Ibram Kendi on the Origin of Racist Ideas in America

Ibram X. Kendi is a best-selling author, an award-winning historian, and a professor of history and international relations at American University. His most recent book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, won the National Book Award for Nonfiction.

According to Kendi, the popular belief that
ignorant and hateful people had produced racist ideas, and that these racist people had instituted racist policies,
is a pure folktale, unsupported by historical evidence. The true historical development of racist ideas occurs in the inverse process: self-serving policies instituted by the powerful are inherently discriminatory, leading to the propagation of racist ideas to justify them, leading to ignorance and hate in the gullible masses who buy into these packaged ideas.
Racial discrimination –> racist ideas –> ignorance/hate. 
Then where do racially discriminatory policies come from, if not ignorance and hate? Kendi argues: self-interests.
Racially discriminatory policies have usually sprung from economic, political, and cultural self-interests, self-interests that are constantly changing. Politicians seeking higher office have primarily created and defended discriminatory policies out of political self-interest–not racist ideas. Capitalists seeking to increase profit margins have primarily created and defended discriminatory policies out of economic self-interest–not racist ideas. Cultural professionals, including theologians, artists, scholars, and journalists, were seeking to advance their careers or cultures and have primarily created and defended discriminatory policies out of professional self-interest–not racist ideas. 
Racist ideas are then disseminated in order to support this self-interest, to obfuscate the nature of the discriminatory policies, and to discourage resistance to these policies.
The principle function of racist ideas in American history has been the suppression of resistance to racial discrimination and its resulting racial disparities. The beneficiaries of slavery, segregation, and mass incarceration have produced racist ideas of Black people being best suited for or deserving the confines of slavery, segregation, or the jail cell. Consumers of these racist ideas have been led to believe there is something wrong with Black people, and not the policies that have enslaved, oppressed, and confined so many Black people. 

When you truly believe that racial groups are inherently equal, Kendi notes, then the logical consequence is that you also believe that racial disparities must be the result of influences outside of the people themselves, the result of social and legal patterns, racial discrimination.

If this is true, then what can we do to move our country toward the elimination of racism in the future?
Protests are good–but Kendi argues that they are limited in effectiveness as a long-term solution to eliminating racial discrimination. Instead, individuals who are antiracist must seize and maintain positions of power, codifying equality more thoroughly into the legal and social fabric of the country. In his concluding words,
Any effective solution to eradicating American racism must involve Americans committed to antiracist policies seizing and maintaining power over institutions, neighborhoods, counties, states, nations–the world. It makes no sense to sit back and put the future in the hands of people committed to racist policies, or people who regularly sail with the wind of self-interest, toward racism today, toward antiracism tomorrow. An antiracist America can only be guaranteed if principled antiracists are in power, and then antiracist ideas become the common sense of the people, and then the antiracist common sense of the people holds those antiracist leaders and policies accountable. 



Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on… Life.

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. The title is well-known. The subtitle? Not so much: Some instructions on Writing and Life. I chose to focus on the and Life angle of the book. The writing advice in the book is thoroughly cataloged in many other places. Below are some of my thoughts while reading.

  • Life should be built like Papier-mâché. Tattered fragment after tattered fragment. Flung onto the pile, rising in a general direction. Messy, imperfect, but not aimless. Small additions, compounded. Art.
  • Quality and quantity of attention matter. You have the choice to use them as you please. How you do so is your life.
  • It is okay to not take life very seriously.
  • We vastly overestimate people who have achieved something extraordinary. They are usually not much different from the average one of us. It is circumstances and environment that distinguish.
  • No one’s first effort at anything is ever good. Lighten up and give it a whirl.
  • Live your truth–and tell it too. The truth will set you free, and your truth may set others free.
  • In the end, little is of any importance. Enjoy the freedom to err.
  • Our paying attention or not paying attention shapes our experiences, which in time become our memories, our cumulative self. Attention, attention, attention is the bedrock of the human life.
  • Doing is easy. Accepting what can’t be done is hard. Accepting what you’ve done is hard.


Reflections on William Blake’s Eternity

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

An endless title, for such a brief poem. And a curious title. Three-fourths of the poem’s lines are about joy, the fourth about the titular ETERNITY. Those three little lines–that brief message–this brief moment–is pressed between ETERNITIES: in preface, in conclusion.

William Blake is writing to teach us. He instructs us in two sets of coupled lines, composed in a structure of ‘wrong behavior-negative result; right behavior-positive result’. The behavior to be taught: the way to relate to the joys in life. 

He who binds to himself a joy

Binding implies a resistance, either inherent in the nature of an inanimate object, or by the volition of an animate object. If something is bound, it is not free to go on its natural course, even as a bundle of grain is prevented from its gravitational scattering. To bind a joy to oneself, I take to mean a selfish appreciation of it.

Does the winged life destroy;

Whose ‘winged life’ is destroyed, the man’s? or the joy’s? Or both? Winged, can signify a life that is elevated, flying; it can signify a life that is transient, fleeting. Here, it may mean both.

On to his counter-example:

But he who kisses the joy as it flies

But: in contrast to the previous erroneous behavior. Notice the definite article change from ‘a‘ in line 1, to ‘the‘ here, indicating that these are two possible postures toward the same postulated ‘joy’.

Joy flies. This supports the idea that the winged life that was destroyed was the joy’s. But it may have layers of meaning. Kisses the joy as it flies, is to allow the joy to remain unaltered in its course by your appreciation. Give the joy its autonomy, and let it fly as it will.

Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

Destroyed life is juxtaposed with Eternal life, suggesting that they may share an object after all, the man’s life.

Eternity’s sun rise. Three words with tension in the spaces between. The sun rise is a marker of time, but in the timeless? The sun rise is a beginning, but does eternity have one? Perhaps it is a general image of red-hot, blazing joy.

Or, quite likely, it is religious, literal in a sense. This is William Blake, after all. It could be a simple gospel of salvation through your relationship to life’s joys. Winged life, heavenly life, afterlife, renewal, a new day, a sun rise. Eternal life is destroyed through selfish joys. 

In sum: the enduring is wrought in the momentary.


Neurosurgeon Resident Paul Kalanithi on How Life Changes When Dying

Paul Kalanithi (1977-2015), an Indian-American Neurosurgeon resident at Stanford, was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic lung cancer in the final year of his decade-long training to become a neurosurgeon. In this training, he had helped guide many patients through their medical crises, as they wrestled over the existential questions thrust upon them by their prognoses. He himself was then unexpectedly thrown into the same position. When Breath Becomes Air is his poignant memoir, written in the last years of his life, chronicling his journey through the medical world as both a physician and patient.

After being diagnosed with terminal cancer, Paul Kalanithi struggled to define what mattered:

The tricky part about illness is that, as you go through it, your values are constantly changing. You try to figure out what matters to you, and then you keep figuring it out. It felt like someone had taken away my credit card and I was having to learn how to budget. You may decide you want to spend your time working as a neurosurgeon, but two months later, you may feel differently. Two months after that, you may want to learn to play the saxophone or devote yourself to the church. Death may be a one-time event, but living with a terminal illness is a process.

What is the best use of the life that we have left? It is a question we all face, but perhaps not with the same solemnity of those who are terminally ill. For Paul, this question was quite difficult to answer.

Grand illnesses are supposed to be life-clarifying. Instead, I knew I was going to die–but I’d known that before. My state of knowledge was the same, but my ability to make lunch plans had been shot to hell. The way forward would seem obvious, if only I knew how many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I’d spend time with family. Tell me one year, I’d write a book. Give me ten years, I’d get back to treating diseases. The truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help: What was I supposed to do that day?

He continues,

The most obvious [response to his terminal cancer diagnosis] might be an impulse to frantic activity: to “live life to its fullest,” to travel, to dine, to achieve a host of neglected ambitions. Part of the cruelty of cancer, though, is not only that it limits your time; it also limits your energy, vastly reducing the amount you can squeeze into a day. It is a tired hare who now races. And even if I had the energy, I prefer a more tortoise-like approach. I plod, I ponder. Some days, I simply persist.

Yet one thing is certain: In facing death, life becomes focused. Many of the concerns that bogged one’s life prior to that point become less than nothing. As Paul Kalanithi concludes,

Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described, hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed.

An Illustration of a String

Imagine you are holding the end of a long string in your hand. The string travels off into the distance, out of sight, and is attached at its other end to something you desire. You are required to roll the string into a ball in order to attain the object on the other end of the string.

There are two possible routes: the first is to pull the string and the object toward you, wrapping it as you do so. The second is to move yourself toward the object, wrapping the string as you do so.

These are the ways we navigate life.

Inspired by an excerpt from William Blake’s Jerusalem:

I give you the end of a golden string,
Only wind it into a ball

Thoreau, On Walking

Thoreau’s Walden (1854) is without question one of the fundamental works of the American literary canon. Its influence was expansive, inspiring the likes of Edward Abbey, Willa Cather, Marcel Proust, William Butler Yeats, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, Upton Sinclair, E. B. White, Lewis Mumford, Frank Lloyd Wright, and many, many more. His Civil Disobedience (1849) was a pivotal work in the formation of the views of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. Comparatively few have read one of his shorter works, Walking (1862), which I will be reflecting on.

As the title suggests, Thoreau begins this work with a panegyric about “the Art of Walking.” For Thoreau, walking is not an intentionally planned trip from a predetermined point A to point B; he means something entirely different than a looping walk around the neighborhood, park, or city. To emphasize this distinction, he uses the word sauntering, which he would describe as a free, uninhibited walk through uncultivated lands (woods, meadows, swamps), in which one’s direction is guided by their instincts alone. This activity, for him, is crucial to his livelihood:

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least–and it is commonly more than that–sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.
The benefits of sauntering, as he sees it, are:
     1)  Health, mental and physical
     2) Detachment from ‘worldly engagements’ and ‘obligations to Society’
What business have I in the woods, if I am myself thinking of something outside of the woods?
     3) Time for thinking
When a traveler asked Wordsworth’s servant to show him her master’s study, she answered, “Here is his library, but his study is out of doors.”
He then critiques the sedentary habits of modern society:
I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them–as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon–I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.

And then, going further:

I confess to say that I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months, aye, and years almost together.
To call this moral insensibility seems extreme, but it is understandable when read in context of the larger picture of Thoreau’s thought. For Thoreau, Man is fundamentally a piece of Nature:
I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil–to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.

Nature is man’s home, the soil from which man emerged, the marrow from which he lives. For this reason, it is important for humans to, in some cases, return to wilder, more natural habits. Society and civilization, and the accompanying lifestyle changes they have produced, are sometimes beneficial, sometimes harmful.

Nowadays almost all of man’s improvements, so called, as the building of houses and the cutting down of the forest and of all large trees, simply deform the landscape, and make it more and more tame and cheap.
In an analogous way, Thoreau sees that mankind is also being deformed, becoming more and more tame and cheap. Thoreau exhorts us to fight this drifting, to return to wildness, and to prevent ourselves from becoming wholly cultivated. As he says,
I would not have every man nor every part of a man cultivated, any more than I would have every acre of earth cultivated: part will be tillage, but the greater part will be meadow and forest, not only serving an immediate use, but preparing a mould against a distant future, by the annual decay of the vegetation which it supports.
Life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him.