Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America

no title has been provided for this book
Category: Americas
Genre: History
Publisher: Bold Type Books
Published: 8/15/2017
The National Book Award winning history of how racist ideas were created, spread, and deeply rooted in American society.Some Americans insist that we're living in a post-racial society. But racist thought is not just alive and well in America--it is more sophisticated and more insidious than ever. And as award-winning historian Ibram X. Kendi argues, racist ideas have a long and lingering history, one in which nearly every great American thinker is complicit.

Book Summary - Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi

Key Insights

At the start of 2008, many people believed racism in America had come to an end. With the election of President Barack Obama, there was a belief that this was proof of a new beginning in America’s history.

However, the underlying foundations of America have been built upon racism and discrimination. These practices cannot simply die out with the election of one man.

As politicians from both parties continue to chase the racist vote, the negative impacts on Black communities continue. The practice of false narratives and skewing of statistical data has created an ingrained prejudice that is not easy to erase.

Key Points

Racism, overt or implicit, is used for political appeals.

Imagine you are watching a movie and the main character has just entered a dangerous neighborhood. What would that neighborhood look like? More specifically what would the people look like in this dangerous neighborhood?

In all likelihood, they would not be white. The fact is that the common perception of a dangerous neighborhood in America is one that is predominantly Black, even though statistics prove this is not the case. It is a false narrative.

In recent history, American political campaigns have relied on unspoken racism to appeal to voters. By portraying Black neighborhoods as dangerous places, they speak to unfounded fears in the hope to gain the white voter who believes that Black neighborhoods are somehow much worse than white ones.

This technique has been used by numerous politicians from both parties over the years. You might wonder why it is so successful. The answer is that it speaks to the views that many white Americans hold without realizing they are racist.

By building upon these fears, political campaigns have successfully created an image of Black America that supports these views. What this means to you is that by creating fear of a community, presidents and politicians hope to get the vote of white America.

Policies from the Reagan administration continue to disproportionate impact Blacks.

During the 1980s President Reagan created policies and economic plans that severely impacted middle and low-income families. You may not realize it, but the impact of those policies is still being felt today.

Significant cuts to social programs as a way to balance tax cuts for higher incomes were devastating to many families who relied on them. If you were from a middle or low-income family, you experienced a significant drop to your income. Black families were some of the hardest hit.

When the administration began its war on drugs it was during a time when drug-related crimes were relatively low. Nevertheless, the campaign continued and by the middle of the 1980s it was apparent there was a racial bias in who was prosecuted.

If you were a Black American in 1986 you were experiencing higher unemployment rates than white Americans. In addition to this, you were more likely to be prosecuted for narcotics abuse than white Americans. Your chances of achieving the American dream under the Reagan administration were severely limited.

Mass incarcerations are part of the false narrative created by racist policies and used for political arguments.

Even after Reagan had left office the damage of his anti-drug policies continued to affect Black Americans. The prison population had more than tripled since 1980 and the majority of prisoners were Black.

If you look at the statistics between 1980 and 2000 you would believe that Black Americans were more likely to be drug users. The truth is that it was almost an equal divide between white and Black Americans. Yet more than 60 percent of Black offenders were given prison sentences compared to just over 30 percent of white offenders.

Just by looking at the statistics, you might suspect there is a racial bias towards Black Americans. However, the more statistics you look at, the more certain you become that it is definitely racial prejudice that affects sentencing decisions. For example in the 1990s the majority of people arrested for crack-related offenses were Black yet only one-third of Black Americans used crack.

Once you begin to see the pattern, you can see the underlying racism of the justice system in America. While it may have started with President Reagan’s war on drugs, it continued through two more administrations. This was because the false narrative continued to bring in the white voters.

The mythology that the majority of drug offenders were Black also helped to prop up the false narrative about the dangers of Black neighborhoods. The political campaigns fed the unconscious and conscious racism of white Americans with the aim of keeping their votes.

The idea of Black neighborhoods being more dangerous than white neighborhoods has lots of negative impacts. Beyond creating a false stereotype, it reduces property values and creates a social stigma.

If you’re wondering what is the true root cause of crime, you can be assured it is nothing to do with race. The spikes in crime rates and the reason for dangerous neighborhoods is more to do with economics than any other factor.

Depending on how statistics are presented, the same data can tell very different stories.

You may think you can read statistics. But you can also be misled by some numbers. A good example to use is the arrest numbers in Black neighborhoods.

If you looked at these numbers you would think that Black neighborhoods were dangerous places. But, put them into context. The arrest numbers are higher because there are more police patrols in these neighborhoods. Even if the crime rate isn’t higher, the false notion that it is keeps the police presence high.

If the same number of patrols existed in white neighborhoods, it is likely that the arrest numbers would increase there too (though maybe not in proportion to the Black neighborhoods). However, because of the ongoing perception of white neighborhoods as safe havens, there remains a difference in police presence.

Statistics can be interpreted to fit a narrative. That’s what keeps happening in political campaigns. You might hear that there is a high number of deaths due to violence in Black urban neighborhoods. But what you might not know is that more deaths are caused in white suburban neighborhoods as a result of drunk drivers.

The combination of high arrest rates and skewed narratives make it impossible for Black Americans to experience the same benefits as white Americans. Thanks to the Reagan policies, Black Americans who were sentenced also lost their right to vote, making it impossible for them to vote for change.

The War on Drugs has a racist legacy and its impact is still felt today.

The War on Drugs that began with Reagan continued with George H.W. Bush. Using similar tactics as previous administrations, stories about chronic drug addiction in the Black community were published.

These media stories cast the Black population in an inferior light. If you were to believe the stories in the news, most Black Americans were either criminals, drug addicts, or both.

When Clinton was elected, he was the first Democratic president in more than a decade. Yet, the rhetoric remained unchanged. When Rodney King was beaten by four police officers, it was the protestors that were condemned by Clinton and not the white police officers.

One of the most damaging policies was the three-strikes rule. This punished repeat offenders with life sentences. The aim to cut down crime only served to increase the prison population. More Black Americans were imprisoned for nonviolent offenses than ever before.

The argument that improving your life is your responsibility ignores the impact of systemic racism.

If you were Black and struggling in the 1990s, it was your own fault. At least that’s what the implication was. During this time, two schools of thought were popular in America.

If you were in the first school you agreed that racism attributed to lots of the problems facing Black Americans. However, you believed that it was their own responsibility to do something about it as many of their troubles were self-inflicted.

The second school agreed the troubles were self-inflicted but did not agree that any of it was due to systemic racism. In short, it was your problem, not theirs. The government pushed a personal responsibility agenda that included limiting welfare under the guise of providing an incentive to work. The racist rhetoric had not stopped, it was just being worded differently.

Racism is still around. It is not a thing of the past.

After the election of Barack Obama, you may have believed that racism was firmly in the past. Surely the election of a Black president attested to that fact? The answer is quite simple: No.

Just because a Black president had been elected did not mean that suddenly America’s racism had disappeared. Racism was still there, it was just being ignored. The idea of ignoring racism stemmed from an old assertion that becoming blind to race took away the elements that caused racial tension.

In truth, this is just as prejudiced as segregation. By being “blind to race” allowed people to avoid any discussions about racism. It did not fix the issues surrounding racial inequality, it just pretended they didn’t exist.

This ignorance has led to a resurgence in white nationalism. Recent political campaigns have employed racist rhetoric in an effort to galvanize the white vote. Even though it has been several decades since Nixon was in power, the methods to attract white voters have remained the same.

As you can see from recent political campaigns, pretending racism only existed in the past is a mistake. If you want racism to be eradicated it takes a better understanding of how embedded in American society it truly is. Otherwise, you will continue to believe it only existed in history.

The Main Take-away

Racism has persisted throughout the history of America. It is wielded for power and political appeal. Implicit racial biases, as well as overt racism, have long been used to sway voters.

Although there are many who believe America’s racist tendencies are in its past, its ideologies continue to live on in today’s society. The election of a Black president does not absolve America of all racial injustices.

The use of racial rhetoric by politicians and lawmakers has had a direct impact on Black communities. The War on Drugs and mass incarcerations continue to have lasting impacts. The justice system disproportionately harms Blacks.

Willful ignorance of the disparities is part of the problem. Critical readings of policies and statistics are essential. Until institutional racism in America is properly addressed, racial inequalities will continue.

About the Author

Ibram X. Kendi is an American historian and author. He is the founding director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research and the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in Humanities. Kendi is the youngest ever recipient of the National Book Award for Nonfiction.

After working as a journalist at the Virginian Pilot, Kendi resumed his education and earned his doctoral degree in African American Studies from Temple University. Kendi has been a visiting professor at Brown University and has received a number of visiting appointments from other institutions including the University of Chicago, Duke University, and the Lyndon B. Johnson Library & Museum.

In 2019 Kendi was listed as the most influential college professor and awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts with his wife.


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