VCU kicked off their celebration of Black History Month with a series of events, tours, speakers, and screenings Feb. 1, and last week, guest lecturer and acclaimed historian and New York Times best-selling author, Ibram X. Kendi came to discuss his book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.
He spoke in front of a packed lecture hall in VCU’s Cabell library Thursday, breaking down the complexities of racism in America with succinctness and clarity, without belying the country’s fraught, cyclical record of race and oppression.
Kendi is the youngest winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction, awarded for Stamped from the Beginning, a history of “how racist ideas were developed, disseminated, and enshrined in American society.”
“Writing a history of racist ideas—and Stamped from the Beginning was a narrative history of literally the entire course of racist ideas from their origins in 15th century Portugal, to the present—the first and most important thing that I had to do was probably the most difficult thing I had to do,” said Kendi. “And that was, very simply, to define a racist idea.”
Kendi defined a racist idea as “any idea that suggests a racial group is superior or inferior to another racial group in any way.” He breaks the issue into a three-way debate, sorting racism into two primary camps of thought. First is Segregationist, the idea that black people are inherently and genetically inferior. The second is the assimilationist idea, believing that black people became inferior over time. The two sides are the product of one of the most pervasive debates of our time, nature versus nurture. Both racist ideas lend themselves to the systematic, cultural, political, and economic oppression of the black population.
The third camp, he argued, isn’t not-racist, but anti-racist. “The real problem, anti-racists have said, is not the people, it’s the lack of opportunities and resources for those very people.”
However, Kendi does not just tackle the definition and history of racism, he offers a cause and—more importantly—a solution. While Americans are long taught that the root of racism is ignorance and hatred, Kendi disagrees. He wanted to distinguish between the producers of racist ideas and the consumers. While the consumers are primarily driven by ignorance, it’s the producers of racism—the people who pen the novels and deliver the political speeches—that he’s most interested in.
“What is behind the production of these ideas? I found that these people were not ignorant, and many of them were not even hateful toward black people,” said Kendi. “What I realized is that these people, these powerful people, these powerful intellectuals who are producing these ideas, were producing them typically to defend existing racist policies. That those racist policies typically were not coming out of racist ideas, they were coming out of economic, political, and cultural self-interest. In other words, people were enslaving people not because they thought they should be enslaved, they were enslaving them so they could make money.”
Therefore, he argued that the solution is not to educate away people’s ignorance and hatred, but to change existing racist policies. “It’s very difficult for me as a professor to say that I could spend my lifetime teaching away racist ideas of my students, of people that I speak to, but at the same time, I know that people who are benefitting from racist policies are going to continue to mass produce racist ideas,” said Kendi. “If ignorance and hate is coming out of racist ideas, and if racist ideas are coming out of racist policy, then if we really want to get rid of ignorance and hate and racist ideas, our focus should be on changing and eliminating racist policies.”
Kendi references Trump without ever saying his same, debunking the popular myth that we are living in a post-racial society, an institutional denial that was constructed to avoid scrutiny of our actions and the on-going perpetuation of prejudice.
Kendi said that this is a society that maintains racist ideas, while outwardly denying that they are racist. “Every single person whose ideas I chronicle, simultaneously have stated that their ideas are not racist,” said Kendi. “Nobody wants to be on that side of the line, but everybody wants to retain their ideas.”
An incredibly engaging speaker, Kendi is poised and eloquent, and the audience was visibly engaged, chiming in with noises of assent and even laughter. Though these are ideas that most of us are superficially aware of, that exist in our peripheral, to have them verbalized clearly and assertively, paired with a method for change and progress, was incredibly impactful.
You can check out the rest of VCU’s upcoming events in honor of Black History Month here.
Top Image By: NewBlackMan