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The US is embroiled in the most intense examination of white supremacy for at least two generations. As the hand-wringing and hashtagging has ensued in the aftermath of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer and President Donald Trump’s implicit validation of white supremacist and white nationalist groups, it is clear that the nation does not understand race, or more specifically anti-black racism any better than it did two generations ago.
As corporate media pundits and elected officials have tried to pivot between righteous condemnation and a desire not to offend white people, the moment has become yet another indictment of US education and what might be described as a wilful ignorance of American history. I can’t say whether Ibram X Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning will offend most white people (though I’m willing to bet it will offend some), but he damn sure names white supremacy for what it is.
Kendi, a professor of history and international relations at American University, Washington DC, subtitles his book “the definitive history of racist ideas”, and while some might quibble with such a description, his research is exhaustive and his conclusions will surprise many. He structures his book around five historical guides, who are both usual and unusual suspects: 17th-century Puritan minister Cotton Mather, founding father Thomas Jefferson, 19th-century abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, author and activist WEB Du Bois and 1960s radical Angela Davis.
The title of the book is drawn from a speech given in the US Senate in 1860 by Mississippi senator Jefferson Davis, who announced that the “inequality of the white and black races” was “stamped from the beginning”. (In mid-August, a Jefferson Davis memorial was literally “tarred and feathered”, with all the intended ironies, in Arizona.) Kendi’s central project is an exploration of the racial disparities and inequities that have been, and are still, seemingly systemic in American life.
Any accounting for such disparities within the racial state revolves around two fundamental though contentious questions, each identified with a different camp. The first is: what are “the blacks” doing wrong? The second is: what are “we” doing to “the blacks”? Kendi identifies these two camps as “segregationists”, those who have “blamed Black people themselves for the racial disparities”; and “assimilationists”, those who have argued that “Black people and racial discrimination were to blame”. Stamped from the Beginning also narrates how a third camp – anti-racists – has positioned itself against both. Segregationists attract the most criticism; the differently problematic assimilationists have usually managed to roll under the radar. “So many prominent Americans,” he writes, “many of whom we celebrate for their progressive ideas and activism, many of whom had very good intentions, subscribed to assimilationist thinking that has also served up racist beliefs about Black inferiority.”
Of these assimilationists – among them Abraham Lincoln – Kendi writes that we have remembered their “glorious struggle against racial discrimination, and tucked away their inglorious partial blaming of inferior Black behaviour for racial disparities … as such, assimilationists constantly encourage Black adoption of White cultural traits and/or physical ideals.” Such was the case with Garrison, who was editor of the 19th-century abolitionist newspaper the Liberator and a founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Black subscribers “were the early lifeblood” of the Liberator, but Garrison shared a view with German journalist Henry Villard that “nothing else could be expected … from creatures who had been purposely kept in the conditions of brutes”.
The complexity of these dynamics can be also discerned in the sentiments of President Theodore Roosevelt, who was for a time considered a “friend of the Negro”. Kendi suggests that Roosevelt, in response to the increase in the number of anti-black lynchings in the first decade of the 20th century, believed that “when Black criminality ceased, lynching would cease”. Black criminality would cease, he thought, “through the buttressing of early Historically Black Colleges and Universities like Hampton and Tuskegee”. Roosevelt and his fellow “Friends of the Negro” probably would have been appalled at the ways that “black criminality” or rather “civil disobedience” would gestate on those very HBCU campuses and disrupt Jim Crow segregation.
Readers might find that Kendi spends a little too much time with Mather – a noted witch whisperer – and his merry band of Puritans. But the author is interested in the ways that new technology – the printing press and a very old version of “fake news” – animated these Puritans’ beliefs that “the ‘providence of God’ sent Africans into slavery and over to Christian America to have the capacity to learn from their masters”.
What the Puritans most desired was order; and blackness refused at every turn. Kendi notes the multi-bind of race that was fundamental to the establishment of the republic, where the pursuit of black freedom was literally a criminal act: if blacks “did not clamour for freedom, then their obedience showed they were naturally beasts of burden. If they nonviolently resisted enslavement, they were brutalised. If they killed for their freedom, they were barbaric murderers.” Enslaved Africans were going to be civilised, even if it killed them; it very often did.
There were Puritanical echoes in the rhetoric of President Richard Nixon in the late 1960s, as he confronted the growing rebellion of a black-led coalition of youth, activists, artists and conscientious objectors – embodied in Angela Davis and the Black Panthers – with his mantra of returning “law and order” to the republic. As Kendi insinuates, Nixon was sounding mightily like Roosevelt, too, when he quipped to a crowd of 30,000 Texans that the supreme court had “gone too far in strengthening the criminal forces” – in other words, passing civil rights legislation.
Nixon was faced with the same question that dogged both segregationists and assimilationists before him: what happens when the mission to “civilise” is no longer viable? One answer was prison. In two generations, mass incarceration went from being a conspiracy theory to a fact of US politics; its critics such as Michelle Alexander and Ava DuVernay have produced award-winning books and documentaries. And in that same period Davis went from being “America’s Most Wanted” to being one of the principal voices contesting the emergence of the “prison industrial complex”.
Stamped from the Beginning closes as it should, with the era of Barack Obama. Kendi rightly suggests the limits of a black presidency when he writes: “If anti-racist Blacks could vote for racist Democrats as the ‘lesser of two evils’, then surely racist Whites could look at the Republican ticket and vote for Obama as the ‘lesser of two evils’.” Obama presided over new killing fields for black bodies, as race became a live issue once more – and over the largest expression of mass protest witnessed by young Americans since the apex of the black liberation struggles of the 1960s.
In concluding, Kendi cautions that “protesting against racist power” is not enough: “An anti-racist America can only be guaranteed if principled anti-racists are in power, and anti-racist policies become the law of the land.” This book’s ultimately hopeful analysis doesn’t seem to hold sway at this moment, as the president, and much of the population, defends memorials that historians agree were put in place as symbols of white supremacy. But the struggle over these symbols might finally represent a slow recognition that something has changed, and perhaps it’s now the white supremacists who need to be “assimilated” into an anti-racist future that is still beyond the nation’s grasp.
Mark Anthony Neal’s Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities is published by NYU.
• Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X Kendi is published by Bodley Head. To order a copy for £16.14 (RRP £18.99) go to bookshop.hafta-ichi.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
Source: The Guardian
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