Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America
By Ibram X. Kendi
Review by Dr. Herbert L. Calhoun
Although the author's original intent was to tell a story about the history of the origins of Black Studies in the 1960s, he ended up telling the whole story of white racism in America -- from its ignominious beginning with slavery in 1619, to its uncompromising devolution into today's confusing reversal of laws intended to foster racial progress, to false and misleading racial symbolism with its mulatto president, all morphing into what can only be called faux multiculturalism.
Morally, spiritually, and in the toll it takes on the humanity of all players, the story of white racism in America as told here is a thoroughly sordid affair. It is full of betrayals, religious hypocrisy, brutality, savagery, lying and dissembling, and many dramas of false heroism. Thus, by anyone's reckoning, America's racial history has been a complete moral mess from beginning to end. And if we are to be completely honest, there are no heroes on either side in the story of America's racial history, only "fake pretend heroes," that under closer scrutiny, seem more like villains than authentic heroes.
As we all do, the author too wanted to know why white racism continues to be so persistent despite America's sweet-sounding democratic rhetoric of equality to the contrary. The story he tells here is a panoramic, well told, well-researched and a thoroughly convincing one.
Oddly, the author's framework of slavers, discriminators, assimilators, abolitionists, and antiracists, sidesteps all of the moral, spiritual, emotional landmines and intrigue with which we all are so familiar. He does this in order to tell a larger deeper story about how the powers and interests that lie on a plane below it all, have fashioned the "drama of lack of racial progress."
The best analogy to fully understand the phenomenon of white racism as it is explicated in this book, in my view, is to use the metaphor of an old fashion pinball machine. If one imagines the big steel ball being a black man shot from the canon off a slave ship onto a downwardly sloping trajectory onto a tilted hostile continent called America, where his labor is then used without pay for three centuries, then the reader will see how the evolution of the drama of "lack of racial progress" and the persistence of racism has unfolded.
On land, as the black man rolls steadily down a sloping racist obstacle course, his job is to get to the final hole of freedom with a full-measure of his humanity still intact; or if he is unlucky, as most are, he can only watch another generation of blacks get shot from a canon similar to what was done to him during slavery.
The downwardly-sloping land of course is just another metaphor for a very tainted American humanity that has been sullied and forever slanted away from a global moral norm by slavery. Slavery, followed by Jim Crow, lynching, segregation, American style Apartheid, and in our generation, reversal of laws designed to advance racial progress, and then mass incarceration, all prove that America never intended for the playing field to be level, or, for equality to reign supreme on this hypocritical and immoral land.
Because white power and white interests launched the steel ball, and thus are driving the process -- not morality, not religion, nor even race hatred -- the slope of American humanity has remained tilted in the embarrassing downward direction throughout its history. So much so that it has begun to bend away from, instead of towards, the proverbial asymptotic arc of social justice. And over the last 240 years, despite rhetoric to the contrary, and because of white supremacy, very few attempts have been made to set American humanity upright again.
Unnecessarily, the American experiment with race has been an evolving downward rolling pinball-like obstacle course for individual blacks, one designed only to protect the interests and power of those who still stand to gain from keeping the steel balls in play -- serving only white power and white interests. When the ball ceases to do this, as it did at the end of slavery, then white power and white interests on longer has a place for blacks.
Freedom and equality for the black man in a world ruled by the white supremacist rules and worldview, are dangerous and problematic concepts for white power and white interests to come to grips with. To avoid the implications of complete black freedom and the social, political and economic equality that would flow from it, white interests and white power have evolved in tandem with a tilted humanity and a self-fashioned but tilted white immorality, both of which have been turned into mandatory American norms of a pseudo racist "American morality."
From the use of free slave labor to a rough, but still almost seamless un-critiqued evolution into an overarching ideology of white supremacy, in which a whole parcel of intangible white benefits, perks, advantages, prerogatives and interests follow, and are accrued and continuously defended and protected in order to keep the steel ball rolling ever rapidly downwards, America has fashioned itself into a racial Potemkin village. The American Potemkin Village has proven to be a necessary existential companion to the dissembling white American soul, and the immorality it has turned into an American norm of racist pseudo-morality.
On front street in this village, we have the sugary rhetoric of freedom, equality, justice and democracy. But on the back streets, we see only the poisonous ideology of white supremacy feverishly and devilishly at work. Spiked as it is with a litany of well-honed and well-rehearsed "blame-the-victim" justifications as an integral part of its supremacist ideological creed, whiteness is secure in its own self-contained racist bubble. Its most familiar justificatory stratagem is the lament that blacks are inferior and thus have always deserved their low unholy station in America's racist caste system.
The obstacles along the field of play are registered as bulbs that light up whenever the ball bumps against the very sensitive rules of engagement of white racist society, rules which are themselves designed to keep the ball rolling straight downward to a hole that repeats the whole process for the next generation of blacks.
Some bulbs briefly light up to register progress; but most register only strong red-lights of resistance. They do this, not only to any and all forward progress, but also to any attempts to change the rules of the game making them fairer, or attempts to remove or readjust any of the obstacles. The white supremacist skin-color worldview, limits whites to being able to think only through their skin without even being conscious that their humanity is limited only to seeing the world through a skin-color lens.
One of the important contributions made to the conversation on race by this author is to remind us that white racism is not about morality, religion or even about hatred and emotions, as we have come to theorize it and understand it -- because, after all, it is easy enough to see that these are all "tacked on" after the fact. It is about defending white interests and protecting white power, and the white supremacist ideology and skin-color prerogatives against all challenges. White racism is about defending the power and interests of racists, whether they be passive, passive-aggressive, or your regular overt garden variety good ole boys.
Thus, achieving racial progress for the black man -- the solitary steel ball traversing the white-made obstacle course -- the author warns us, is an arms race between two asymmetric sets of power influenced interests: those pushing for more racial progress, and those pushing to retard it.
Throughout American history, America's racist culture has rested on a "homeostatic racist status quo" that maintains race relations, at least vis-a-vis blacks, in a cruel racist steady-state. This is true because every move towards black progress is met by an equal and opposite counter-move to retard that progress. As this book's many examples aptly show, American history is rife with self-evident examples of why American whites are happiest and most content only when there is zero black progress.
According to this author, what has been missing from the conversation on race is that "white power" and "white interests" have been driving the racist train -- not emotions, not race hatred, not lack of communication between the races, not black uplift suasion, not lack of black responsibility, etc. These things, which have been mistaken for being in the driver's seat of race relations, are merely tacked on after the fact, as disingenuous justifications for the continuing need to defend white power and the increasingly narrow and discredited white racist self-interests.
Thus, those blacks who have been appealing to morality, religion, "uplift suasion," more individual black responsibility, or to the better angels of the white man's heart, have all been barking up the wrong tree: White racism yields only to Newton's Second Law of Racial Thermodynamics: The power and interests of white racists will yield only to an equal and opposite power and interest of those seeking to sustain racial progress. So far, in the history of this nation, the power and interests of the white supremacists have continued to hold sway over a rapidly dying racist culture. Five stars
Editor's note: This review was written by Dr. Herbert L. Calhoun and has been reposted with permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.