In the 1700s, a scientific movement called the Enlightenment swept across the U.S. Benjamin Franklin started a club called the American Philosophical Society and hosted famous racists like Thomas Jefferson, whom Reynolds thinks may have been “the world’s first White person to say, ‘I have Black friends.’” Growing up, he thought of the people his family enslaved as his friends. And even after his “friends” explained how much his family hurt them, he started his own plantation anyway.
In any historical era, racist ideas have to make sense to powerful people in order to be useful to them. Therefore, as standards of science and truth change throughout history, racist ideas change to conform to them. The Enlightenment is a key example: as scholars started to respect reason and scientific proof more than religious dogma, racist ideas had to start sounding more scientific than religious. After Cotton Matter, Thomas Jefferson is the second main figure in Kendi’s history of racism. Reynolds compares him to the familiar kind of white people who “have Black friends” because this shows that racism isn’t always about cut-and-dry hatred. Often, it’s about denial or delusion. Jefferson thought of himself as a friend to the Black people he enslaved and oppressed because this let him avoid feeling guilt for enslaving and oppressing them.
Meanwhile, in Boston, the Wheatley family bought and educated a Black girl named Phillis, who started writing beautiful poetry. Her intelligence caused a scandal, because white people thought that Black people were inherently stupid. White antislavery activists came up with a new racist idea: Black people weren’t naturally savages, but slavery made them into savages. Even though this idea is based on good intentions, it’s still racist. (Specifically, it’s assimilationist.) Phillis Wheatley went to London, where the English published her poetry and used her as an example to campaign against slavery in the U.S.
Phillis Wheatley was the first in a series of “extraordinary” Black celebrities who clearly disproved white people’s racist ideas and forced them to look for new ones. While some segregationists always write off these “extraordinary” Black people as exceptions to the rule, assimilationists see them as proof that Black people can become equal to white people if they work hard enough. Antiracists, meanwhile, know that people like Phillis Wheatley prove that Black people have all the same capacities as white people—but often don’t get recognized for them because of racism and the inequities it creates.