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.