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  • Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
  • James W. Loewen
Ibram X. Kendi. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. New York: Nation Books, 2016. 582 pp.
ISBN: 9781568584638 (cloth), $32.99.

Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning has enjoyed wondrous publication publicity, including the National Book Award. Hence readers may already know that Kendi divides his “definitive,” and massive, “History of Racist Ideas in America” into five parts, each with a tour guide attached. Starting with Cotton Mather and continuing through Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Angela Davis, this device is an inviting way to convey the book’s chronology.

Kendi takes his title from a speech Senator Jefferson Davis gave early in 1860, well before Abraham Lincoln had won the presidency and Mississippi had seceded. Arguing against a bill funding schooling for black children in Washington, D.C., Davis used a racist polygenesist reading of the Book of Genesis to claim that black inferiority was “stamped from the beginning.” In a way, the title misleads, because Kendi takes care to note that no one labeled black people inferior from the beginning. Rather, racist arguments arose around 1450, to justify the Portuguese development of racial slavery. Unlike “regular” slavery, there was no escaping enslavement via POW exchange, acculturation, or marriage; even children were automatically enslaved, generation after generation. How might this be justified? As Montesquieu ironically observed in 1748: “It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures [Africans] to be men, because, allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christian.” Many Americans don’t understand that racism originated as a rationale for a hyper-profitable economic system, so this point is important. Kendi might have done a still better job had he made use of two predecessors: Theodore Allen’s The Invention of the White Race, vol. 1 (New York: Verso, 1994) and George M. Fredrickson The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817–1914 (New York: Harper & Row, 1971). [End Page 97]

Since racism results from history, not biology, at times it has declined as well as increased. Kendi offers no real explanation for the decreases. Instead, he holds that racism has changed dramatically over time while mostly remaining at a high level, so he has little to explain. As an answer, at the end of the book he proposes only a government agency to “investigate” racial disparities and “punish conscious and unconscious discrimination.” Unfortunately, even without the current Republican dominance of all three branches of the federal government, along with most state governments, such a solution is politically unthinkable.

In popular culture, “racist” is a negative term. However, it becomes almost a null category used only to label neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates, rather than institutions and power relations. As a result, the term has lost utility. Social scientists use it more systematically. One definition is “treating others differently and usually worse because of their racial identification.” Thus, for example, the SAT is racist because it discards items at which blacks excel, owing to intrinsic statistical procedures—even though no intentional racism is involved.

Kendi broadens the term: an anti-black racist idea is “any idea suggesting that Black people, or any group of Black people, are inferior in any way to another racial group” (5). Even more broadly, “to say something is wrong with a group is to say something is inferior about that group.” As a result, on occasion he finds himself calling out as “racist” even such antiracist luminaries as William Lloyd Garrison, W. E. B. Du Bois, and John Hope Franklin. No historian or social scientist can voice any negative generalization about African Americans without Kendi’s employing the term. Toward the end of the book, he recognizes the problem: “There has always been a razor-thin line between the racist portrayer of Black negativity and the antiracist portrayer of imperfect Black humanity” (419–20).

African American fathers are less present in their children’s lives than European American and Asian American fathers...