was wrong.’ But slaveholding defenders who used his thesis did not suddenly say, ‘OK, let’s stop using it.’ No, they continued to use the Census of 1840 to defend slavery as a positive good.”

UCM: That’s interesting because you see parallels to that today. People put out false information and maybe it gets disproven, but the damage is already done.

Kendi: “Exactly. What people don’t understand, I think, about racist ideas, is these racist ideas are not meant to be true. They’re meant to be believed.”

UCM: One thing you’ve written is that we can have racial progress and racist progress at the same time. Can you expand on that a bit?

Kendi: “That was one of the major frameworks that I used to write Stamped from the Beginning. And that was what I called sort of the dual racial history of America. You had this continuous racial progress. And we’ve seen this and we’ve lauded this—from ending slavery to ending Jim Crow. But what’s actually happened was, when we have ended particular policies or systems, new and even more sophisticated systems emerged in their place. In many ways, sharecropping in Jim Crow was a more sophisticated way of exploiting cheap black labor than slavery was. And in many ways, mass incarceration of black bodies is more sophisticated. And denying those individuals the ability to vote, to have access to any sort of public funding or public housing when they get released, is an even more sophisticated form of discrimination than Jim Crow. Yes, Jim Crow has ended, and we should champion and applaud that, but a new, even more sophisticated system has emerged in its place.”

UCM: On a Slate podcast, you talked about three strands—“Black Lives Matter,” “Blue Lives Matter,” and “All Lives Matter.” It sounds like you’re saying that this debate is not new, even if the terms are new.

Kendi: “In Stamped from the Beginning, I chronicled three sides to this debate. Three positions of trying to answer this question of why racial disparities exist in our society. One side, which I call the segregationist idea, states that there is basically black inferiority. The other side, the anti-racist position, states that the racial groups are equal, and if racial groups are equal, disparities must be the result of racial discrimination. And then the third side, which I call the assimilationist side, states that it is both. That it is the case that black people are, in certain ways, inferior, but it’s also the case that they are being subjected to racial discrimination. So, in the debate about race and policing, Black Lives Matter essentially targeted and challenged discrimination, while Blue Lives Matter essentially targeted and challenged the people who were being subjected to police violence. And then the All Lives Matter crowd has tried to basically stand in the middle.”

UCM: You’ve written about the problem with calling things “post-racial.” Whenever there’s a triumph—say the Civil Rights Act of 1964—is this sort of a double-edged sword? Because then white people think that racism is over.

Kendi: “Yeah, and I think that’s the danger. I talk about how, really, a racist idea is like a post-racial idea. It says to the individual who holds that idea that racial discrimination is no more, and the problem is whatever black inferiority they’re expressing with that racist idea. And so really from the beginning of this country we’ve been dealing with post-racial ideas, with people trying to turn away the notion of discrimination or slavery or Jim Crow. And they’ll say, ‘No, black people should be enslaved. There’s nothing wrong with it, this is normal. We don’t have a racial problem.’”