National Book Award winner discusses origins of racism

Photo by Teresa Bricker.
Photo by Teresa Bricker.

National Book Award winner Ibram Kendi spoke at the Cabell Library on the development and perpetuation of racist ideas on Feb. 15 as part of the annual VCU Libraries Black History Month Lecture.

Kendi’s book, “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” received the award for nonfiction in 2016.

Kendi shared the ideas from “Stamped from the Beginning” in the lecture, emphasizing the importance of defining the topic in simple terms.

“The first and most important thing that I had to do was probably the most difficult thing I had to do and that was very simply to define a racist idea,” Kendi said during his lecture. He said this task was difficult because many people have resisted being labelled as racist throughout history. Even slaveholders and supporters of Jim Crow laws claimed their beliefs weren’t racist. Today, Kendi said, those who perpetuate of mass incarceration of Black people share the same mentality.

The definition settled upon in “Stamped from the Beginning” classifies a racist idea as any idea that suggests a racial group is superior or inferior to another racial group in any way. In modern times, the idea of inferiority in racist ideas has been replaced by the idea of idea of “this is what’s wrong with Black people,” Kendi said.

Kendi outlined three mentalities in the dynamic of racism: segregationist, which claims racial groups are inherently unequal; assimilationist, suggesting groups are unequal due to their environments and anti-racist, which suggests racial groups are equal.

“Anti-racists look at the history of African-America and how all these intellectual and cultural and social products came out of the extremely dehumanizing environment of slavery,” Kendi said. “It shows that you can be in that type of environment but that doesn’t make you as an individual, or a group of people, inferior. It just makes you different.”

Audience member and VCU political science alumna Ayanna McMullen said she enjoyed the way Kendi broke down racist ideas, giving a simple explanation of how and why they’re constructed.

“I really like his point about how it’s in people’s self-interest to keep breeding these ideas,” McMullen said.

Richmond native Michael Brown also attended the lecture and said Kendi’s analysis could “get people to understand the root causes” of racism.

“His lecture was excellent, it was enlightening in some ways but I thoroughly enjoyed it,” Brown said.

Fendi said racist ideas come from policy created to protect the self-interest of those who want to retain economic, political and cultural power. The racist ideas are created to justify the racist policy. Unlike what’s conveyed in other narratives, Kendi said his research for “Stamped from the Beginning” didn’t show that ignorance or hate are the root causes of racist ideas.

“I found that these people were not ignorant and many of them were not even hateful toward Black people,” Kendi said. “What I realized is that these people, these powerful intellectuals who were producing these ideas were producing them typically to defend other racist policies.”

Kendi said his focus in recent years has shifted from using education to combat racist ideas to advocating for policy changes. He compared racist ideas to a turned-on hose, saying education is like using a towel to dry off people, while policy changes are analogous to turning off the hose.

“If ignorance and hate are coming out of racist ideas, and racist ideas are coming out of racist policies, 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 said.

Georgia Geen Spectrum Editor 

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