Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram Kendi

I’m on the road, which is great for reading, but not so much for writing. I just finished Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. It won the National Book Award for 2016. The citation reads:

Stamped from the Beginning turns our ideas of the term “racism” upside-down. Ibram X. Kendi writes as a thoughtful cultural historian, aware that he is challenging deeply held, often progressive assumptions. Using a masterful voyage through the history of U.S. political rhetoric, beginning with Cotton Mather and ending with hip-hop, he argues that even the most fervent anti-racists have been infected with that resilient virus. With his learning, he dares us to find a cure.

I always assumed that racist ideas arise from ignorance and hatred, or tribalism or some other source in individuals. Kendi says that first there was slavery, and then there were people who created justifications for slavery. When slavery was abolished the racist ideas persisted. There were plenty of people who benefited from using those racist ideas to exploit newly freed people for cheap labor. The ideas also proved useful in controlling the behavior of poor white people. There were plenty of people ready and willing to provide new versions of the old racist ideas, and many new ones.

Some of those people have names. Aristotle, for example, justified enslaving Caucasians from the north because the cold temperatures made them slow, stupid and ugly, and enslaving Africans because the hot temperature made them burnt and slow-witted, unlike the perfect Greeks; therefore slavery was justified. Then there was Gomes Eames de Zuzara, who wrote the first book about African slavery in 1452, explaining that the Africans were barbarians who needed to be saved into the right religion and civilized, and slavery was therefore a good thing. Others are nameless, the preachers, newspaper writers, authors, speakers, politicians and others who used their authority to spread poisonous ideas. The book is an intellectual and cultural history of anti-intellectual ideas and culture. Kendi describes a number of racist ideas and follows their twists and turns and the usually unavailing efforts to defeat them across the centuries in the US. In one chilling aside, he shows how these ideas formed the basis of anti-Semitic laws and theory in Nazi Germany. This is the subject of a new book, Hitler’s American Model, reviewed here by Jeff Guo.

If racist ideas could be stomped out by facts and reason, the results of the study of the human genome should have done the trick. Craig Venter, who led the project, said that his work showed that it is not possible to tell the “race” of a person by looking at the genone. The genes of humans are 99.9% the same. That didn’t stop the racists though: they announced that the different .1% was obviously the source of race and the superiority of white people, and they hired people to prove it. The idea of genetic differences cannot be eradicated.

The book forced me to think about how racist ideas are buried deep in my mind; about how African-Americans have been affected by and infected with racist ideas about themselves; about the relation between racism and other forms of prejudice; about the way these prejudices are used to create anger and hostility in our society; and much more. This wide range of ideas gives a good picture of the depth of Kendi’s work.

The idea that racist policy comes before the justification for racist policy is one thread that runs throughout the book. As Kendi shows, slavery came first, then the justifications for slavery. Race-based policies were in place, then came the justifications for race-based policies. This is the way many ideas we see in the world today came into existence. In economics, for example, trickle-down economics, an idea with roots in the 1890s, came back into common usage in the 1980s just in time to justify Reagan’s enormous tax cuts for the rich. It didn’t matter that it was laughably silly; it did its job of providing cover for people who benefited from the policy. Paul Krugman calls economic ideas like trickle-down zombie ideas, dead but on the move, eating brains. After reading Kendi’s book, I now think of racist ideas as zombie ideas, wholly false and known to be false, utterly unsupported by evidence and still eating brains.

I feel like I’ve spent my life unlearning ideas I somehow picked up along the way. Some of those ideas were deeply wrong, some stupid, and some irrelevant. Maybe there are billions and billions of galaxies, but what difference does that make in my life as compared with the idea that there are billions of stars as I first learned? There are other ideas that are wrong, and I acted on them and maybe hurt other people, and I wish I never had those wrong ideas or done those things.

Either way, carrying around wrong ideas is intrinsically bad. But how do I know which ideas are wrong, especially in areas in which I have no training or expertise? Let’s make that concrete with one of Kendi’s examples. Suppose in the mid-1860s I read Charles Darwins’s On The Origin of Species, and then read Herbert Spencer, who taught that human society evolves in the same way as fauna and flora. This led him and others to formulate what we now call Social Darwinism, another zombie idea used to justify racism. It led people to believe that white people were on top because they were the fittest, and Africans were at the bottom of society because they lost the battle; some even argued that the African population would die out completely in short order.

I ask myself if I would have had the strength of mind to reject Spencer and the racist implications of his misbegotten theory. Maybe I would have, but I don’t know. And that’s a problem. Today there are people who are paid to invent new justifications for racism, and their tactics are more and more sophisticated. It’s up to all of us to recognize them as the vicious lies they are, and try to stamp them out as they emerge. I just hope Kendi doesn’t have to add new chapters to his book to cover a new set of racist lies.

8 replies
  1. William Papineau says:

    FYI, I see a relationship between the phenomenon you report from Kendi and the subject of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s book, “The Righteous Mind”.

  2. Randy says:

    Wait.. hold on a sec. “Kendi says that first there was slavery, and then there were people who created justifications for slavery.” 

    So racism in America started with slavery? It didn’t factor into the colonization of the ‘New World’? I was really considering reading this book, but an oversight like that has gotten me thinking, ‘nah’. Is this just a misreading by Ed Walker? Or is the colonization of the Americas a form of slavery, thus the assertion stands?

    • John Casper says:


      It’s the “…The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.”

      You wrote “So racism in America started with slavery? It didn’t factor into the colonization of the ‘New World’?”

      Is your point that racism did “factor into the colonization of the New World?”

      If so, was it more or less of a factor than looting the New World’s wealth?

  3. Mary M McCurnin says:

    Racism lives in me. I grew up in the very deep south in a town that made it’s mark by auctioning off thousands, if not millions, of humans. I grew up in a town that just took down the Confederate monuments but had to do so with armed guards surrounding the process.

    When I was in my thirties I was reading an article about innocent black men going to jail. A crappy and telling thought popped into my head. “What do they expect? They are black and that is what happens in this country to black people.”

    I was horrified by this infection that had slipped into my lizard brain. Right then, I realized how slathered I was and am with white middle class privilege.

    Racism is working in this country. It is used to manage all of us in one way or another.

  4. bloopie2 says:

    How do you avoid learning bad ideas?  Maybe you can’t, but perhaps you can unlearn them through discussion and interaction with others.  For example, a college education should have as its goal the inculcation of a habit of critical thinking.  Read provocative books (whether they be Aristotle or others) and discuss them with others, under the tutelage of someone who has read lots and lots of such books and who has a demonstrated ability to guide discussions.  Not only will you learn more about the topics of those particular books, but you will also become better at reading books (and listening to teachers and watching TV news) in general.  Some schools are dedicated to this—my alma mater, for example, St. John’s College in Annapolis.  Some of this can be done at the high school level also, if good teachers and curricula are provided.  But if we just memorize facts, and listen to lectures, and study for careers, then that habit might never be formed. (PS that’s sounds rather elitist, no?)

  5. Rayne says:

    Capitalism’s nature and definition has encouraged the stickiness of racism in the US. Defined as the means of production, capital has been the province of the landed class. The legal system written by and for the landed class ensured their grip on power would remain in the hands of those with physical property, excluding women, slaves, and by virtue of minority status in majority white cultures, persons of color.

    Slow-rolling progress toward universal suffrage has increased the power of the non-landed over time, but disenfranchisement occurs and recurs in waves to the benefit of the property owner. ‘Voter foreclosure’ is a recent example of disenfranchisement where voters’ political representation was stripped at the same time they lost property rights. Who paid for and wrote the laws on foreclosure? Who paid for and legislated gerrymandered districts reducing the power of these disenfranchised citizens? Who ensured the foreclosed would be turned away under this invisible poll tax?

    We have reached a point in history when the definition of capitalism and capital must be revisited. The means of production can’t be based on land holding or physical property alone, nor on accumulation of currencies used to acquire them, and not even intangible property.

    For instance: intellectual property can be treated like a physical asset; it can be amortized like equipment over time based on the assumption it will lose value just like aging equipment.

    But intellectual property isn’t really the means of production. Holding it does not produce anything; its retention on a hard drive or in a data farm creates nothing new of value. Some will argue that it is labor that creates the intellectual property and at the same time it is labor that generates value by applying intellectual property to produce output.

    Yet humans are not merely labor. A robot can produce labor, but it cannot (yet) produce intellectual property on its own. What differentiates a computer from the value a computer produces isn’t merely the labor required to manipulate keys. What creates intellectual property isn’t merely a computer or labor but human capital — something which isn’t fungible, something which has no substitute and may be limited in availability.

    Nearly every sentient human possesses an amount of human capital — something only they can offer to create value, something non-fungible. Once we agree that every human has something which sets them apart from equipment like robots, we remove the argument that they are not capable of owning capital in other forms.

    But the old gods die hard; they do not want to yield any of their power. They double-down on the equation, “capital = means of production = physical property and/or intangible assets” to ensure only the landed class or those with gold or its equivalent to acquire land.

    It didn’t help that Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was published the same year the US was ‘born’. The invisible, ‘automatic’ hand of the market made it too easy to argue the market as it existed in 1776 was static — non-landed humans provided labor, period. At the time the landed class could own them like we own robots today, to provide fungible labor.

    But if robots can provide labor now, what are humans if they do not own land? Are they the means of production of intangible assets? Or they nothing at all but meat husks of no value to their future immortal incorporated AI overlords?

    Try arguing that humans are not merely labor and watch how sticky the notion is. Watch how the terms of the discussion could just as easily replace the word ‘humans’ with ‘slaves’. The dark twin to the argument that all sentient humans possess capital is the argument that some people are more than human, above humanity, because they own property. They do not ever see themselves as a source of labor, and in this they devalue all other humans they see as fungible.

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