Throughout Stamped, Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds emphasize how the racist policies that cause inequality relate to the racist ideas that support those policies. While most Americans assume that powerful people create racist policies because they believe in racist ideas, it’s actually the other way around. Racist ideas don’t cause racist policies: self-interest does. Throughout U.S. history, specific groups of people—usually powerful white men—have implemented racist policies in order to make money, gain political power, and defend their place at the top of the social hierarchy. The racist ideas come later—they’re just a way to defend the racist policies. By explaining how self-interest motivates racism, Kendi and Reynolds show their readers that undoing racism requires changing policy, not just changing ideas.
Historically, Kendi and Reynolds show, racial inequality has come from racist policies, which are motivated by power, profit, and privilege. This is clear from the earliest racist policy: the transatlantic slave trade. While slavery was common before Europeans started enslaving Africans in the 1400s, it wasn’t tied to race—actually, the concept of race didn’t even exist yet. In the 1400s, Portuguese slave traders realized that skin color became a way to easily distinguish free people from slaves, and they could make more money if they could enslave people directly from West Africa, rather than buying and selling them through middlemen. Therefore, it was profitable for them to view people with dark skin as a distinct—and inferior—group. This is a classic example of how powerful people create racist policies in order to benefit themselves. Similarly, the essential motive for American slavery was profit, as slavery gave wealthy white planters a source of low-cost labor. This self-interest helps explain why even Thomas Jefferson, who famously wrote that “all men are created equal” and even campaigned against slavery, continued to enslave people and run a plantation on enslaved labor: he wanted the money. In fact, he got himself in so much debt that he needed the money to avoid bankruptcy. Therefore, he refused to free the people he enslaved because he put his self-interest above his ethical beliefs.
Kendi and Reynolds then go on to show that, today, racism is still about power, profit, and privilege. For example, politicians like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton attacked Black communities because they knew this would win them white racists’ votes. Namely, they understood that many white Americans’ sense of self is closely tied to their feeling of superiority over Black people. They also understand that this feeling of superiority is based on the social, economic, and political privileges that white people enjoy—like working, voting, and accumulating wealth freely, without facing discrimination. Therefore, they propose racist policies, which harm Black people, in order to appeal to white voters. Of course, this explanation is hard to swallow. It’s much easier to think that politicians pass racist policies simply because they’re ignorant or full of hatred. But the truth is that they understand how racism will win them power—because, whether or not they admit it, many white Americans know that racism is the source of their privileges.
Once racist policies have been put into place, Kendi and Reynold’s argue, the purpose of racist ideas is to defend and reinforce those policies. In fact, the first racist idea directly followed the first racist policy and was designed to defend it. After Prince Henry started enslaving Africans, the Portuguese chronicler Gomes de Zurara wrote a book about Henry’s conquests, in which he argued that the Portuguese were really using slavery to civilize African “savages.” Zurara’s racist idea was simply a justification for Henry’s profitable racist policy. This became a pattern throughout history: whenever powerful people invented a new racist policy for their own benefit, a new racist idea popped up to defend that policy. For instance, racists often argue that Black men are inherently hypersexual and aggressive. When pressed for evidence, they tend to point to successful Black entertainers and athletes. They have used this idea to justify racist policy and violence, ranging from lynching to the U.S. government’s failed response to Hurricane Katrina. This shows how racist ideas are powerful tools for defending and justifying racist policies. Today, the reigning racist idea is “color blindness”—or the idea that race no longer matters because the U.S. has already overcome racism through civil rights reform and the election of Barack Obama. But the U.S.’s severe racial disparities in health, wealth, poverty, policing, education, and more show that American racism is still alive and well. The racist idea of color blindness is just racists’ excuse for doing nothing—and continuing to benefit from racist policies and inequities.
Since policy is the root cause of racism, Kendi and Reynold’s point out, overcoming racism requires replacing racist policies with antiracist policies. The U.S. has successfully done this in the past—most notably, by replacing slavery with emancipation. But the first step toward defeating racist policies is still to defeat the racist ideas that support them. For instance, abolitionists needed to persuade the American public that slavery was evil—and Black people were human—before they could convince them to support abolition. Today, antiracists are fighting different battles, focused on issues like police brutality, mass incarceration, and environmental racism. But as in any era, they have to fight the racist ideas that justify these policies in order to change them. Specifically, antiracists have to pull back the veil of racist ideas in order to undo the racist policies that continue to concentrate profit, power, and privilege in the hands of a few white men.
Power, Profit, and Privilege ThemeTracker
Power, Profit, and Privilege 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.
When I was in school and first really learning about racism, I was taught the popular origin story. I was taught that ignorant and hateful people had produced racist ideas, and that these racist people had instituted racist policies. But when I learned the motives behind the production of racist ideas, it became obvious that this folktale, though sensible, was not true. I found that the need of powerful people to defend racist policies that benefited them led them to produce racist ideas, and when unsuspecting people consumed these racist ideas, they became ignorant and hateful.
If you make a lot of money enslaving people, then to defend your business you want people to believe that Black people are fit for slavery. You will produce and circulate this racist idea to stop abolitionists from challenging slavery from abolishing what is making you rich. You see the racist policies of slavery arrive first and then racist ideas follow to justify slavery.
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.
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.
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?
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.
It was 1933. Du Bois’s life as an assimilationist had finally started to vaporize. He just wanted Black people to be self-sufficient. To be Black. And for that to be enough. Here he argued that the American educational system was failing the country because it wouldn’t tell the truth about race in America, because it was too concerned with protecting and defending the White race. Ultimately, he was arguing what he’d been arguing in various different ways, and what Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Marcus Garvey, and many others before him had argued ad nauseam: that Black people were human.
What Stokely Carmichael meant by Black Power:
BLACK PEOPLE OWNING AND CONTROLLING THEIR OWN NEIGHBORHOODS AND FUTURES, FREE OF WHITE SUPREMACY.
What (racist) White people (and media) heard:
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?
What scholars were arguing is that intelligence is so relative, it’s impossible to actually measure fairly and without bias. Uh-oh. This notion virtually shook the foundations of the racist ideas that Black people were less intelligent than White people. Or that women were less intelligent than men. Or that poor people were less intelligent than rich. It shook the idea that White schools were better, and even poked at the reason White students were perhaps going to wealthy White universities—not because of intelligence but because of racism. In the form of flawed and biased standardized testing.
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.
Craig Venter, one of the scientists responsible, was more frank than Clinton in how he spoke about it. “The concept of race has no genetic or scientific basis,” Venter said.
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.