Stamped is young adult author Jason Reynolds’s adaptation, or “remix,” of Ibram X. Kendi’s award-winning book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Stamped explains how anti-Black racist ideas and policies have shaped U.S. history since colonial times and argues that young people ought to learn about this history in the 21st century. History shows why racial inequities like police brutality and mass incarceration continue to plague American society, but it also suggests that activist movements like #BlackLivesMatter can help fix those inequities.
Throughout U.S. history, three different groups have battled to control Black people’s fate: segregationists, assimilationists, and antiracists. First, segregationists hate Black people and think that they’re inherently inferior to white people. Second, assimilationists tolerate Black people, but only when they act in a certain way. And finally, antiracists love other people just the way they are. Segregationists and assimilationists are racists because they blame Black people for racial inequities—meaning the differences in wealth, health, security, and status between white and Black people. But while segregationists try to exclude Black people from society, assimilationists try to change them. Neither of those strategies will really fix inequities. Instead, antiracists look at the evidence and blame racism for inequities; instead of trying to fix Black people, they try to fix racism.
The story of racism starts in the 1400s, with the Portuguese writer Gomes Eanes de Zurara. When Prince Henry the Navigator started enslaving people in West Africa, he asked Zurara to write the story of his voyages. In his chronicles, Zurara argued that slavery is actually justified because Africans are “savages” who need to be civilized and converted to Christianity. This racist idea spread fast: the Puritan ministers John Cotton and Richard Mather brought it to New England, where they decided that God made white men like themselves inherently better than Black and native people.
In fact, many white religious leaders felt this way. They found the most absurd reasons to say that Black people were inferior to white people. Some argued that different races are different species, and others said that Black people descend from Ham (who was cursed in the Bible). Many said that Africa’s hot climate turned Black people into animals; others just thought that lightness was good, and darkness was evil, so white people must have been better than Black people. Cotton and Mather’s grandson, Cotton Mather, used these ideas to help spread slavery in colonial America.
By the time of the American Revolution, slavery was the cornerstone of the colonial economy, but a growing abolitionist movement was also starting to speak out against it. Nobody represents this contradictory situation better than Thomas Jefferson. He famously wrote that “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, and he thought that slavery was cruel and immoral. But he was also a racist and a slaveowner, and even on his deathbed, he refused to free the people he enslaved. Like many powerful people, he put his personal interests above the common good.
The abolitionist movement gained steam in the 1800s thanks largely to William Lloyd Garrison, the daring white publisher of anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator. At first, Garrison was an assimilationist who believed in a theory called “uplift suasion”: he thought that enslaved people should be free, but that they should have to start at the bottom of the social and economic ladder and work their way up to equality over time. But his friendships with abolitionists like David Walker turned him into an antiracist. By the end of his life, he was calling for immediate equality as well as immediate freedom.
President Lincoln actually had a similar change of heart. While he always supported abolition, he initially thought that Black people shouldn’t have the same rights as white people. But he changed his mind during the American Civil War. Unfortunately, most American racists didn’t. Violent mobs attacked free Black people throughout the South, and many states passed restrictive laws to limit Black people’s civil and economic rights. So, long after emancipation, Black communities struggled to overcome poverty and segregation.
Around the turn of the 20th century, two powerful men presented themselves as the solution. Booker T. Washington preached standard assimilationist ideas: he wanted Black people to accept segregation, take hard, low-paying jobs, and eventually convince white people to give them equal rights. W.E.B. Du Bois preached a different kind of assimilationist idea: he thought the Black elite would help lift up the masses. But over time, as he travelled all over the world and met Black artists, soldiers, and activists, he realized that assimilationism wouldn’t work. He stopped trying to show white people that Black people deserved equality and became an antiracist instead. He started pushing for political change.
Meanwhile, debates about race were also spilling over into popular culture. The popular Black boxer Jack Johnson polarized the U.S., racist films like the pro-KKK flick The Birth of a Nation incited white violence, and the two World Wars made the U.S. a global power—but they also gave American racism a global audience. After World War II, Congress responded to this international pressure by passing civil rights legislation, and important supreme court decisions banned real estate discrimination and integrated American schools. Black people started winning important civil rights battles in the 1950s.
Over the next decade, the civil rights movement built on these victories to pass broader, more powerful bills like the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Acts of 1964. Most young people know about the civil rights movement’s charismatic leaders, like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., but not about the millions of ordinary people who organized antiracist groups like the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee to protest segregation. Many young people also wrongly learn that Martin Luther King Jr. was a tame assimilationist who wanted to create a color-blind society by appealing to white people’s good will. Actually, he was an antiracist socialist who wanted economic justice and policy change for Black people.
While the civil rights movement changed many important laws, it didn’t end racism, so antiracists kept organizing to fight it. Black activists, writers, and musicians launched the Black Power movement, and a bold feminist professor named Angela Davis quickly became one of its most public figures. The government fired her for her beliefs and even accused her of murder after one other acquaintances attacked a courthouse. But she proved her own innocence and became a vocal anti-prison activist.
Meanwhile, racists fought back hard against Black Power. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and even Bill Clinton ran for president using the “southern strategy”—or by being racist without saying “Black” or “white.” They fought a War on Drugs, which started disproportionately throwing Black people in prisons for nonviolent offenses like marijuana possession. And all the while, the media was all happy to help: it started painting Black people as criminals and spreading sensationalist myths about “crack babies” and “super-predators.” Bill Cosby’s popular Cosby Show played on the assimilationist trope of the “extraordinary Negro” by depicting an ideal Black family, as if to show Americans what Black people could become if they just decided to start pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. Basically, racism went underground between the 1970s and the early 2000s: Americans claimed to be “color blind” while continuing to discriminate.
In this context, it’s little wonder that Barack Obama became the U.S.’s new sweetheart when he gave a major speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Many Americans painted him as yet another “extraordinary Negro” and argued that his presidency represented the end of racism in America. But they were wrong: racial inequities continue in almost every aspect of American life. And like so many other prominent Black leaders, Obama often expressed antiracist ideas but ultimately ruled as an assimilationist.
The fight against racial inequity continues today, and the growing #BlackLivesMatter movement shows that antiracist activism is as urgent and promising as ever. Like all true antiracism, #BlackLivesMatter is inclusive and based on love. But racist movements, both segregationist and assimilationist, are also growing. Young people reading this book have a choice to make: which side do they want to join?