Throughout Stamped, Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds point out that even though racist ideas are prejudiced and illogical, they actually seem like common sense to most people. White schools taught segregationist myths for centuries, and even prominent Black leaders publicly defended assimilationism, or the idea that Black people should focus on convincing white people that they deserve equality. Racist ideas are so common because they serve the interests of the people with the greatest power to spread them. Therefore, it’s no surprise that powerful people and academic, political, and religious institutions frequently push racist ideas. However, the main path for spreading racist ideas is usually the most popular kind of media at any given point in history: for instance, religious books and pamphlets in the 1600s, pop music in the 1970s, or social media today. At the same time, these media are also the best way to spread antiracist ideas and fight racism. Therefore, antiracists should understand how racist ideas spread through scholarship, politics, and popular media if they want to fight them by spreading antiracist ideas through the same channels.
First, Kendi and Reynold’s note, scholars and scientists have been some of the most powerful promoters of racist ideas. In fact, the Portuguese writer Gomes de Zurara, who chronicled Prince Henry’s slave-trading voyages, was the first person to publish a racist idea: that Africans were “savages” who needed to be civilized through slavery and Christianity. His idea spread quickly in intellectual circles, and it soon became Europeans’ main justification for slavery. Ever since, many scholars—especially theologians and biologists—have tried to justify segregationist policies by arguing that there are essential differences between races. For instance, in the 1600s, Cotton Mather argued that God made white Puritan men superior to everyone else. Centuries later, in the 1994 book The Bell Curve, two Harvard scientists blamed racial inequality on bogus evidence that Black people naturally have low IQs. More than 300 years later, these scientists used the same racist strategy that Mather did in the 1600s: they identified a racial difference, then argued that this difference makes inequality natural and justified. But scholars can also make most powerful antiracists. Their work can demystify racist ideas, policies, and inequities. An obvious example is Kendi’s research into racist ideas for his book Stamped from the Beginning, which is the basis for Stamped. But he and Reynolds also point the reader to many other examples, like Angela Davis’s research into the U.S. criminal justice and prison systems. The numerous antiracist scholars working today expose how racists have used scholarship to advance their agenda—and they use the same tools for antiracist ends instead.
The next step in Kendi and Reynold’s argument is that politicians and activist leaders don’t just push for racist and antiracist policies: they also set the terms of debate about policy by spreading racist and antiracist ideas. Thomas Jefferson is an early example—even though he supported slavery and colonization, he also spread assimilationist and even antiracist ideas throughout his life. Today, he’s best remembered for writing that “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence. While contradictory, his ideas about human equality impacted national debates over slavery, segregation, and racism for centuries after his death. Kendi and Reynolds also show how almost every president from Kennedy to Obama has shaped the national conversation on race. For instance, after Black Americans won equal voting rights in the 1960s, presidents like Nixon and Reagan used the “southern strategy” to spread racist ideas while pretending not to talk about race. Even if he mostly governed as an assimilationist, President Obama also brought powerful antiracist ideas into the political mainstream. This shows that politicians play a central role in spreading racist and antiracist ideas.
Finally, Kendi and Reynold’s note how popular media—ranging from novels and newspapers to television and social media—have also been a powerful source of racist and antiracist ideas. For centuries, novels were the most common form of popular entertainment, so they also shaped Americans’ beliefs about race. Uncle Tom’s Cabin famously spread the assimilationist idea that Black people are naturally better Christians (although it actually used this idea to fight slavery). In contrast, the Tarzan novels tried to show that white people are genetically superior by depicting a white man beating stereotypical African savages at hunting, fighting, and attracting women. Whether openly or implicitly, literature has shaped people’s ideas about race for as long as people have had ideas about race. Modern movies and television have done the same. For instance, Kendi and Reynolds show how movies like Rocky and Planet of the Apes are based on many of the same racist tropes as Tarzan. These ideas—African savagery, the white forces of good fighting against the Black forces of evil, and so on—are so common that viewers might not even recognize them as racist. But they are, and they still shape the way most Americans think about Black people. But the media can also spread antiracist ideas. For instance, William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator newspaper got the public to think about slavery as a moral issue rather than a political one, and James Brown’s 1968 hit song “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud” helped launch the Black Power movement. Antiracists have always harnessed popular media to fight racist propaganda and spread the basic truth that all people are equal and racial groups deserve equality.
Kendi and Reynolds show that while racists have used scholarship, politics, and media to spread their ideas far and wide, these tools aren’t evil or racist in and of themselves. They also aren’t necessarily separate—they can work together. For instance, when President Woodrow Wilson screened the pro-KKK film The Birth of a Nation in the White House, he was combining the power of the presidency with the power of popular culture. This is why Kendi believes that scholars, politicians, activists, and artists have to work together to build an antiracist future. And it’s also why Kendi and Jason Reynolds collaborated on this project to bring Kendi’s rigorous historical research to young adult readers who may not learn about it otherwise.
How Racist Ideas Spread ThemeTracker
How Racist Ideas Spread 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.
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.
Once the witch hunt eventually died down, the Massachusetts authorities apologized to the accused, reversed the convictions of the trials, and provided reparations in the early 1700s. But Cotton Mather never stopped defending the Salem witch trials, because he never stopped defending the religious, slaveholding, gender, class, and racial hierarchies reinforced by the trials. He saw himself as the defender of God’s law and the crucifier of any non-Puritan, African, Native American, poor person, or woman who defied God’s law by not submitting to it.
Mike didn’t always get it right, but he was always open to learning and was never afraid to try.
The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was like that—a man with power and privilege, not afraid to try.
Garrison was influenced greatly by Walker’s ideas and carried them on, spreading them by doing what everyone had done before him: Literature. Writing. Language. The only difference was that Garrison’s predecessors in propaganda always spread damaging information. At least about Black people. They’d always printed poison, narratives about Black inferiority and White superiority. But Garrison would buck that trend and start a newspaper, the Liberator. The name alone was a match strike. This paper relaunched the abolitionist movement among White people.
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.
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?
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.