Anti-racists’ two-front struggle
As Ibram X Kendi writes in the prologue to his book “Stamped from the beginning”, historians’ work is marked by the era they live in. He claims to be writing in the Black Lives Matter era. The book was published in 2016, four years before the death of George Floyd under the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis triggered protests around the world. The depressing truth is that Floyd was neither the first nor the last innocent Black victim of police brutality.
An important distinction Kendi makes is between individual racism and institutional racism. He insists that racism is about much more than personal feelings of hatred. Institutional racism is about members of a particular community faring worse than the rest of society – for example in regard to job opportunities, housing, education et cetera. There can be no doubt that, in institutional terms, the USA is indeed a racist society.
Referring to federal statistics, Kendi reports that young Black males were 21 times more likely to be killed by the police and their white counterparts between 2010 and 2012. The median wealth of white households exceeds the median wealth of Black households by the factor 13, and Black people were five times more likely to be incarcerated.
Kendi is a professor at Boston University and the founder/director of its Center for Antiracist Research. As he sees it, antiracists are fighting a two-front struggle. While segregationists, who want to keep Black and white people apart, are obviously racist, the case is less clear for assimilationists who basically argue that Black and white people could share a nation if only Black people adapted better to society’s standards. The fundamental problem with the assimilationist approach is that it makes Black people responsible for repairing the damage they suffer in an unjust society with the horrific history of slavery.
Kendi spells out clearly why it is impossible for Black people to assimilate in a way that would satisfy assimilationists’ expectations. Black achievers, however, are perceived as exceptions who do not really represent the Black community. There is a long history of some white people appreciating an individual Black person as an “extraordinary Negro”. He names Barack Obama as the most recent prominent example. At the same time, many white people respond to a Black person’s success with resentment.
Inescapable double bind
This kind of double-bind means that however much Black people try to live up to assimilationist demands, they simply cannot succeed. The expectations are excessive. Nobody is perfect, Kendi insists, so nobody expects a white person to be flawless. By contrast, there is a pattern of reading any shortcoming of any Black person as proof of inadequate adaptation of every Black person, whereas any achievement is considered exceptional.
Marginalised communities around the world will recognise these patterns:
- There is a tendency in all Western countries, for example, to hold all Muslims responsible for atrocities committed by Islamist extremists. At the same time, perpetrators of right-wing hate crimes are generally declared to be isolated individuals who may well suffer mental health problems.
- Systemic discrimination against disadvantaged communities means worse opportunities in regard to jobs, health care, housing and education. Indigenous communities in the Andes or India’s Dalits and Adivasis share that fate. They know, for example, that it is considered proof of personal inferiority when members of their community rarely graduate from educational institutions they only have limited access to in the first place.
- Many mainstream conservatives will deny they have any racist leanings simply because they happen to have an acquaintance who belongs to the minority and interact with that person on friendly terms. They refuse to discuss institutional racism.
Racist ideas, according to Kendi, have always helped to entrench vested, privileged interests throughout American history. Today, the stoking of racist tensions distracts attention from other issues such as universal access to health care or affordable college for everyone. By facilitating progress in these areas, the author argues, anti-racist policymaking would benefit the majority of white Americans too.
On the other hand, Kendi warns that attempts to end the debate on racism normally promote unwitting racism. For example, it was wrong to declare that the USA had become a post-racial society simply because a Black man was elected president in 2008. That Barack Obama moved into the White House, after all, did nothing to change the statistics that prove the USA’s institutional racism.
Slave owners’ call for liberty
Kendi’s book is powerful. He traces currently prevalent racist ideas in the USA back to the 15th century when Portuguese and Spanish seafarers started to interfere in far-away societies. His book elaborates how the slave trade flourished in the colonial era. Kendi emphasises irony of the founding fathers of the USA demanding liberty from Britain whilst denying freedom to their slaves. Most prominently, Thomas Jefferson, the author of the declaration of independence and a highly influential third president of the USA ideologically opposed slavery, but also opposed its abolition. Indeed, he owned slaves. He had sex – and several children – with one of them.
The book explores why segregationists prevailed, especially in the South, after the civil war. Even though slavery was abolished, white supremacists brutally enforced their rule. State laws circumvented constitutional amendments designed to protect the rights of Black people. Horrific lynchings were common, but the perpetrators claimed they were only “punishing criminals”. In particular, they had a pattern of accusing Black men of raping white women. Kendi elaboates why Black intellectuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois often started out as assimilationists, with some never moving beyond that approach. The historian points out that segregationist views stayed acceptable among scholars until the genocidal horrors of Nazi Germany discredited attempts to create a genetic hierarchy of peoples.
He explains why the Voting Rights Act in the 1060s was more progressive than other contemporary civil-rights legislation: it emphasised results rather than intentions. Among other things, it required southern states to get federal approval for their voting laws. However, the Supreme Court decided that this was no longer needed in 2013 – and as a result, laws that make it harder for Black people to vote have been proliferating since.
In 2016, “Stamped from the beginning” won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in the USA. That was also the year in which Donald Trump was elected president. While the Black-studies scholar admits that an anti-racist society will not be achieved soon, he expresses the optimism that it will eventually happen. What is needed, in his eyes, is policies that ensure Black people enjoy equal opportunities.
Kendi, I. X., 2016: Stamped from the beginning – The definitive history of racist ideas in America. New York, Nation Books.
Hans Dembowski is editor in chief of D+C/E+Z.