The Racism of Good Intentions
When I visited NMAAHC (see here for a little about the visit), I took some time to shop the gift store. Browsing the offerings, one (giant) book caught my eye. More than 500 pages long, an impressively thick volume, Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi, bears a subtitle that is hard to resist for me: “The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.” It also bears the seal of a National Book Award Winner. And so, intimidated by the length but intrigued by the title, I bought the book.
Within the first 10 pages, Kendi had already given me new tools to think about racism in America and in my own thinking. In his prologue, Kendi uses statistics to lay bare racial disparities that continue to plague American society (in wealth, in police-caused deaths, in incarceration). He then writes:
In 2016, the United States is celebrating its 240th birthday. But even before Thomas Jefferson and the other founders declared independence, Americans were engaging in a polarizing debate over racial disparities, over why they exist and persist, and over why White Americans as a group were prospering more than Black Americans as a group. Historically, there have been three sides to this heated argument. A group we can call segregationists has blamed Black people themselves for the racial disparities. A group we can call antiracists has pointed to racial discrimination. A group we can call assimilationists has tried to argue for both, saying that Black people and racial discrimination were to blame for racial disparities. During the ongoing debate over police killings, these three sides to the argument have been on full display. Segregationists have been blaming the recklessly criminal behavior of the Black people who were killed by police officers. Michael Brown was a monstrous, threatening thief; therefore Darren Wilson had reason to fear and kill him. Antiracists have been blaming the recklessly racist behavior on the police. The life of this dark-skinned eighteen-year-old did not matter to Darren Wilson. Assimilationists have tried to have it both ways. Both Wilson and Brown acted like irresponsible criminals.
This definition of that middle ground, the would-be compromisers he calls assimilationists was really useful to me. In them I started to recognize much of White America (and I'm not exempting myself, here). Good, well-meaning people, who don’t like to find fault with police officers or the criminal justice system or the housing markets or the education system, etc., but who recognize that racial disparities can’t be right. There is an easy comfort in the position “it’s true that’s not fair, but if they would only…” It is the comfort of believing oneself to be on the side of fairness without actually requiring any effort or change.
On the next page, Kendi drops another important definition:
All these self-serving efforts by powerful factions to define their racist rhetoric as non racist has left Americans thoroughly divided over and ignorant of, what racist ideas truly are. It has all allowed Americans who think something is wrong with Black people to believe, somehow, that they are not racists. But to say something is wrong with a group is to say something is inferior about that group. … My definition of a racist idea is a simple one: it is any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way. I define anti-Black racist ideas—the subject of this book—as any idea suggesting that Black people, or any group of Black people, are inferior in any way to another racial group. (emphasis added)
And with his simple definition of racist ideas, and the introduction of a word, assimilationism, for the impulse to make racial disparities a little bit the fault of discrimination and a little bit the fault of Black people, Kendi underscores for me the fact that, as a society, though we have all agreed that racism is bad, we actually don’t know what racism is. We think that it is malicious bigotry, like the KKK or skinheads. And we compare those violent behaviors with our own, polite assimilationism, and we say “I’m not racist.” And even worse, we get offended when others would dare besmirch our character by accusing us of racism.
Also in the prologue, Kendi points out that racist ideas are often created and disseminated to support racist policies, not the other way around. He says “Ignorance/hate—>racist ideas—>discrimination: this causal relationship is largely ahistorical. It has actually been the inverse relationship—racial discrimination led to racist ideas which led to ignorance and hate.” He goes on to write “Racially discriminatory policies have usually sprung from economic, political, and cultural self-interests, self-interests that are constantly changing.”
This was a bombshell for me. Kendi goes on in the book to explore, in detail, the racist ideas that were hatched and then widely propagated to support the enslavement of Africans. From the notion of “polygenesis,” i.e. two separate creations, to the hierarchy of the species, to the mark of Cain that “stamped from the beginning” Black people as inferior. All of these racist ideas were understood to be “fact” in their day, and significantly, they were created and consumed by people for whom the continuation of slavery was in their best interest. (This is not to say that racism is created to support racist policies—the sense that Black people are inferior to White people precedes the slave trade in the above example. But the racist ideas, the “facts” of the biological or biblical difference to justify the sense of the inferior/superior positions are the direct effect of the cause of the racist policy of enslavement.)
I wanted to share some of the insights of Stamped From the Beginning with the reading discussion group that I lead each month, but I knew that 511 pages was an impossible assignment. I found a review of the book in the Washington Post, The Racism of Good Intentions by Carlos Lozada and, after skimming the first few paragraphs, I assigned it.
Interestingly, once I read it thoroughly, I realized the author of the review is guilty of assimilationist thinking—or at least of some personal fragility. (To give my participants more information, I brought in copies of Kendi’s prologue to my discussion group, and we read it together, aloud.) After a lengthy review, in which Lozada points out the useful and deep work that Kendi and the other author reviewed have done with their work, he concludes:
Together, these works offer a grim vision of America and of human nature, but one consistent with an era when the prison warden has supplanted the slave master, and when Black Lives Matter is the latest incarnation of a civil rights movement that has no reason to stop moving. The greatest service Kendi and Guyatt provide is the ruthless prosecution of American ideas about race for their tensions, contradictions and unintended consequences. And yet I have greater difficulty embracing the notion that, as Kendi argues, progress on race is inevitably stalked by the advance of racism and that, on an individual level, falling short in specific instances somehow taints the whole of a person.
The old one-drop rule for determining race was based on prejudice and pseudoscience. A one-drop rule for determining racism seems only slightly less unfair, no matter how well-intentioned.
In our discussion in early June, one of the assembled pointed out that racism is less like one drop of African blood making a multi-racial individual Black than one murder making an otherwise non-murderer a murderer. Even more to the point, though, I would say that Lozada misses Kendi’s point in assessing and understanding the insidious nature of racism. Lozada spends much of the review pointing out all of the historical figures in whom Kendi finds racist ideas. With incredulity, Lozada lists off figures from history, Black and White, who he anticipates the reader will be surprised to think of as racist in any way ("Abraham Lincoln. Frederick Douglass. Susan B. Anthony. W.E.B. Du Bois. Harriet Beecher Stowe. Barack Obama"). And with his unexamined incredulity, he falls into the “he was still a great man” trap that I wrote about last week. Apparently, we cannot abide that our historical figures—whether founding fathers or great American writers—be flawed, and thereby fully human.
Kendi does not, as Lozada suggests, insist that “falling short somehow taints the whole of a person.” He is not suggesting that we throw the baby out with the bathwater. It is neither his stated goal, nor the effect of his work. Instead, Kendi wants us to know what’s in that bathwater, so that we can try to avoid making the same mistakes. Indeed, in the prologue Kendi writes of himself: “Committed to this antiracist idea of group equality, I was able to self-critique, discover, and shed the racist ideas I had consumed over my lifetime while I uncovered and exposes the racist ideas that others have produced over the lifetime of America.”
Kendi is asking us to go on a journey of self-discovery—as individuals and as a nation. He doesn’t want us to create an ever-growing trash heap of racists in American history. He wants us to understand the racism that is baked in to a lot of what we “know” to be true about how things work in this country. He wants us to shed racist ideas. I have read about half of Kendi’s impressive tome. I read about a chapter a day, and at this rate, I’ll be done sometime by the end of the summer. I am so grateful for the tools he has already given me. I, for one, want to shed my racist ideas. They do belong in a trash heap.