On Stamped from the Beginning

On October 25, I attended Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s talk at Eckerd College. During this talk, he asserted that, “Consuming racist ideas have literally made us crazy” and that “The racial issue has always been a power issue.” While these two ideas were ones that I have come to believe in all my studies, he said something else that shook me. Dr. Kendi asked, “If education and persuasion can’t change racist power, then what can? What historically has worked is people putting pressure on people in positions of power.” While it was an interesting sentiment, it intrigued me and led to my reading of his book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.

In the book, Dr. Kendi reminds readers over and over again that there is nothing inherently wrong with any race. But wow has the US tried to prove otherwise.

I especially like the term “uplift suasion” that Kendi used throughout Stamped. It is the idea that if black people act as “model minorities” then prejudice about them will magically melt away, but Kendi proves this false. In fact, he claims, “As much as black firsts broke racial barriers, the publicity around black firsts sometimes, if not most times, reinforced racist ideas.” This was clear in the media coverage of Obama and even the rise in the popularity of white supremacist groups that came after his election. If Obama’s ascension into the presidency didn’t lead to uplift suasion, then what in the heck ever could? Even now, it is just as true in 2019 as it was in the 1800s.

Like most research related to anti-racism work, this book made me rethink so many things I thought I understood. Since finishing the book, I have a variety of things I need to go back and revisit. For example, is the film Crash as powerful as I thought it was when I watched it? (My guess is not at all. From what I remember about it, it’s a movie about race in America that doesn’t acknowledge systemic racism.) Was Kanye West’s assertion about George Bush after Katrina really so crazy? Is the “Southern strategy” only some historical strategy that Nixon used to win or is it actually a page in a playbook that is used for every election? (Based off the Governor’s race that just happened in my state, I’m going to go with a “yes” on it being a constant and current political strategy.) And isn’t “assassination” a more accurate term for what George Zimmerman did to Trayvon Martin?

In the end, the book doesn’t have an uplifting message, so I have to hold onto something else Dr. Kendi said at the Eckerd talk, and that is “The first step of being an activist is believing in the fundamental possibility of change.”

So here’s to believing in that change.

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