Ibram X. Kendi explains that learning about the history of racism is the best way to understand the racism that exists today. This book is Jason Reynolds’s remix of Stamped from the Beginning, Kendi’s book about the history of racist ideas. An idea is racist if it suggests that one racial group is superior to another, and an idea is antiracist if it suggests that all racial groups are inherently equal. Europeans first invented racist ideas in the 1400s, and they have influenced all of U.S. history.
Many young people know that racism is a major problem in the world around them—but they don’t understand why it exists or where it comes from. To get these answers, Kendi explains, they have to learn about the history of racism. Kendi wrote Stamped from the Beginning to explain this history—but it’s a 500-page scholarly behemoth, so it’s hardly appropriate for young adult audiences. This is why Kendi asked Reynolds to paraphrase his research for young people in Stamped. Though racist policies are the true engine of racial inequity, Kendi focuses on racist ideas because, he argues, racist ideas blind people to racist policies. Young people have to correct their racist ideas before they can understand or fight racial inequities.
When Ibram X. Kendi was young, he didn’t read history books about racism. They were just too boring. But Jason Reynolds is a brilliant writer, and he has made this book interesting and relatable. When Kendi wrote Stamped from the Beginning, the #BlackLivesMatter movement was just starting. It broke Kendi’s heart to watch “cops and wannabe cops” kill so many young Black people, but he also saw how his research could help. Racist ideas explain how Americans see innocent Black teenagers like Trayvon Martin as dangerous criminals.
While the U.S. has seen anti-Black police violence for centuries, #BlackLivesMatter has made it the most important antiracist policy issue of the early 21st century. All young Americans have to figure out where they stand on this issue, and most probably struggle to understand it. Learning about history is the key to understanding it, but Kendi knows that a boring, dry textbook won’t do the job. Instead, he wants to give young people an opportunity that he never had: the chance to learn about the history of racism in an accessible, interesting way.
The American police kill young Black men at 21 times the rate of young white men, and the U.S. incarcerates Black people at five times the rate of white people. But such inequities have always existed in the U.S., and three groups have always fought over them: segregationists, assimilationists, and antiracists. Segregationists and assimilationists blame Black people for inequity, while antiracists blame racism. Segregationists want to separate themselves from Black people, assimilations want to change Black people, and antiracists want to change racism.
Kendi argues that all ideas about race are either segregationist, assimilationist, or antiracist, and that these three positions get recycled over and over again throughout history. Learning to identify them is the best way for young people to prepare for present and future debates about race. For instance, these categories are helpful for understanding the debate about police violence and mass incarceration. Segregationists and assimilationists think that Black people are more likely to go to jail or get killed by the police because they’re more likely to be violent criminals. Segregationists think this is an inherent nature or biological defect, and assimilationists think it’s the result of Black people’s deficient culture or moral failings. Thus, segregationists would propose separating Black people from the rest of society, while assimilationists would propose that Black people change themselves to stop getting killed and arrested by the police. Meanwhile, antiracists see that racism—and specifically racist policy—has caused mass incarceration and police violence. This isn’t just an opinion: it’s a conclusion based on all the available scientific and historical evidence. But people would never know this if they didn’t learn about history. Again, argues that this is why young people have to learn about the history of racism if they really want to become antiracists.
In school, Kendi learned that hateful people came up with racist ideas and then created racist policies based on them. But when he started researching racism, he realized that it’s actually the other way around. Racist policies help certain groups of people, who then create racist ideas to defend their privilege. For instance, white slaveholders didn’t enslave Black people because they thought they were inferior: they believed that Black people were inferior because their business depended on it. Racist policies lead to racist ideas, which lead to ignorance and hate.
Most people think the same way that Kendi used to: they believe that racist people have racist ideas, then act on those ideas and create racial inequities. It took Kendi years of research to realize that this is backwards. Racism is really about self-interest. Racist policies are profitable because racist ideas are a very effective justification for inequality. For instance, if a group enslaved everyone, they would also risk getting enslaved themselves. Plus, they would struggle to justify slavery to a population that fears being enslaved. But by only enslaving African people—and claiming that Black people are a distinct race who were designed for slavery—white slaveholders draw a clear line between “us” and “them.”
Racist ideas are everywhere—even Kendi used to believe in plenty of them. But Americans can understand and reject them if they learn about American history. Then, they can work together to build an equitable, antiracist society.
Kendi emphasizes that the point of this book isn’t to judge people: it’s to improve them. It’s impossible to be a morally pure, perfect antiracist. Growing up in the U.S., everyone automatically learns racist ideas—including Black people and even Black history professors like Kendi. Instead of blaming themselves for their racist ideas, people should learn where those racist ideas came from, replace them with antiracist ideas, and focus on taking action.