It comes as no surprise to anyone living in the United States today that America is still racist. If anything, it feels like racism, a practice some believed had had died, came out of its box on November 9th, where it had been lurking on the edges, waiting for such a moment, fooling many well-intentioned people—both white and black.
But not Professor Ibram Kendi, who argues that racism has been alive and well in the U.S. all along, even gaining strength, perhaps, by unwitting but well-meaning individuals. He writes, “so many prominent Americans, many of whom we celebrate for their progressive ideas and activism, many of whom had very good intentions, subscribed to assimilationist thinking that has also served up racist beliefs about Black inferiority.” How can this be? It’s easy when people accept ideas about inferiority without question, or talk about freedom but not equality, or by making African Americans responsible for ending racism rather than putting the onerous where it belongs—on whites.
Kendi has a simple, straight forward definition of a racist idea: “it is any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way,” and he tracks these ideas from the 15th century, when Europeans first began to capture Africans to enslave them through the present day. He also asserts that racist actions came first, followed by the ideas that justified those actions.
First came the action, usually based on some capitalistic venture that would benefit a few individuals at the cost of others, and then later others would create an intellectual rationale that made those racial actions acceptable—or worse, required by society. While the racist ideas were more obvious in the past, such as those given by southerners in regard to the Black Codes, enacted after the Civil War, where politicians argued that the “codes” were necessary to regulate blacks because they were “naturally lazy, lawless, and oversexed.” But that today’s racism, while less overt, is no better, where politician’s cries of “law and order,” or “war on drugs,” or “tough on crime” are just another form of Black Codes, inherently racist ideas circulated in society meant to oppress minorities.
Few public figures, even those considered progressive like Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Barrack Obama, escape Kendi’s critique. These men and others are called out for what he calls “uplift suasion,” the idea that blacks could work to lift themselves up to white expectations and standards, inherently defining white culture as “better” and something to which everyone should aspire.
With racism and racial ideas so widespread in society, how can Americans ever hope to move forward? Kendi argues that, “In order to be truly antiracists, we must also oppose all the sexism, homophobia, colorism, ethnocentrism, nativism, cultural prejudice, and class bias teeming and teaming with racism to harm many Black lives.” In short, we must use intersectionality to oppose all hate at once. It’s not an easy task. Kendi admitted his own racism in the book, saying he had been “fooled by racist ideas” and that “I did not fully realize that the only thing wrong with Black people is that we think something is wrong with Black people.”
The way forward is with careful consideration—of the ideas that we hold, both conscious and unconscious and the assumptions we carry because they are so pervasive in society. We must fight hate and know that it is the responsibility of people with privilege—whites, especially white men, and the educated—to lead this battle. White people are responsible for ending racism and racial ideas because, after all, they are the ones who developed these ideas in the U.S. in the first place.