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  • Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
  • Orville Vernon Burton
Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. By Ibram X. Kendi. (New York: Nation Books, 2016. Pp. viii, 582. Paper, $19.99, ISBN 978-1-56858-598-7; cloth, $32.99, ISBN 978-1-56858-463-8.)

American racism did not begin in 1619, when pirates sold enslaved captives to slaveholders in Virginia. According to Ibram X. Kendi, it began in ancient Greece, where Aristotle taught the idea of human hierarchy, that Greeks were natural masters and all other cultures were inferior. But not all agreed with Aristotle. Alkidamas condemned slavery: "'The deity gave liberty to all men, and nature created no one a slave'" (p. 18). Well before Aristotle, the renowned historian Herodotus did not find African people to be inferior when he traveled down the Nile River. So why was the influence of Aristotle so great and that of lovers of liberty so minimal? Why did Aristotle's teachings, not those of his egalitarian contemporary Alkidamas, enter the New World and curricula at Harvard University (established in 1636), the College of William and Mary (established in 1693), and Yale University (established in 1701)? Ideas approving slavery came from the wealthy and influential. Greeks enslaved other people; therefore, other people deserved it.

Kendi attributes the wholesale barbarity of capturing Africans and forcing them into unpaid labor, of holding slave auctions, and of pretending that slavery was for the good of those kidnapped from their homes to Prince Henry of Portugal in the early fifteenth century. Someone searching Prince Henry on the internet will find Henry the Navigator, a heroic explorer. But Henry, when learning that Muslim trading centers captured and sold Africans, decided to make even more riches in the slave business, orchestrating a slave auction of 240 African captives in 1444.

Other merchants also captured and sold slaves from Africa and Eastern Europe. In the fourteenth century, most captives traded in Western Europe were Eastern Europeans. So many Slavs were sold that Slav became the root word for slave. Other European slave traders, however, did not glorify their business as missionary ventures. In 1453 Gomes Eanes de Zurara (a paid biographer of [End Page 698] Prince Henry) defended African slave trading in The Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea (1453). His book introduced the idea that Africans were so inferior that they should be enslaved. Kendi demonstrates how this racist idea was not the instigator of Prince Henry's policies but their result.

Many thoughtful people believe that ignorance about others produces racist ideas, that racist ideas produce discrimination, and that the resulting disparities in every aspect of human life fulfill the racist ideas and further ignorance about how those disparities came about. For those with this concept of race relations, the solution is to shed ignorance.

Kendi offers a different paradigm: racial discrimination produces racist ideas; racist ideas then further ignorance and hate; and people in power want to accumulate wealth at the expense of someone else. The crux of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America is that the history of racist ideas in America begins with influential people who justify their enslavement of others. Their racist laws then prove that one race is inferior and deserving of such treatment. How can anyone enslave fellow human beings? They had to be defined as subhuman. How can anyone today accept racial disparities in general well-being? African Americans have to be defined as deserving of substandard treatment.

Kendi defines another analytical dimension between racists and antiracists: the role of the assimilationist. In answer to any given question (for example, why are white people more affluent), segregationists, antiracists, and assimilationists react to racial disparities in different ways. Segregationists blame the inferiority of African Americans for any disparity. Antiracists blame discriminatory policies and a lack of opportunity. Kendi indicts assimilationists as arguing for both. Assimilationists note that policies of oppression did and do keep African Americans down but conclude that black people actually are inferior in education, in job experience, in stable family life, and in...