In 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 defense of 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 assimilationists got the upper hand after Brown vs. Board, are they still running the show?
A: Yes. The effect of Brown vs. Board was basically to state that the reason Black schools are inferior is not because they are under-resourced, but because White students aren’t in them, and so what we need to do is usher Black students into schools with White students. That’s why you had busing in the 1970s and why you have racial reformers, ever since, thinking that the way to create a better school system would be to bring more Black students into White schools.
Video: Ibram X. Kendi Accepts National Book Award
Q: What can teachers, and their unions, do to make their classrooms, their schools, and their school systems more antiracist?
A: Instead of so many teacher activists who care about racial justice issues focusing on closing the achievement gap, I think we should focus on closing the school resource gap. There is certainly a problem with the amount of resources dedicated to certain schools. And while it certainly doesn’t result in those children being intellectually inferior, it does lead to a different type of education and a different type of intelligence, which is not a type of intelligence necessarily valued in our economy. We need to focus on that resource gap, and teachers need to be at the forefront of that, because they can speak to how difficult it is for them to do their jobs in an under-resourced school. Those resources are based on local and state policies, and those policies can be changed.
Q: How about in their own classrooms? There are studies showing how educators’ racial biases affect school discipline rates among 4-year-olds even.
A: Clearly one of the most dangerous racist ideas about Black people is that they have a behavioral problem, which manifests in schools and leads to children becoming criminals. So the first thing is that teachers need to not think that Black children have behavioral problems. They need to see their Black students as complex individuals, and recognize their Black children’s lives in the same way that they recognize their White children’s lives. You try to understand them. You recognize them as individuals. You individualize your approach to each child to accommodate their interests, their culture, who they are. You become an expert on your students’ lives.
Q: Early in the book, you describe a pendulum swinging between anti-racist and racist reformers, so that the outlawing of slavery, which is anti-racist, is followed by Jim Crow laws, which are racist. Where are we swinging now?
A: If Obama’s presidency is a sign of anti-racial progress, as so many people argued, then Donald Trumps’ presidency is going to symbolize the progression of racism.
Q: How do the anti-racists strike back? You describe the act of protesting against someone or some idea as a waste of time.
A: Racist powers will change policies when it serves their self-interest, and when the protest threat disappears they’ll change them back. It’s a short-term solution. The long-term solution is for anti-racist people to get into positions of power.
Q: The book strikes a very hopeful note in the end, saying that there will come time when Americans realize that the only thing wrong with Black people is that they think there is something wrong with Black people, and maybe that time is now. What makes you hopeful?
A: What has always made me hopeful is the resistance to racist ideas and racist policies. Basically the continuing presence of anti-racists in American society makes me hopeful. Clearly segregationists and assimilationists have won, on many occasions, but if you’re involved in the struggle, there always remains the capacity to win. The only way in which an anti-racist America could never come to be is if anti-racists themselves decide it’s impossible and they stop fighting for it.