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Stamped from the Beginning

The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America

By Ibram X. Kendi
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Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi

Stamped from the Beginning (2016) offers a powerful examination of the modern history of racism in the United States, including where racist ideas originate and how they spread. In particular, the author looks closely at how the presidential campaigns and administrations of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton have helped propagate racist thought and had a detrimental impact on America’s black communities.

Key idea 1 of 11

American history and its attendant racism can be characterized as a battle between segregationists, assimilationists, and anti-racists.

No matter how much we’d like to believe in the fantasy of a post-racial America, the numbers speak for themselves: Black and white Americans are still not equal.

For instance, owing to centuries of systemic economic oppression of Black people, white American households today are, on average, 13 times wealthier than Black households. Black people are also five times more likely than white people to be imprisoned, with young Black men more than 20 times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts.

And so the words that Jefferson Davis used when arguing against a pro-Black education bill in 1860 – ironically – still ring true: the “inequality of the white and black races,” the Mississippi senator argued, was “stamped from the beginning.”

The key message? American history and its attendant racism can be characterized as a battle between segregationists, assimilationists, and anti-racists.

So what does it mean for Black people to be “stamped from the beginning”? 

Historically, the public figures who’ve tried to answer this question have fallen into three distinct camps: segregationists, assimilationists, and anti-racists.

Segregationists are most easily recognizable as racists. They believe that the apparent social and economic inequality is Black people’s own fault. They usually invoke biology, religion, or genetics to argue that Black people are inferior, and many throughout history subscribed to polygenesis – the theory that different human races were created separately from each other.

From the outset, though, segregationists have been opposed by anti-racists, who argue that the inequality of Black and white people is solely a function of racial discrimination. They recognize race as the artificial construct that it is, and oppose any form of discrimination built around it. 

Couched between these two warring factions are the assimilationists. They want to have it both ways: they agree with anti-racists that discrimination has held Black people back, but they also subscribe to the racist idea that Black people need to “try a little bit harder” if they want to overcome inequality. Historically, many assimilationists believed in monogenesis – the idea that all humans were created equal, but different environments produced variation in race.

Throughout history many people, even famed activists such as W.E.B. Du Bois, have expressed the more subtle racism that assimilationist beliefs carry. Meanwhile, the openly racist, segregationist stance has become more infrequent – or at least less overt. Instead, modern thought leaders have simply learned to shroud their racist ideas in assimilationist and even anti-racist language. But racist ideas are still alive and well, and we’ll see why in the next blink.

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