The Definitive History of Racist Ideas

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by [Kendi, Ibram X.] When the word “definitive” is in the title, it’s probably a good clue that a book might be a bit daunting. Add the word “history – as in “definitive history” – and you know the scope of time and detail is going to be immense. That’s clearly the case with Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, by Ibram X. Kendi, which won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2016. The book covers the entire history of America over the course of 500+ pages (not including endnotes). The main title, Stamped from the Beginning, comes from a speech by Jefferson Davison, who later became president of the Confederacy, in which he opposed funding for black education by saying that the “inequality of the white and black races” was “stamped from the beginning.”

The book is organized into five major sections headlined by five individuals whose stories of their attitudes and behaviors toward blacks are told within the larger context of their particular eras: Cotton Mather, the Puritan/Colonial era; Thomas Jefferson, the Revolutionary War and the beginnings of the nation; William Lloyd Garrison, the abolitionist movement and the Civil War and Reconstruction; W. E. B. Dubois, the Jim Crow era; and Angela Davis, the civil rights movement to the recent past.

Kendi offers a simple definition of racism or a racist idea: “any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way.” Throughout the history of America, there have been three approaches to racism: segregation, assimilation, and anti-racism. Segregationists are the most obviously racist, firmly believing in the inherited (“stamped from the beginning”) inferiority of blacks. Assimilationists, although often well-intentioned, tend to blame other factors besides racism for racial disparities (like environment, bad behavior, culture, etc.). Anti-racists recognize “that the different skin colors, hair textures, behaviors, and cultural ways of Black and Whites are . . . equal in all their divergences.” As he goes through history, Kendi categorizes the actions, behaviors, and writings of various people as segregationist, assimilationist, or anti-racist.

The result is a book that is dense with detail and is a research tour de force. It is “definitive” in the sense that the steps in the progress (or lack thereof) toward racial justice over the course of more than 500 years of history are gathered all in one place. A few overarching observations:

  • Even people we have generally thought of as having moved us closer to equality and racial justice were not fully anti-racist. For example, we credit Abraham Lincoln with ending slavery, but in the days leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation, he said, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it. . . . What I do about slavery, and the colored people, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.” A noble motive to save the Union – and worthy of praise and a special place in history – but hardly an anti-racist action.
  • Racism, by Kendi’s definition, is deeply embedded in American society, and to some extent it seems as though everyone has been influenced by the “stamped from the beginning” notion that whites are inherently superior. Despite many of our most well-intentioned efforts, we have continued to promote racist ideas.
  • Racism keeps “shape-shifting” as various gains are made. The end of slavery leads to Jim Crow legalized discrimination; the end of Jim Crow leads to mass incarceration of blacks for minor drug crimes, and so on. The election of Barack Obama as the first black president in 2008 was thought by some to be a signal that we had arrived at a “post-racial” society. Not so much: “The producers of racist ideas . . . were working to put up something better, a portrait of America conveying that there was no longer any need for protective or affirmative civil rights laws and policies – and no longer any need to ever talk about race.” There are lots of examples of affirmative action being under attack despite continuing racial disparities.

Those observations barely scratch the surface of what I learned from this book and don’t begin to do justice to the breadth and depth of Kendi’s analysis. Sometimes I felt like he was trying to do too much; there was lots of what I call “name-dropping” – it seems like every person who said or did anything related to race throughout 500 years of American history gets a shout-out, along with every book or article ever written. My poor brain cannot handle the detail! One could debate whether the book could have been improved with significant editing, or whether it should have been broken up into two or three volumes, each concentrating on a specific theme.

In an article published in the October 2018 edition of The Atlantic, Kendi reflects on Abraham Lincoln’s speech in 1858 to the Illinois Republican State Convention. Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free . . . It will become all one things or all the other.” Kendi notes that the nation remains divided today, and calls attention to the murder of nine black churchgoers by a white supremacist in Charleston, the white supremacist demonstration in Charlottesville, and the encouragement of “the incarceration, deportation, or exclusion of astonishing number of nonwhite people.” He hones in on the 2013 Supreme Court decision undermining parts of the Voting Rights Act, noting that this “removed one of the last major antiracist policies from federal law.” He goes on: “In the old days, before the Voting Rights Act, states and counties suppressed voting by men and eventually women of color through property requirements, literacy tests, and poll taxes – while tacitly condoning employer intimidation and Ku Klux Klan violence. Now states and counties suppress votes through early-voting restrictions, limits on absentee and mail-in ballots, poll closures, felon disenfranchisement, and laws requiring voters to have a photo ID.” In the final weeks leading up to the 2018 midterm elections, the news is full of examples of voter restrictions that are disproportionally affecting nonwhite people (witness Georgia and North Dakota).

I recommend this book, and Kendi’s more recent article, for people who want to understand better where all these racist ideas came from and who are concerned about the racism that is deeply embedded in American society and rearing its ugly head in new ways in our current environment. Sometimes, I am tempted to despair, but Kendi ends his book on a hopeful note: “There will come a time when Americans will realize that the only thing wrong with Black people is that they think something is wrong with Black people. . . . There will come a time when we will love humanity, when we will gain the courage to fight for an equitable society for our beloved humanity, knowing, intelligently, that when we fight for humanity, we are fighting for ourselves.” I hope that time comes sooner rather than later.



Voting Matters

With the Pennsylvania deadline for voter registration approaching next week on October 9, the November 6 mid-term elections not far behind, and my extreme frustration with the current political state of affairs, the issue of voting is looming large in my mind.(Public service announcement before I go on!  If you live in Pennsylvania and are not registered to vote, please consider doing so by the deadline of October 9. You can register here. More information about voting across the United States is available on the Rock the Vote website.)

The 2016 presidential election was decided by less than 78,000 votes in three states. The electoral college votes in those three states (including Pennsylvania) decided the election in Donald Trump’s favor despite the fact that he lost the national popular vote by 2.8 million votes. My point is not that the result was not legitimate – it was according to the system we have in place – but rather to emphasize the razor-thin margin and the importance of individual votes. Less than 78,000 out of 13,243,376 votes in three states (and 136,669,237 total votes across the country) put a man into the White House who I wish had never have been elected. Voting matters a lot!

In his victory speech on election night in 2016, Donald Trump said, “Now it’s time for America to bind the wounds of division, to get together. To all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to come together as one united people. I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans.” Even though very little of what he had done or said during the campaign was particularly reassuring to me, I hoped that he would rise to the occasion as president and live up to these unifying words. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened, as far as I’ve been able to observe, and it feels like democracy itself is under assault under this president and the deep divisions continue.

More than two years ago, ahead of the 2016 presidential primary, I wrote about my dilemmas related to voting. I referred to my faith tradition’s past reluctance to vote: “To vote was to be complicit in the [political] system, and to perpetuate or reinforce the coercive nature of politics and the compromise of values inherent in the system,” but I also noted that I have always voted because I believe that it’s one way of not being silent but speaking up for what I believe as well as one of the particular privileges of living in a participatory democracy.

I continue to wonder whether emphasizing the importance of voting suggests that I am putting more hope in the outcome of an election than I should. Perhaps I should focus instead on the hope inherent in my faith in a God who cares about us now and always even when things around us, including our politics, look dismal and tempt us to despair. I wonder whether I should simply (oh, if only it were simple!) live out in my daily life the values that are important to me, regardless of who’s in the White House, the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court, the governor’s mansion, and so on down the line.However, I don’t think it’s either-or (not much in life is): that is, either we vote and become involved politically, or we don’t because our hope is in something bigger and more eternal. I appreciate what Tim Keller said in his recent op-ed in the New York Times: “Christians cannot pretend they can transcend politics and simply ‘preach the Gospel.’ Those who avoid all political discussions and engagement are essentially casting a vote for the social status quo. American churches in the early 19th century that did not speak out against slavery because that was what we would now call “getting political” were actually supporting slavery by doing so. To not be political is to be political. . . . Christians should be involved politically as a way of loving our neighbors, whether they believe as we do or not. To work for better public schools or for a justice system not weighted against the poor or to end racial segregation requires political engagement. Christians have done these things in the past and should continue to do so.”

Do I think that certain voting outcomes will be the cure for all that ails us as Americans? A thousand times NO! We should recognize that most political systems and individuals are subject to corruption, unethical compromises, and self-interest. They will not bring in the kingdom of God. But voting is one way to act positively, to take a stand, knowing that if enough other people act, we can make a difference. Voting can either affirm the status quo or issue a strong repudiation and desire to chart a different course. Voting cuts through the noise of competing rhetoric and ideologies and simply expresses our best judgment of who we think will serve our public and civic interests and advance our values. For me, those values include (in no order of importance): the common good, generosity, compassion, desire for reconciliation, justice, truth, care for the marginalized and vulnerable regardless of who they are or where they’re from or where in the world they live, respect for each person’s dignity and humanity, civility, kindness, and so on.

I will vote on November 6 because I care about these values, believe they are often in short supply in our current environment, and want more people in government who reflect them. At the same time, I will continue to try to live them out in my everyday life, knowing that I can do so regardless of who is elected and what policies are enacted.

Protest and Civility

Over the summer, Dale and I attended the Families Belong Together rally and march in Harrisburg. We joined more than 300 people protesting the immigration and family detention policies of the U. S. government. We left early because of the extreme heat, but we’re glad we made the effort to attend. It felt like the right thing to do at that particular moment in the United States.

I don’t often engage in public acts of protest. Even though I opposed the Vietnam War, I never marched or protested against it publicly. I have participated in a few relatively minor protests. Of course, there was my toddler protest when I refused to speak to my father for months, probably because I blamed him for moving us away from a beloved nanny. In college, a friend and I met with the college president to protest the non-contract-renewal of a favorite professor. In the early 1980s, Dale and I expressed our opposition to war by refusing to pay the military portion of our income taxes. Last year, we went to our local U. S. Representative’s town hall (might have been the last in-person one he held), in part to protest his support for repealing the Affordable Care Act. This past March, we went to the local March for Our Lives rally against gun violence. And I have written (and published) thousands of words over the past 40+ years, some of which could be considered a form of protest.

In general, however, big public displays of protest are just not me. It is not natural for me to chant slogans, shout down or boo people, interfere with someone’s dinner in a restaurant, or engage in bullying behavior toward people with whom I disagree. Some of my queasiness with protest, I’ll admit, is related to my dislike of conflict and confrontation, but I also don’t think it’s right to be rude and nasty – even when I believe the causes behind the protest are just and right.

My dilemma is this: how to protest and resist policies and practices I abhor while remaining true to my values. Or as I put it in a piece I wrote last fall, how to “speak truth with words that give grace.”

I am really bothered by the incivility of our national discourse these days. It starts at the top – with a president who name-calls, tosses out petty insults through his Twitter feed and in his campaign-style rallies, and encourages his supporters to treat others the same way – and extends to ordinary individuals, including people all along the political spectrum (conservatives and progressives, Republicans and Democrats). Many people seem to feel like they’ve been given permission to say out loud in public whatever they think, regardless of how petty and mean it is. I cringe when people I like and respect in regular life share memes and stories on social media that are often not only blatantly false (and could be easily fact-checked) but also demeaning and nasty. I want to tell them, “Just stop it. Think before you post. This is not helpful, it’s cruel, it hurts your credibility (especially as a Christian), and I don’t think it’s really who you are.”

On the other hand, I believe it’s important to speak forthrightly, name evil and wrongdoing when we see it, even when it makes people uncomfortable. I want to take a stand for justice, especially for those who are the most vulnerable or marginalized. I understand the arguments in favor of a certain amount of incivility, and I realize that desperate times might call for desperate measures even if they don’t always fit my definition of niceness and civility.

So what are some ways to protest that better fit my personality and my values?

  • Write letters, make phone calls, and send emails to public officials. Be a pest and be direct and passionate, but don’t make personal attacks.
  • Take a stand on social media, but again, no name-calling or personal attacks. Admittedly, I’ve been pretty silent lately, mostly because I am concerned that I can’t say what I believe without inflaming someone I might hope to influence or persuade.
  • Engage in nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience (our tax resistance was an example). Refuse to participate in a system that oppresses or does whatever you think is wrong. Get in the way and gum up the works – but be civil in the process. Explain what you’re doing and why. Be willing to accept the consequences of your behavior, if you’ve broken the law. Civil disobedience not only has a long history in American politics, but it is also biblical: Daniel in the lion’s den; Shadrach, Meshach, and Obednego in the fiery furnace; Jesus picking grain and healing on the Sabbath; Peter and John declaring they would obey God rather than human laws.
  • Take positive action: prayer, volunteer work that helps those affected by the injustices, getting involved in political campaigns and voting and encouraging others to vote to elect candidates who will change unjust laws.
  • Sift through the noise to get the facts and commit to not knowingly spreading false information (and apologize when you do it by mistake).

I know I don’t engage in all of these forms of protest as regularly as I should, but whenever I do, I want to be as truthful and civil as possible.

What If We Applied the Golden Rule?

As if I wasn’t already sad and angry about children being separated from their parents at the border, this viral photo of a Honduran toddler crying while her mother was being searched touched a very personal nerve. The child reminds me of a younger version of my six-year-old granddaughter Selena. Every time I see the photo, I see Selena, and I imagine the anguish I would feel if she or any of my grandchildren were forcibly separated from their parents with no clear indication of when or how (or even if) they will be reunited. (For the story of the photo and John Moore, the photographer, see this article.) (Update, June 22, 2018: The child in this photo was not in fact separated from her mother, but they are both still being detained.*)

Here are just a few of the other things I’ve been pondering as I read about and watch the awfulness that’s happening on our southern border:

The Golden Rule in one form or another is common to all major world religions:

  • Do to others as you would have them do to you (Christianity)
  • Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful (Buddhism)
  • This is the sum of duty; do naught unto others what you would not have them do to you (Hinduism)
  • No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself (Islam)
  • What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellowman. This is the entire law; all the rest is commentary (Judaism) (See “The Universality of the Golden Rule in the World Religions.”)

One of the reasons the Old Testament gives for caring for the strangers or aliens living in the land is that the children of Israel were once strangers themselves. The Old Testament and Jesus and Paul in the New Testament all say, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (in fact, Paul says this immediately following the passage in Romans 13 so inappropriately used by Attorney General Sessions). The writer to the Hebrews teaches that we should care for those in prison as if we were in prison with them, and those who are mistreated as if we ourselves were suffering. These are all variations of the Golden Rule: treat others as you want to be treated. What might it look like if we made a good faith effort to apply the Golden Rule to public policy, especially immigration policy?

I am frustrated beyond my ability to articulate by all the lies, obfuscation, disingenuousness, misinformation, and dissembling being propagated and repeated by various officials in the administration, especially the president himself. One of the most egregious is blaming the Democrats when his party is in control of Congress and he could personally reverse the “zero-tolerance” decision that has led to family separation.

Previous administrations struggled with the illegal immigration issue, and in their efforts to stem the flow didn’t always act humanely either.However, it feels to me like the current level of rhetoric against immigrants (even ones who want to come legally) is much greater than before, often preying on people’s fears of “the other.” This recent New York Times article helped me understand what happened before and what is happening now: How Trump Diverged from Other Presidents and Embraced a Policy of Separating Migrant Families.” 

A recent Politifact article also helps to explain the difference between what President Obama did and what is happening now. And here’s another one from NPR: “What We Know: Family Separation and ‘Zero-Tolerance’ at the Border.”

Administration officials have openly described the practice as a deterrent, but what if instead, we addressed the core reasons so many people try to come to the United States? How might the U.S. nonviolently and compassionately help to address some of the root causes of people becoming desperate enough to risk everything, including family separation, to make the journey? We know that many if not most of the countries that undocumented immigrants are fleeing are poor and violent (by the way, I hate the term “illegal alien” because it feels so dehumanizing). As one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world, with a history of welcoming immigrants (“Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free”), what if the U.S. worked with other nations to create a better and more equitable world instead of alienating other democracies and selfishly proclaiming “America first”? We all live on this planet together and are interconnected more than ever before. What hurts one hurts us all, and what helps one helps us all. A Golden Rule philosophy makes so much more practical and moral sense to me that a zero-sum philosophy where there always have to be winners and losers.

Quite honestly, I don’t have the answer to the immigration issue, but I know that the current family separation practice is not the answer and it is not right. It often feels like this is one of those intractable and hopelessly complex issues to which there is no resolution. I think I understand why so many risk everything to try to come to the U.S., but then I also wonder why so many Americans don’t want them to come, sometimes even if they come in legally acceptable ways? The reasons often given include not wanting to give away (or share) limited resources to people who haven’t worked for them, protecting our jobs, or preventing crime – even though the truth is that most immigrants are hard-working, often do jobs that many Americans don’t want, and commit crimes at a lower rate than the rest of the population. I also suspect that a sizable number of Americans are motivated, perhaps despite themselves, by xenophobia (fear and distrust of that which is foreign or strange). Why, really, is it such a bad thing if more people come seeking the same better life our own ancestors did 50, 100, 200, 300, 400 years ago?

If we assume that the idea of countries with borders is a good thing, and believe that countries have the right and responsibility to control who and how many come in, then what is the best way to control those borders and protect national interests? What can we do that is more in keeping with the Golden Rule than separating families, criminalizing people seeking a better life or fleeing war and violence, and building more literal and figurative walls between us and and the rest of the world? I don’t have good answers, but I know we have to try harder to find ones that reflect our national values and the values of our faith. I am horrified and heartsick by the current situation and believe we must do better.

*Addendum: A clarification in the interest of truth. I learned that the toddler was NOT in fact separated from her mother, even though they are both being detained for crossing the border illegally. Some people seem to be suggesting that the fact that the child was not separated from her mother negates the value and credibility of the photo and condemns anyone who uses it to put a face on the human tragedy happening at the border. I am very happy that this child and her mother are together, but the truth is that 2,000+ children are still separated from their families and who knows how long it will take until they are reunited or IF they ever will be. 

Truth Still Matters

In my blog post a few days ago about “Real Patriotism,” I referred parenthetically to the almost 1500 migrant children the Trump administration had “inexplicably lost.” I thought I had fact-checked it, but I discovered later that my original statement was over-generalized and did not account appropriately for the nuances of the situation. So I deleted the statement and I will not repeat it unless I put it in context, including the fact that previous administrations have also lost track of migrant children, sometimes for understandable reasons and sometimes not. (For the record, my confession to writing something that was not the whole story in no way absolves this administration of its anti-immigrant rhetoric and practices, which are cruel and xenophobic.)

Now more than ever, truth matters. The president utters multiple falsehoods and distortions of the truth in a single tweet, and in rallies repeats them to great applause. In an off-camera comment to “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl before his inauguration, he admitted he berates the media to “discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you” (as paraphrased by Stahl). In a recent tweet, he specifically equated negative news about him with “fake news.” As far as he’s concerned, if a story portrays him positively, it’s true; if it’s negative, it’s fake news. According to a Monmouth University poll a couple months ago, 77 percent of those surveyed said that the news media report “fake” stories. Clearly, the president’s gaslighting strategy is working and it’s definitely crazy-making!

Long before the idea of “fake news” became part of everyday life, I would check to find out if something was true or false – usually one of those so-called urban legends such as a recent one that Meghan Markle’s rescue dog accompanied Queen Elizabeth to the royal wedding (it didn’t!). I trust Snopes to sort out truth from falsehood. Sometimes when Facebook friends, who as far as I know are truthful people in everyday life, share flatly false (and easily fact-checked) stories, I will post a link to the truth. But then someone might respond that, or whatever fact-checking source I referenced, is “liberal” and can’t be trusted. Never mind that and the other two I follow – and – are deliberately non-partisan, regularly point out falsehoods from all points on the political spectrum, and provide helpful context. It never entered my mind before the current nightmare of falsehoods that there is a liberal or conservative explanation for what is true or false.

When my go-to fact-checking sources rate something as true or false, or somewhere in between (e.g., mostly true, mostly false), I believe them, even when their assessment does not confirm my biases. When their rating calls out someone I respect for speaking falsely, I am always disappointed that he or she did not tell the truth. Besides and, I also generally trust the fact-checkers at NPR and at the New York Times and Washington Post, all of whom have decades-old reputations to uphold. I am old enough to remember the role that these newspapers played in exposing not only the truth about how the American people were being misled about the Vietnam War but also the truth about Watergate. In the recent example of the “lost children,” both newspapers published important explanations with the larger context of what is happening now with children at the border and what happened in previous years.

We all need to commit ourselves to tell the truth and not pass on information as fact just because it suits our biases (which I regret I did with the “lost children” story). A society cannot function when we can’t count on people to tell the truth – and when lies, dishonesty, misinformation, distortion, obfuscation, dissembling (choose your favorite word) are commonplace at the highest levels of American life, including the presidency. Everyone who has been lied to knows how difficult it is to trust the person again. Are they lying again, or is this the truth now? Relationships are damaged, sometimes irreparably, when the parties can’t trust each other to tell the truth. This is happening right now on a national scale, and I believe the damage could be long-lasting.

I’ve written before about the importance of truth. In Truth Matters, in January 2017, I wrote: “I feel like I can’t function in a world where facts aren’t facts, where you can just make up stuff and present it as true and real, dismiss a story based on facts that don’t suit your particular bias by calling it ‘fake news,’ or demean and dismiss journalists and newspapers that have dedicated themselves for decades to telling the truth. . . . If nothing is really true anymore, if there are no such things as facts, how can we have any sense of being one nation?” I ended with some coping strategies I’m still trying to follow, and noted that the assault on truth feels like an existential threat, not only to my own sanity but also to the well-being of the nation.

I still feel that way. Truth matters now more than ever.