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Ibram X. Kendi on Recognizing 21st Century Racist Ideas and Policies

Racist policies today are as overt as they always were.

Ibram X. Kendi. (Photo: Miller Mobley for iBooks)

Ibram X. Kendi has written a book that is vitally important for several reasons. It is unapologetic in its debunking of racist ideas and its willingness to call them just that. It reveals the extent to which those racist ideas have arisen out of the need to justify existing racist policies, not vice versa, thus making efforts to end racism by changing public attitudes alone doomed to fail.

Assimilationists themselves have primarily written the history of racist ideas.

Stamped from the Beginning is unflinching in showing how racist ideas have been accepted and repeated throughout US history by everyone, from Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln, from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, even from Frederick Douglass to W.E.B. Du Bois (whose intellectual journey from a “double-consciousness of racist and antiracist ideas” to “a single consciousness of antiracism” is one of the book’s most powerful arcs). In particular, the book is brilliant at identifying and skewering what Kendi classifies as assimilationist ideas — ideas often employed by well-meaning people in the service of causes as noble as the abolition of slavery, yet racist ideas all the same since they have been predicated on the belief that Black people are somehow inferior or to blame for their own oppression.

Kendi discusses these ideas and others from the book with Truthout in the following interview.

Joe Macaré: One of the core ideas in your book, which is such a useful tool for people’s understanding of the history of racist ideas, is the categorization of segregationist, assimilationist and antiracist. Can you talk a little about those categories and what in particular the significance is of assimilationist thinking? How has it not been recognized historically?

Ibram X. Kendi: I think first and foremost, assimilationist thinking hasn’t been recognized historically as racist ideas because assimilationists themselves have primarily written the history of racist ideas. In writing that history, they have also been at the forefront of defining and popularizing the term “racism” itself. The term itself was really coined by a Columbia anthropologist by the name of Ruth Benedict, from her book Race: Science and Politics in 1940. It’s sort of a late-blooming term.

Every group of racists has identified their ideas as being outside of racism.

Ruth Benedict and her colleagues in social science and humanities were recoiling against eugenics in Germany and even in the United States, a eugenics movement that they classified as racism. They, of course, did not think their own ideas of cultural hierarchy or even behavioral hierarchy were racist ideas. That story is indicative of the long history of racist ideas, in which every group of racists has identified their ideas as being outside of racism.

Segregationists, when they embarked on making the case that we are all created unequal, stated that that’s not prejudice — that’s God’s law, that’s nature’s law, that’s science’s law…. The same thing happened when assimilationists said that we are created equal but that Black people became inferior due to their inferior cultural environment, their climatic environment or even their oppressive environment. They stated that was science — that was based on observation — that was certainly not racism.

You give a definition of racism in the prologue to Stamped from the Beginning. How has the definition of racism come to be skewed so that so many people are accepting of the idea that it’s okay to say that there are racially inferior cultures, as long as one says that it was caused by some past injustice?

I think most people who are operating within racial justice spaces, or outside of them, have never really sat down to define a racist idea and thereby apply that definition to their ideas. One of the things that I wanted to do through Stamped from the Beginning was to lay out a very simple definition of a racist idea — any idea that suggests a racial group is superior or inferior to another racial group, in any way — and then apply that definition to ideas over the course of modern history.

Even before doing that, I had to apply those ideas to myself. I think people are simply unwilling to self-critique and become self-aware of their own racist ideas. That results in even people who are well-meaning, even people who are imagining that they are part of the solution, replicating these ideas. I wanted to show that in the text.

There is a popular racist idea among well-meaning people that oppression — whether that oppression is slavery, segregation, mass incarceration or even poverty — is not just dehumanizing, but that oppression has literally dehumanized people. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence substantiating that idea, but no one has ever proven it. That’s one of the major things I wanted to show: “Okay, if you’re saying that these people are inferior, then prove it.”

In order to prove it, people have to employ their cultural subjectivities, social subjectivities or class subjectivities. That’s typically how people have proven it in the past. They have judged these groups, whether free Blacks then or poor Blacks today, from their own social or cultural standards, made the case that they were not living up to them, and then stated that they were not living up to them because of their oppression.

You say in the preface to the paperback edition that people — even in committed social justice circles — have tended to understand the progression of racist ideas as being that racist ideas have become less overt, more covert. You push back on that, and to many people, that will be counterintuitive. Can you talk about how you see racist ideas as still very overt, even though you also talk in the book about how in the late 20th century in particular, politicians changed their language to avoid what were known prior to that as racially signifying terms?

When we identify the way in which racist policies have changed, we will then see that they’re actually as overt as ever.

I think within popular movement, activist and social justice circles, and among people who consider themselves to be progressive, the concept that racism has become more covert, that racist ideas have become more implicit, is pretty much the consensus. I attempt to show in Stamped from the Beginning that the reason why racist policies have become more covert is that we are assessing 21st century racist policies from the spectacles of 20th century racist policies. In other words, the racist policies have changed and become more sophisticated and instead of us seeing those changes and seeing those new racist policies, we are looking for 1950s racist policies.

We are doing the same thing as it relates to racist ideas. Racist ideas have become ever more sophisticated over time, and instead of looking for the new manifestations of racist ideas, we are trying to understand it from old language or old terms, when those terms and the language of racist ideas has changed.

Once we recognize that the language has changed, and when we know that language, we’ll be able to see that actually the language is quite explicit. When we identify the way in which racist policies have changed, once we know what those racist policies are, we will then see that they’re actually as overt as ever. I’m hoping that is one of the things the book provides people. It’s part of this larger schematic history in which I show this dual history of racial progress [and] the simultaneous progression of racism, and that we have not seen, or been able to identify racist progress with nearly the care that we’ve been able to see racial progress.

Could you talk a little about the idea of “uplift suasion”? Now often people talk about “respectability politics” as a term that’s close to meaning this, but I think the book shows how far back this goes and that it’s broader than just respectability politics — the very idea of “positive role models” has this long history based in a faulty reasoning of how racism could be defeated.

I wanted to make sure the terms that I used were simultaneously understandable to everyday people and extremely precise in the construction of what I was trying to describe. To me, the politics of “respectability” doesn’t get at what fundamentally these politics were seeking to do, and that is persuade. That’s why the whole notion of “suasion” and persuasion, I thought, was extremely essential….

“Uplift suasion” is simply the theory or the strategy that states that as Black people uplift themselves, white people will think higher of Black people. In other words, white people think lowly about Black people because Black people are lowly, their behavior is lowly, and so, as Black people rise, as they become more upwardly mobile and as they strive to be better people, white people will see them as better people.

The people that I most adore are the people that I’m most likely to critique.

This strategy is as old as the published word in the Black community, as I show in Stamped from the Beginning. I also show that this strategy is based on a racist idea: that somehow Black people are responsible for the racist ideas that white people have about them; their negative qualities are responsible for the negative ideas white people have about them, and so, therefore, their positive qualities will bring on more positive ideas. That’s connoting a racist idea that there’s some truth in notions of Black inferiority.

You cover a lot of historical figures, intellectual figures and organizers in the book, who were often simultaneously producers of, or were passing on, both racist and antiracist ideas. It’s done in a very nuanced way, but you do take aim in some ways at figures who tend to be sacrosanct. I wondered where you’ve encountered pushback. Why do you think we have such difficulty accepting that even people who achieved a great deal of good could have simultaneously been operating under and even propagating racist ideas?

I certainly have received pushback. People who love … certain historical figures, from W.E.B. Du Bois to Abraham Lincoln, of course, push back because … this person is almost like an ideological family member to them. A family member who is beyond critique.

For me, I adore many of these people. I adore W.E.B. Du Bois and my personal ideology has largely been shaped by his ideas. But the people that I most adore are the people that I’m most likely to critique. And I would hope that the people who most value my work are the people who are really going to take the work so seriously that they are going to think about constructive ways to make it even better.

You can change from being a racist to an antiracist from one moment to the next.

On the other hand, that’s one of the reasons why I decided to write a book on racist ideas, as opposed to racists. I wanted to show the complexity of the human mind: How people can hold both racist and antiracist ideas, how people can express both types of ideas, in the same book, in the same speech, in the same paragraph. I think that shows our complexity. I think that is more reflective of the complex human mind, and we haven’t complicated people, at least along racial lines, in that way before. We’ve set them either on one side or the other.

It definitely comes across in Stamped from the Beginning’s section on Du Bois, how laudable it is when someone’s thinking develops over time. There are also minor figures who appear in the book, who’ve written very harmful books and then come back, reflected on that work and said “actually, I got that wrong” — as you say, it’s more rare than it should be. You talk about the idea that anyone, Black or white or other, can consume or produce racist ideas, and the need to do that self-analysis. What is the best way that people can do that?

That question has led to the book that I’m working on right now, entitled How to Be an Antiracist. I’m using my own personal evolution, for lack of a better term, toward antiracist thinking — taking the reader step-by-step through my own intellectual march toward antiracism, while simultaneously providing instruction about each of those steps.

So, I’m actually working on that now but I can say in a general sense for people to begin to recognize that there’s no such thing as non-racism. When people say “I’m not a racist,” conceptually, that makes no sense. Either you are a racist or an antiracist. So, then you start to think: Okay, what does it mean to think and act as a racist, versus what does it mean to think and act as an antiracist? And what it means to think or act as a racist is very simply to imagine that there is some sort of racial hierarchy. Or to act as a racist is to support — either through inaction or action — a discriminatory policy. In contrast, to act as an antiracist is to challenge discriminatory policies, or to think about the racial groups as equal.

We are living in a time in which antiracist ideas are actually flowering.

But I should say that neither of these are fixed categories. Really what you’re thinking or doing in the moment is a reflection of who you are in that moment, and just as you can change from one moment to the next, you can change from being a racist to an antiracist from one moment to the next.

The structure of the book is that you have “guides” to each era who are significant historical figures. There is a kind of progression there from Cotton Mather, who was primarily a producer of racist ideas, through people who had a mixed consciousness or whose thinking changed, culminating with Angela Davis, who (without getting into hero worship) is clearly an important figure in antiracist thought. Does that progression reflect an optimism on your part? Do you feel some kind of optimism in spite of the way that racist ideas have continued to develop?

I consider myself to be optimistic and hopeful. We are living in a time in which antiracist ideas are actually flowering and antiracist activism is pushing. Now, that doesn’t mean that racist ideas or policies aren’t progressing as well. But the resistance against racism is what gives me hope and optimism, and nobody can deny resistance exists right now.

I would also add that philosophically, I believe you have to believe that change is possible in order to bring it about. I am shocked coming across so many people doing racial justice work, who consider themselves to be activists, who do not believe that change is possible. I am shocked because I can’t fathom how they can be fundamentally effective in what they do if they don’t believe what they do will actually yield anything.

I think in order to get into the type of work that we do, we have to believe change is possible. You have to believe that you can actually see freedom one day in order to run away.

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