Ibram X. Kendi is a historian at the University of Florida specializing in racist and antiracist ideas and movements. His second book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation, 2016) won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction.
Robert: Ibram, it’s great to speak with you. My organization, Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, just launched its One Million Abolitionists project. The goal is to give our hardcover Bicentennial Edition of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass to 1 million students leading up to Douglass’s 200th birthday in February 2018 and throughout the bicentennial year. After they read the book, we want young people to collaborate with classmates and teachers to create projects that will address issues concerning equality and justice in America. Certainly, one of those issues is racism.
Stamped from the Beginning revealed aspects about the notion of race that I never knew and that I think most Americans would find quite startling. Assuming they begin to understand this topic by first reading the Narrative that we present to them, how would you move into a conversation about today’s racism with our audience of young people ages 12 to 18.
Ibram: I would share with them the historical context in which Douglass’s Narrative emerged in 1845. It hit bookstores when Americans were being misled by politicians like South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun about slavery being a “positive good.” Americans were being told by powerful people that the mass enslavement of Black people was good for Black people, was good for America.
Today, Americans are being told by powerful people that the mass incarceration of Black people is good for Black people, is good for America. Douglass shared his story about how slavery had held him back, had harmed him. I would ask these young people to share any similarities between the mass enslavement of Black people and the mass incarceration of Black people. I would ask these young people to share any prison narratives they may know—from relatives or friends—that disputes the idea that Black people are fit for prison, that stop-and-frisk policies and mass incarceration policies and law and order policies are good and helpful for Black people, for America.
Robert: How important is it to engage young people, in particular, on the issue of racism and how can today’s youth succeed in eliminating racism where previous generations have failed?
Ibram: I think it is important to engage all open-minded people who are willing to self-reflect on the racist ideas they have consumed over their lifetimes. Young people appear to be more open-minded. Young people appear to be more willing to self-reflect and self-critique, which is why I enjoy working with young people on racial issues.
Today’s youth can succeed in eliminating racism if we teach them antiracist ideas about racial equality, about there not being anything wrong with Black people as a group, or any group of Black people. When young people come to realize that the racial groups are equal—and all the ideas suggesting otherwise are racist—then they will come to realize that racial discrimination must be the cause of racial disparities and inequities in our society. And in seeing racial discrimination as the sole racial problem—they will stop trying to civilize and develop Black people. They will do what previous generations have failed to do—direct their racial justice work towards uncovering and challenging racist policies.
Robert: How does racism affect people in the U.S. who are not African American?
Ibram: In the epilogue to Stamped from the Beginning, I distinguish between unintelligent self-interest and intelligent self-interest. And I talk about the way in which racist ideas breed unintelligent self-interest among non-African Americans. Many intellectuals have shown how the White poor, for instance, have been manipulated into sacrificing and foregoing their class interests. But we have not spoken as much about how even the White middle class has been manipulated by politicians’ race-baiting about affirmative action, immigration, welfare, and crime over the last few decades to vote for them and their pro-rich policies that have increased the living costs of the White middle class and spiked income inequality. Tax cuts for the rich and growing expenditures for the military and prisons have contributed to cuts to programs that benefit middle income people, like public higher education. We have not spoken as much about how racism feeds sexism and elitism and ethnocentrism and religious bigotry and homophobia and nativism—just as those bigotries feed racism. In researching for Stamped from the Beginning, I was struck by how many of the racist voices were also prominent voices of all sorts of bigotries.
Robert: As a side note to the reader, I have to say that the research for Stamped from the Beginning was incredible.
Ibram, we have entered a very dynamic period where newspaper headlines have been dominated by issues such as immigration, globalization, income inequality, the environment and health care. What role, if any, does racism play in some of the subjects that we may otherwise perceive as unrelated?
Ibram: Many of these headlines are showing this debate about why inequities and hierarchies exist in our society, and whose lives matter. Racist ideas—just like bigoted ideas more broadly—teach us that inequities and hierarchies are normal and only certain lives matter—and the other lives can be impoverished, incarcerated, deported, barred, and killed.
Robert: The Michigan Civil Rights Commission (MCRC) recently identified systemic racism as a contributing factor in the Flint water crisis. Was this official report by the MCRC a watershed moment (pardon the expression) for those of us interested in defeating racism or do you think it will soon be forgotten?
Ibram: It should be a watershed moment. It should be a moment that shows how deep racism has rotted to the core of America, such that certain American citizens do not even have the basic human right of clean drinking water. If left up to the progenitors of this crisis, it will soon be forgotten. But we should never forget what happened in Flint. I know I never will.
Robert: Can you help me close this blog on a note of optimism relative to racism as we get closer to the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Douglass?
Ibram: I think every great activist, every great change agent like Frederick Douglass is philosophically optimistic. Because we have to believe that change is possible in order to fight, in order to put our comfort and lives on the line for change. So I am hopeful we can create an antiracist America. And I am also hopeful because there are so many Frederick Douglasses in our society; there are one million abolitionists. There are so many antiracists in our society who are challenging racial discrimination at every turn, who are refusing to be misled and manipulated by racist ideas. It is these antiracist descendants of Douglass that give me hope today. And they will give me hope tomorrow and forever more.
Robert: Ok, now I’m all pumped-up for our visit to Flint, Michigan, March 17 and 18. Please take my advice and read, Stamped from the Beginning. Thank you, Ibram.