Throughout Stamped, Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds repeatedly promise that “this is not a history book.” Yes, it’s a book about history, but its point is to help the reader understand the present. Kendi and Reynolds don’t want young people to read this book because they care about how racism looked 200 years ago, but because they care about how racism affects their lives and communities today. History is just the present’s backstory. So, by learning about the history of race and racism in the United States—which is first and foremost a history of anti-Black racism—students can better understand why Black men are 21 times more likely to be killed by the police than white men, why the U.S. incarcerates Black people five times as often as white people, and why, at the exact same time, so many people insist that racism is over. These problems weren’t caused by an unspeakable evil in people’s hearts: rather, they are the result of policies and ideas that have created racial inequities over the last 400 years of U.S. history. Therefore, Kendi and Reynolds argue that understanding the history of racism and antiracism is the key first step to becoming an effective antiracist in the 21st century.
Kendi and Reynolds begin by saying that the best way to understand racism today is to understand racism’s history. To Kendi and Reynolds’s audience of young people, many of the racial inequities that plague American society today can feel impossible to overcome. But by learning about their history, young people can see that these inequities aren’t inevitable: they have specific historic causes, and they can be undone. To take one prominent example, police violence and mass incarceration are the most visible forms of systemic racism in the U.S. today. Many Americans might just blame racist police and prosecutors, but Kendi and Reynolds show that these inequities have a much longer history. For instance, in the 1980s, President Regan began pushing for harsher anti-drug laws and targeting Black people for arrest and incarceration. This let him publicly demonize Black people and justify redirecting resources away from programs that help them and toward things like policing, incarceration, and tax cuts, which primarily benefit white elites and middle-class workers. This historical precedent helps explain why the police arrest and kill so many Black people today: the government specifically taught them to over-police Black neighborhoods and view young Black men as dangerous criminals. The problem is systemic, but it’s also fixable through systemic policy change.
Next, Kendi and Reynolds argue that the best way to fight racism today is to understand how people have successfully fought it in the past. Conflicts between racists and antiracists follow a predictable pattern, so antiracists should learn about the history of racism and antiracism in order to fight more effectively for justice. First, both racists and antiracists constantly recycle the same ideas and policies throughout history. For instance, racist scholars have constantly looked for some silver bullet argument that will prove that there’s some inherent biological difference between racial groups. In the 1600s they looked at the Bible, in the 1800s they looked at people’s skulls, and today they look at genes and IQ. They always fail, because the conclusion that they want to prove is false. But they’ll always keep trying. By understanding the history of racist scholarship, antiracists can better plan to counter it in the future. Similarly, antiracists’ policies and ideas have always been based on a single basic principle: that all people are equal. This idea is appealing largely because it’s scientifically true and supported by most major philosophies and religions, so it hasn’t changed much over history. Nevertheless, antiracists have adapted it to every era. In the 1600s, Pennsylvania Quakers compared racism to the religious persecution they faced in Europe. In the 1800s, abolitionists held up “extraordinary Negroes” like Frederick Douglass to show that Black people were capable of the same things as white people. In the 1970s and 1980s, the antiracist movement’s guiding slogan was “Black Power,” and today it’s the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The most effective antiracists learn to identify and adapt to new racist ideas—which are always just the same old racist ideas, just presented in different ways.
After major policy changes, Kendi and Reynolds point out, racists and antiracists also tend to clash in predictable ways. Usually, there’s a rebellion and a backlash. For instance, after the American Civil War, World War I, and the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s, white racists violently attacked Black communities. After the Civil War, abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison weren’t prepared to stop them, but after World War I, scholars like W.E.B. Du Bois documented how Black soldiers were treated better in Europe. And decades later, after the backlash to the civil rights movement, Black Americans launched the Black Power movement and started fighting the War on Drugs and mass incarceration. This shows how antiracists have learned from history and started responding more effectively to racist backlash.
In fact, Kendi and Reynolds focus on historical figures because they’re the best role models for modern-day people. By understanding how Thomas Jefferson consistently put his self-interest before his sense of morality, Abraham Lincoln learned to view Black people as equals only at the end of his life, and William Lloyd Garrison spread antislavery ideas far and wide before fully coming around to antiracism, assimilationists can assess their own beliefs and learn to become antiracists sooner rather than later. And by learning how antiracists like Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Marcus Garvey, and Angela Davis have constantly called for justice and pushed for policy change, modern-day antiracists can learn to do the same.
History and the Present ThemeTracker
History and the Present Quotes in Stamped
I don't think I'm a great writer like Jason, but I do think I'm a courageous writer. I wrote Stamped from the Beginning with my cell phone on, with my television on, with my anger on, with my joy on—always thinking on and on. I watched the televised and untelevised life of the shooting star of #Black Lives Matter during America's stormiest nights. I watched the televised and untelevised killings of unarmed Black human beings at the hands of cops and wannabe cops. I somehow managed to write Stamped from the Beginning between the heartbreaking deaths of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin and seventeen-year-old Darnesha Harris and twelve-year-old Tamir Rice and sixteen-year-old Kimani Gray and eighteen-year-old Michael Brown, heartbreaks that are a product of America's history of racist ideas as much as a history of racist ideas is a product of these heartbreaks.
The segregationists and the assimilationists are challenged by antiracists. The antiracists say there is nothing wrong or right about Black people and everything wrong with racism. The antiracists say racism is the problem in need of changing, not Black people. The antiracists try to transform racism. The assimilationists try to transform Black people. The segregationists try to get away from Black people. These are the three distinct racial positions you will hear throughout Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You—the segregationists, the assimilationists, and the antiracists, and how they each have rationalized racial inequity.
The first step to building an antiracist America is acknowledging America's racist past. By acknowledging American racist past, we can acknowledge America's racist present. In acknowledging America's racist present, we can work toward building an antiracist America.
This book, this not history history book, this present book, is meant to take you on a race journey from then to now, to show why we feel how we feel, why we live how we live, and why this poison, whether recognizable or unrecognizable, whether it’s a scream or a whisper, just won’t go away.
Zurara was the first person to write about and defend Black human ownership, and this single document began the recorded history of anti-Black racist ideas.
And just like that, the groundwork was laid not only for slavery to be justified but for it to be justified for a long, long time, simply because it was woven into the religious and educational systems of America. All that was needed to complete this oppressive puzzle was slaves.
A QUICK RECAP OF RACIST IDEAS (SO FAR):
1. Africans are savages because Africa is hot, and extreme weather made them that way.
2. Africans are savages because they were cursed through Ham, in the Bible.
3. Africans are savages because they were created as an entirely different species.
4. Africans are savages because there is a natural human hierarchy and they are at the bottom.
5. Africans are savages because dark equals dumb and evil, and light equals smart and… White.
6. Africans are savages because slavery made them so.
7. Africans are savages.
Say it with me: All men are created equal.
But were slaves seen as “men”? And what about women? And what did it mean that Jefferson, a man who owned nearly two hundred slaves, was writing America’s freedom document? Was he talking about an all-encompassing freedom or just America being free from England?
This three-fifths-of-a-man equation worked for both the assimilationists and the segregationists, because it fit right into the argument that slaves were both human and subhuman, which they both agreed on. For the assimilationists, the three-fifths rule allowed them to argue that someday slaves might be able to achieve five-fifths. Wholeness. Whiteness. One day. And for segregationists, it proved that slaves were mathematically wretched. Segregationists and assimilationists may have had different intentions, but both of them agreed that Black people were inferior. And that agreement, that shared bond, allowed slavery and racist ideas to be permanently stamped into the founding document of America.
Black people didn’t want to go “back” to a place they’d never known. They’d built America as slaves and wanted to reap the benefits of their labor as free people.
America was now their land.
On one hand, he wanted slavery gone. Black people liked that. On another hand, he didn’t think Black people should necessarily have equal rights. Racists loved that. And then, on a third hand (a foot, maybe?), he argued that the end of slavery would bolster the poor White economy, which poor White people loved. Lincoln had created an airtight case where no one could trust him (Garrison definitely didn’t), but everyone kinda… wanted to. And when Lincoln lost, he’d still made a splash as his party, the Republican Party, won many of the House seats in the states that were antislavery. So much so, that Garrison, though critical of Lincoln, kept his critiques to himself because he saw a future where maybe—maybe—antislavery politicians could take over.
For racists, athletes and entertainers could be spun into narratives of the Black aggressor, the natural dancer, etc. Like, the reason Black people were good wasn’t because of practice and hard work but because they were born with it. […]
For Black people, however, sports and entertainment were, and still are, a way to step into the shoes of the big-timer. It was a way to use the athlete or the entertainer—Johnson being both—as an avatar. As a representative of the entire race. Like human teleportation machines, zapping Black people, especially poor Black people, from powerlessness to possibility.
But not everyone was kissing Du Bois’s assimilationist feet. There was a resistant group of artists that emerged in 1926 who called themselves the Niggerati. They believed they should be able to make whatever they wanted to express themselves as whole humans without worrying about White acceptance. […] They wanted to function the same way as the blues women, like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, who sang about pain and sex and whatever else they wanted to. Even if the images of Blackness weren’t always positive. W. E. B. Du Bois and his supporters of uplift suasion and media suasion had a hard time accepting any narrative of Black people being less than perfect. Less than dignified. But the Niggerati were arguing that, if Black people couldn’t be shown as imperfect, they couldn’t be shown as human.
King closed the day with what’s probably the most iconic speech of all time—“I Have a Dream.” But there was bad news. W. E. B. Du Bois had died in his sleep the previous day.
Indeed, a younger Du Bois had called for such a gathering, hoping it would persuade millions of White people to love the lowly souls of Black folk. And, yes, the older Du Bois had chosen another path—the antiracist path less traveled—toward forcing millions to accept the equal souls of Black folk. It was the path of civil disobedience that the young marchers […] had desired for the March on Washington, a path a young woman from Birmingham’s Dynamite Hill was already traveling and would never leave.
[Malcolm X’s] ideological transformation, from assimilationist to anti-White separatist to antiracist, inspired millions. He argued that though White people weren’t born racist, America was built to make them that way. And that if they wanted to fight against it, they had to address it with the other racist White people around them. He critiqued Black assimilationists. Called them puppets, especially the “leaders” who had exploited their own people to climb the White ladder. Malcolm X stamped that he was for truth—not hate—truth and truth alone, no matter where it was coming from. His autobiography would become antiracist scripture. It would become one of the most important books in American history.
And the media, as always, drove the stereotypes without discussing the racist framework that created much of them. Once again, Black people were lazy and violent, the men were absent from the home because they were irresponsible and careless, and the Black family was withering due to all this, but especially, according to Reagan, because of welfare. There was no evidence to support any of this, but hey, who needs evidence when you have power, right?
Angela Davis. She was the conference’s closing speaker. She was certainly the nation’s most famous Black American woman academic. But, more important, over the course of her career, she had consistently defended Black women, including those Black women who even some Black women did not want to defend. She had been arguably America’s most antiracist voice over the past two decades, unwavering in her search for antiracist explanations when others took the easier and racist way of Black blame.
Personal responsibility… hmmm.
This was another one of those get-overs.
The mandate was simple enough: Black people, especially poor Black people, needed to take “personal responsibility” for their economic situation and for racial disparities and stop blaming racism for their problems and depending on the government to fix them. It convinced a new generation of Americans that irresponsible Black people, not racism, caused the racial inequities. It sold the lie that racism has had no effect. So Black people should stop crying about it.
In the book, he claimed to be exempt from being an “extraordinary Negro,” but racist Americans of all colors would in 2004 begin hailing Barack Obama, with all his public intelligence, morality, speaking ability, and political success, as such. The “extraordinary Negro” hallmark had come a mighty long way from Phillis Wheatley to Barack Obama, who became the nation’s only African American in the US Senate in 2005. With Phillis Wheatley, racists despised the capable Black mind, but with Obama, they were turning their backs on history so that they could see him as a symbol of a post-racial America. An excuse to say the ugliness is over.
Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi founded #BlackLivesMatter as a direct response to racist backlash in the form of police brutality. From the minds and hearts of these three Black women—two of whom are queer—this declaration of love intuitively signified that in order to truly be antiracists, we must also oppose all the sexism, homophobia, colorism, ethnocentrism, nativism, cultural prejudice, and class bias teeming and teaming with racism to harm so many Black lives. […] In reaction to those who acted as if Black male lives mattered the most, antiracist feminists boldly demanded of America to #SayHerName, to shine light on the women who have also been affected by the hands and feet of racism. Perhaps they, the antiracist daughters of Davis, should be held up as symbols of hope, for taking potential and turning it into power. More important, perhaps we should all do the same.
[It all] leads back to the question of whether you, reader, want to be a segregationist (a hater), an assimilationist (a coward), or an antiracist (someone who truly loves).
Choice is yours.
Don’t freak out.
Just breathe in. Inhale. Hold it. Now exhale slowly:
N O W.