Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book claims to be the “definitive history of racist ideas in America”, and I’m pretty convinced this is the case! It’s a long (500+ pages) weighty read, but I learned a lot along the way and I think it’s going to help me spot racist ideas more effectively.
At the beginning, Kendi points out the many ways that the US is far away from racial parity in wealth, people in jail, etc. The question is why do these exist, and there are three main sides to the argument:
Segregationists blame Black people themselves
Antiracists point to racial discrimination as the cause
Assimilationists argue that both are to blame
Kendi’s point is that these three groups have existed for a very very long time, and the thing to realize here that assimilationists are still half arguing for racist ideas. There are all kinds of Black people, and grouping them all together to generalize about them is, by its very definition, racist!
Another big takeaway I had is about an idea Kendi calls “uplift suasion”; basically, if Black people improved their behavior, then White people would be persuaded away from their racist ideas. (this reminds me of the Simpsons episode Homer’s Phobia, where the gay man John saves Homer’s life, which makes Homer grudgingly accept him, and John says something like “now if we could just save everyone in America’s life…”) Anyway, this doesn’t work for a number of reasons, one of which is that if you’re a racist White person who sees an upwardly mobile Black person, you’ll probably just write them off as extraordinary and not an “ordinary” Black person. Another is that for the most part, racism isn’t based on logic; the desire to justify racial inequalities produced racist ideas. Yet another is that seeing upwardly mobile Black people seems as likely to make White people resentful. But this idea goes back hundreds of years and still persists today…
The book looks through the lens of five people in history – Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Angela Davis, but it doesn’t limit itself to just talking about those people, which I appreciated. It really does seem fairly complete in that it starts in the 1600s and ends right around the time the Black Lives Matter movement started in 2013.
I’m not going to try to summarize the book because this would be too long, but here is a collection of things I learned or thought were interesting:
– a group of Dominican Friars that were brought to Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) in 1511 rejected the idea of slavery and preached against it! This was very impressive for that time…
– Kendi points out some examples back in 1700s that Americans would individualize White negativity (“oh, he’s a bad person”) and generalize Black negativity (“this is what’s wrong with Black people”).
– Over the years there was a whole history about whether enslavers should baptize their slaves. For a while this was seen as a good thing as they could tell themselves they were saving their slaves’ souls. Then there was a legal case where Elizabeth Key, who was a child of a White male slave owner and a Black slave and should have been free after her father died, was kept in slavery, and she eventually sued for her freedom and won. The fact that she had converted to Christianity was an important fact in her trial, so slave owners became worried that slaves that were Christian would be more able to sue for freedom and stopped wanting to baptize them! (states soon passed laws that this was not the case…)
– In Bacon’s rebellion in 1676, poor Whites and slaves combined to rebel against the governor of Virginia. After the rebellion was put down (by offering amnesty to Whites), the elites realized that poor Whites had to be kept separate from enslaved Blacks, and they did so by establishing a social hierarchy by giving all White people power over all Black people.
– After the Salem witch trials, Massachusetts authorities apologized and provided reparations! I had no idea!
– In the early 1700s, New England churches routinely gifted captives to ministers to be kept as slaves! Yikes.
– In 1706, Cotton Mather asked Onesimus, one of his new slaves, if he had had smallpox (a standard questoin), and Onesimus responded that he had had a tiny amount of pus from a smallpox victim scraped into his skin. This practice was known as “variolation” and was the precursor to inoculation, saved a bunch of lives, and of course racist European scientists refused to believe that people from Africa could have made such advances. (It took several more decades before they verified that variolation worked)
– The first known antislavery society of non-Africans in North America was the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, founded in 1774. England had already outlawed slavery in 1773…
– Thomas Jefferson hated slavery, but also liked his lifestyle, and so had slaves working his Monticello plantation. I guess this is what happens when it’s hard for people to imagine a world without slavery, but yuck.
– Sidenote, but somehow I didn’t realize that people knew at the time that Jefferson had several children by his slave Sally Hemings.
– One of the “compromises” that people came up with was colonization, the idea that Americans would send all Black people to Africa or somewhere in the Caribbean. There’s a funny story about a meeting of the American Colonization Society that took place in 1817 at a church with more than 3000 Black men. A few members talked about colonization, then asked the crowd who supported it, to which there was a definitive silence. When they asked who was opposed, a booming “no” rang out!
– The US did eventually form (probably fraudulently) the country of Liberia, but in the decade of the 1820s only 154 Black northerners out of more than 100,000 moved there.
– In 1822 Denmark Vesey planned a huge slave revolt in Charleston. Thousands of people had joined the plot, and they had plans for trusted house servants to assassinate top South Carolina officials in their sleep, and six infantry and cavalry companies were going to invade Charleston! For four years of planning no one had betrayed the revolt, but eventually someone did (probably an inevitability in a revolt of this size) and the plot was foiled.
– There’s a key idea that antislavery activist David Walker articulated in 1829: racism would only end when slavery ended. (or, put another way, it was impossible to end racism while slavery existed)
– Even going back to 1793(!), a White minister complained that a “Negro hut” had depreciated property values in Salem. Some things never change…
– Frederick Douglass refused to vote for Lincoln in 1860 because of his terrible Illinois record on Black rights. (Lincoln was anti-slavery at the time, but he was also in favor of colonization and against Black voting rights)
– After the beginning of the Civil War, thousands of runaway slaves fled to the Union, but Union soldiers enforced the Fugitive Slave Act and returned them to their owners. In August Congress passed the Confiscation Act, which said that any slaves used by the Confederate military could be seized as “contraband”; legally they were no longer enslaved, but they weren’t free either.(?) They could work for the Union Army and get paid, but they had to live in terrible conditions in the “contraband camps”. One out of every 4 of the 1.1 million people in the camps died in one of the worst public health disasters in US history!
– In 1862 Lincoln blamed the presence of Blacks in the US for the Civil War and tried to convince a delegation to move to Liberia.
– After the Civil War, the Civil Rights act of 1866 was passed, which among other things prohibited race-based discrimination. The problem is that it only banned rules that explicitly had race in the rules. (i.e. “no Black people can eat here”) But for most purposes it was easy enough to make a similar rule that didn’t explicitly use race but had the same effect. Kendi likens it to having a law against premeditated murder but not having manslaughter laws so you don’t have to prove premeditation. It also reminds me of bias in machine learning algorithms – even if race isn’t an explicit input to the algorithm, the algorithm can usually “figure it out” by zip code, etc.
– After the Civil War, there were Black churches that used a “paper-bag” or door test – people who had darker skin than the paper bag or door were excluded.
– W. E. B. Du Bois, in a similar insight to “racism will only end when slavery ends”, knew that “relentless color-prejudice is more often a cause than a result of the Negro’s degradation”.
– The Knights of Columbus (the Catholic group) was pro-immigrant, and financed the publication of books focusing on the contribution of different racial and ethnic groups, including the Germans, the Jews, and Blacks. (Du Bois wrote the one about Blacks) That surprised me because that’s not how I think of the Knights of Columbus today!
– Eleanor Roosevelt was very popular with Black Americans – she publicly endorsed an anti-lynching law, among other things.
– I was vaguely aware of this, but in the 1950s Eisenhower was very concerned about anti-Black sentiment in the South (like the Arkansas National Guard blocking Black students from attending Central High School) because he thought it hurt our “freedom” image around the world.
– The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a big deal, but it also paved the way for the racist idea that presumed that discrimination had been eliminated. Ignoring the White head start, the idea is that if Blacks are behind in some way, it’s their fault.
– Conversely, in 1965 LBJ gave a speech at Howard University commencement saying “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.” Kendi points out that this was perhaps the most antiracist thing a US president had ever said.
– The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was more effective than the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because it banned poll taxes and literacy tests (some of the more effective ways of discriminating against Blacks without using the word “Black”). In Mississippi, for example, Black voter turnout increased from 6% in 1964 to 59%(!) in 1969.
– Kendi talks about the Bakke v. Regents case, in which the Supreme Court ruled in 1978 that race-based quotas for admission to schools were not allowed, but race could be a factor in admission. He points out that at the time, UC David’s non-White medical students had much lower MCAT scores and college GPAs, but were basically the same at graduation and licensing exam passage rates is evidence that the MCAT and college GPAs are biased in some way.
– Kendi also talks about the general rule that wherever there are more police, there are more arrests, and where there are more arrests, people perceive there is more crime, which justifies more police, and the cycle continues. (this is also a problem with things like the COMPAS rating algorithm which grades how likely a defendant is to commit another crime and get caught)
– “Crack babies” was a huge rallying cry in the early 1990s in promoting racist ideas (like that crack was a lot more dangerous than other drugs), but in 2013 a study ended that showed that poverty was worse for kids than crack.
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