Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From The Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas In America is an anti-racist polemic on the history of American race relations.
Kendi uses the lives of Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. DuBois and Angela Davis to anchor a narrative about the evolution of American racism. He argues that three camps – segregationists (who believe blacks are biologically inferior), assimilationists (who believe blacks are inferior, but were made so by their environment) and anti-racists (who believe in racial equality) – have dominated racial discourse across American history. He also aims to show that the three strategies of self-sacrifice, uplift suasion and educational perusasion have failed to eradicate racist ideas.
Interestingly, Kendi doesn’t believe in what he calls “the popular folktale of racism” that ignorance and hate lead to racist ideas which lead to discrimination. Instead, he proposes that the real causal relationship is racial discrimination leads to racist ideas which lead to ignorance and hate. This is why he believes uplift suasion and educational persuasion have failed to eradicate racism. He believes racial discrimination is grounded in racist policies, not in ignorance of the truth or sheer loathing of blacks. He argues that racial disparities are caused by racial discrimination and racist policies, not the nature of the negro.
As a sketch of the history of racist ideas in America, Stamped From The Beginning isn’t so bad. Kendi gets a lot of things right. Led by the Spanish and Portuguese who pioneered the plantation system, Europeans had come to believe in the racial inferiority of Africans before the creation of America. The colonial era was thoroughly racist and was dominated by the ‘segregationists’. The first crack in the segregationist consensus began with the Quaker opposition to slavery. The second crack was the American Revolution which was justified on the basis of Enlightenment liberalism.
The American Revolution produced the first abolitionist movement in which ‘assimilationists’ like Benjamin Rush and Samuel Stanhope Smith pushed back against the dominance of ‘segregationists’ like Jefferson. This first burst of racial liberalism faded as the Cotton Kingdom emerged in the antebellum era. After the 1830s, it was challenged by the second abolitionist movement which produced new ‘assimiliationist’ figures like William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglass. The second burst of racial liberalism came during Reconstruction after the defeat of the Confederacy. After the 1880s, it faded into the Nadir of the Negro and the Jim Crow era.
The Great Depression and Second World War led to the third burst of racial liberalism. The ‘segregationists’ were discredited by the Third Reich and ‘assimilationists’ became the dominant group. During the Cold War, the ‘assimilationists’ used foreign policy arguments to justify dismantling Jim Crow and pushing the Civil Rights Movement to victory. In the late 1960s, the ‘anti-racists’ challenged the ‘assimilationists’ who have been synonymous with the mainstream since the triumph and assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Also, the ‘segregationists’ have experienced a revival since the 1990s as the failure of the ‘assimiliationists’ integration project became increasingly evident.
In a sense, I enjoyed this book. The title comes from a reply by Jefferson Davis to William Seward in which he said, “we recognize the fact of the inferiority stamped upon that race of men by the Creator, and from the cradle to the grave, our Government, as a civil institution, marks that inferiority.” Years later, the future president of the Confederacy is also quoted saying in a speech opposing black education in Washington, DC on April 12, 1860, “This government was not founded by negroes for negroes, but by White men for White men” and that “the inequality of the White and black races” was “stamped from the beginning.”
It was a relief not to have to wade through hundreds of pages of cuckfederate nonsense about how the historical Confederacy was an anti-racist multicultural utopia. There were no paeans to ‘the American idea’ of the Founding Fathers either which we are accustomed to hearing from ‘assimiliationist’ cuckservatives like Ben Sasse and Jeff Flake. ‘Segregationists’ and ‘anti-racists’ can agree on that much. The United States only moved away from its racist origins during the Cold War for geopolitical reasons.
There are a number of flaws with this book:
- First, it makes no sense to focus on Cotton Mather given that New England was a backwater of the British Empire with an overwhelmingly White population. The true origin of “racist ideas” in English America was in Barbardos and the Greater Caribbean.
- Second, W.E.B DuBois was a leading figure in Black America during the Jim Crow era, but his ideas were hardly synonymous with the Spirit of the Age. Booker T. Washington, Thomas Dixon or Madison Grant would have been a far better thematic choice.
- Third, Martin Luther King, Jr. has cast his shadow over America since the 1960s. He has his own federal holiday and is held in greater esteem than Thomas Jefferson. So it makes little sense to devote an entire section of the book to Angela Davis who is a crackpot who ran as a failed vice presidential candidate for the Communist Party USA.
My biggest criticism of Stamped From The Beginning is that it simply isn’t true that racist policies and racial discrimination have led to “racist ideas” which have led to ignorance and hate. On the contrary, it was experience and interaction with the African which led to “racist ideas” which has led to racist policies. Discrimination isn’t holding Africans back. When the English arrived in Black Africa in the 16th century, Black Africa was already an underdeveloped backwater centuries behind Western Europe.
When the English were thrust into contact with West Africa in the 16th century, it was the modern day equivalent of first contact with extraterrestrials. The English had virtually no experience with Africans until Queen Elizabeth’s time. They sought to explain the African who was a scientific curiosity and who was perceived as being unlike the English in almost every single way.
Climate theory was based on the intuition that the negro as a race was a tropical animal. The English knew that the black skin and woolly hair of the African had something to do with the intense sun which was as debilitating to Europeans as the cold was to Africans. Similarly, Curse theory helped explain the paradox of why American Indians who lived along similar latitudes weren’t as black as negroes. It couldn’t be due simply to the environment. The offspring of Africans brought to Europe and the Americas remained black. It was reasonable to assume that blackness was hereditary.
Europeans continued to follow the evidence. It was observed that West Africans lived alongside chimpanzees who were eerily human. Could there be some kind of relationship between Africans and chimpanzees? Modern biology holds that there is in fact such a relationship (they’re distant cousins). Polygenesis was based on the theory of the independent origin of the human races. It was a popular theory in the early 19th century in the context of the discovery of the Neanderthals and dinosaurs.
The English didn’t come right out of the gate and declare that Africans were inferior in order to justify slavery. Instead, they traded with and interacted with Africans for about 150 years. Britain was only granted the asiento to supply the Spanish Empire with slaves in 1713. England only became the dominant player in the slave trade around 1690. English racial attitudes toward the negro developed over this long stretch before Barbados became the first major English plantation colony in the 1640s.
Europeans developed different “racist ideas” about American Indians. They came to believe that negroes were superior slaves. They came to believe that negroes were better suited than Europeans to plantation agriculture. In Virginia and Barbados, indentured servants and war captives came first on the plantations. It was only later as the labor supply dried up than the English turned to African slave labor. They found that Africans were more resistant to diseases like yellow fever and malaria and toiled better in the tropical sun. The African climate and disease environment was so hostile to Europeans that the interior of Africa was uncharted until Stanley and Livingstone’s time in the late 19th century.
Like many Europeans, Thomas Jefferson thought that Africans were intellectually inferior to Whites, but that Americans Indians were equals and capable of being assimilated. American Indians like the Aztecs and Inca had created great civilizations. The North American Indian tribes were considered savages by Europeans, which was attributed to their environment, whereas some Africans were considered savages while others were thought more civilized. Even civilized Africans that lived in settled kingdoms and practiced agriculture were considered inferior.
While Europeans enslaved other Europeans and American Indians, they didn’t base slavery on racial inferiority. Muslims had come to similar conclusions about Africans:
“Merriment dominates the black man because of his defective brain, whence also the weakness of his intelligence.” – Al-Masudi (896-956)
“There is no marriage among them; the child does not know his father, and they eat people — but God knows best. As for the Zanj, they are people of black color, flat noses, kinky hair, and little understanding or intelligence.” – Al-Muqaddasi (945/946-1000)
“[Blacks are] people who are by their very nature slaves.” – Ibn Sina aka Avicenna (980-1037)
“If (all types of men) are taken, from the first, and one placed after another, like the Negro from Zanzibar, in the Southern-most countries, the Negro does not differ from an animal in anything except the fact that his hands have been lifted from the earth -in no other peculiarity or property – except for what God wished. Many have seen that the ape is more capable of being trained than the Negro, and more intelligent.”
“[The Zanj (African) differ from animals only in that] their two hands are lifted above the ground,… Many have observed that the ape is more teachable and more intelligent than the Zanj.” – Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (1201-1274)
“Therefore, the Negro nation are, as a rule, submissive to slavery, because [Negroes] have little [that is essentially] human and have attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals, as we have stated.”
“beyond [known peoples of black West Africa] to the south there is no civilization in the proper sense. There are only humans who are closer to dumb animals than to rational beings. They live in thickets and caves, and eat herbs and unprepared grain. They frequently eat each other. They cannot be considered human beings.” – Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406)
The Europeans who explored Black Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries made the same observations. They found Africans engaging in cannibalism, walking around naked in loincloths and who were happy to sell other Africans into slavery in exchange for guns, liquor, shiny trinkets (bling), textiles (preferably from India) and cowry shells from the Indian Ocean. The Africans that European explorers discovered were described as a dumb, lascivious, lazy, brutal, musical and servile people. Slavery was their custom and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade only became such a big deal because there was an infinite supply of African slaves. Africans protested the end of the slave trade. It never occurred to them to end it.
When Jefferson Davis said that “the inequality of the White and black races” was “stamped from the beginning,” he was saying that they had always been like that. No great crime had been committed by Whites. He was disputing the ‘assimilationist’ notion that Africans had been transformed into brutes by slavery and that freedom would erase racial differences. He was right too.
In the 21st century, 150 years years after the demise of slavery and 50 years after the demise of segregation, the African is unchanged by American progress. He is essentially the same being as he has been described by observers in all ages. He benefits from white privilege in the sense that he has been lifted by the tide of European science and technology which he played no role in creating. This is why the most successful Africans on earth live in the closest proximity to Europeans.
If Ibram X. Kendi is right that discrimination has oppressed and immiserated Africans, African-Americans should be among the poorest Africans on earth instead of the richest. Haiti, Liberia and Ethiopia should be among the most successful black nations instead of the most dysfunctional. Barbados and Guadeloupe should have been ground down by slavery, white supremacy and colonialism. Africans are willing to risk death to cross the Mediterranean from Africa into Europe because they know the truth is otherwise. The same is true of their ancestors who opposed resettlement in Haiti or Liberia.
No one is flocking to Chad or Cameroon to live in a world free of “racist ideas.” It is much easier to make a living conning guilt-ridden Americans, Swedes and Germans that it is their fault that “only their hands rise from the ground.”