Ibram x kendiIn his recent National Book Award-winning book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, NEA Higher Ed member Ibram X. Kendi dives into the world of racist ideas. Recently, Kendi, an assistant professor at the University of Florida, talked with NEA Today about the evolution of racism in the United States, how it continues to impact public education, and how educators can create anti-racist spaces.
Q: This book challenges a common perception about racism, specifically that racist ideas propel racist policy. You say it’s the opposite—racist policies have propelled racist thinking. Can you explain that?
A: That was something I certainly believed, going into the book, that racist ideas drive policy, and I didn’t think I was going to turn it on its head. That wasn’t my intent… I wanted to write a history of racist ideas, a history of America, and show how the historical context produced these people, who produced these ideas. I found, over and again, that these producers were not ignorant. Many of them were the most brilliant minds in American history. And they typically were producing these ideas in defend existing racist policies. The disparities were in place, their effects were profound, and these ideas were an attempt to normalize and justify those policies.
Q: You describe three kinds of people: the segregationists, who are racists basically; the anti-racists, who actively reject any idea that Black people are inferior in any way; and the assimilationists. This group includes people like Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama. Can you describe them better?
A: The reason I wrote a history of racist ideas, as opposed to a history of racists, was because I realized very early on that there are people who hold racist and anti-racist ideas. These are the assimilationists. You can simultaneously believe that the racial groups are biologically equal, that they were created equal, but that they have become behaviorally unequal [because of environment, poverty, etc.] Assimilationists will argue that Black people are capable of development, and they believe that this belief is progressive but it also is racist.
Q: If you take this filter of segregationists, assimilationists, and anti-racists, and apply it to public education, who comes out on top? If we accept that NEA Member's Exploration Into Racist Ideas Wins National Book Award: