A Conversation About American Racism with Ibram X. Kendi

Historians in the News
tags: racism, Stamped From the Beginning, Ibram X Kendi



The judges’ citation for the winner of the National Book Award for non-fiction, Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning, is both unstinting in its praise and a challenge to readers:

Stamped from the Beginning turns our ideas of the term ‘racism’ upside-down. Ibram X. Kendi writes as a thoughtful cultural historian, aware that he is challenging deeply held, often progressive assumptions. Using a masterful voyage through the history of US political rhetoric, beginning with Cotton Mather and ending with hip-hop, he argues that even the most fervent anti-racists have been infected with that resilient virus. With his learning, he dares us to find a cure.


Kendi lets no American, past or present, off the hook: “Somebody who challenges discrimination, that has an effect, somebody who maintains it, that has an effect, and somebody who does nothing has an effect.” We asked Dr. Christina Greer, media commentator and political scientist at Fordham University, to speak with Dr. Kendi about his book, the current highly charged political and racial situation of contemporary America, and how to deal with the “R” word....

CG: I love the sentence, “Racist ideas are ideas; anyone can produce them or consume them.” I oftentimes use the phrase, “You don’t need women for patriarchy,” which kind of reminds me of something similar. But how do we curb the American appetite, especially in this moment, for a bevy of racist ideas toward so many different groups of people, especially blacks, Latinos and immigrants?

IK: I think the best and most effective way to curb that appetite is to curb what is actually leading to the hunger itself, which are the inequities, and even more so, the racist policies that are causing those inequities. Because as I show in Stamped from the Beginning, really, the production of racist ideas historically has largely been to defend racist policies. I think we are experiencing a new round and a new sort of infusion of racist ideas because we’re dealing with and we’re experiencing a new round of racist policies. They long have sort of interacted together, and so we have a particular political party that has decided that they cannot win unless they suppress votes. They figured out new voter suppressing techniques across this country, and they’re justifying those new voter-ID laws and other types of measures that restrict access to voting through the [idea] that there’s some sort of corruption problem. And when we go and tell them that corruption is basically a nonexistent problem, they say it’s actually worse than it really is. Because they’re trying — this idea about the corrupt black voter or the corrupt inner-city black voter is to defend their policies, is to substantiate their policies. And, then, you have people consuming those ideas. And of course, that’s causing people to be ignorant and hateful and lash out at these people. And so I think we have to challenge the policies themselves in order to get rid of these ideas.

CG: I think many conscious — quote/unquote “conscious” — black people can relate to so many aspects of this book. What would you tell your 18-year-old self reading this book, and how would you help him begin to excavate those thoughts? I think for some people, saying that racist ideas are ideas and anyone can produce them or consume them is a pretty revelatory concept to a lot of people. Especially as they begin to read more and develop a sense of political consciousness. So, what would you tell your 18-year-old self or 16-year-old self or 21-year-old self — whenever you sort of felt like you had that moment of anagnorisis, if you will?

IK: I would tell my 18-year-old self — and I wish I’d written this book for my 18-year-old self — that the only thing wrong with black people is that we think something is wrong with black people. I spent the better part of my early years thinking that the main problem was black people. And then I switched from that to thinking that the main problem was white people. And, eventually, I realized that the main problem was racist people, was people who were executing these policies out of self-interest. That’s what I would have told myself: that there’s nothing wrong with black people and there’s nothing extraordinary — the only thing extraordinary about white people is that they think something is extraordinary about white people. ...




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