Getting Racist Ideas Backwards
LOIS BECKETT: This is On the Media. I’m Lois Beckett, a reporter with Guardian US, sitting in for Bob and Brooke on a special hour exploring the debates over media coverage of white supremacists.
Underlying so much of this debate is the assumption about where racism thrives, namely among the uneducated, the hateful, the poor. Dr. Ibram X. Kendi is the founding director of the Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center at American University and the author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. He says this prevailing narrative is centuries old and completely wrong.
DR. IBRAM X. KENDI: The false narrative is that those who have produced and espoused racist ideas have done so because they were ignorant or they were hateful about a particular racial group; racist ideas caused them to institute discriminatory policies from slavery to mass incarceration.
The reality is, actually, quite the opposite. Those who were producing racist ideas were doing so to justify existing policies that typically benefitted them. So, in other words, instead of ignorance and hate leading to racist ideas and racist ideas leading to racist policies, racist policies have been leading to racist ideas and racist ideas have been leading to ignorance and hate.
LOIS BECKETT: You start with such a striking example of this dynamic. In the mid-15th century as Portugal is trying to get into the slave trade, why was Portugal interested in doing exclusively African slave trading?
DR. IBRAM X. KENDI: In Western European slave markets at the time, sub-Sahara Africans were typically more valuable, primarily because their skin color made it more difficult for them to run away, in contrast to the more plentiful slaves in the slave market of Eastern European Slavs. And so, then they had to create a justification that defended why they were exclusively slave trading in African people. The pioneer of this slave trade was Prince Henry, and in 1453 Gomes Zurara penned this biography of Prince Henry’s exploits into Africa and made the case that he was slave trading not to make money but to save the beastly souls of these people.
LOIS BECKETT: Why was it valuable for Prince Henry to explain a motive other than profit?
DR. IBRAM X. KENDI: Well, of course, he had to get the clearance of the Pope [LAUGHS]. And in order to get the clearance of the Pope, he, of course, had to make this missionary sort of expedition. It would continue as the British and the Dutch and the French justified their slavery by claiming that the people they were enslaving were beasts and that their expeditions and their commerce was noble. Spanish planters decided to start acquiring more enslaved Africans to work their plantations. And it would, of course, continue as slavery expanded across the Americas.
LOIS BECKETT: This narrative that we've been talking about, that racism comes from hatred and ignorance and then that sort of builds up into racist policies, is that a new one? When did that narrative began?
DR. IBRAM X. KENDI: It appears to me that that narrative was largely created by abolitionists who believed that it was their job to show particularly Northerners how brutal, how violent, how unnecessary the evil of slavery really is. It was important for abolitionists to have upstanding black people defying stereotypes so they can teach that black people are not inferior. These abolitionists believed in persuasion and education as their primary strategy, based on this idea that the fundamental problem was ignorance.
LOIS BECKETT: Whose interests does it serve to make the argument that racism is fundamentally about ignorance?
DR. IBRAM X. KENDI: When you make it about ignorance, you’re not making it about power and policy and structures and systems, that the problem centrally is not America’s institutions, is not the American story, is not American capitalism, that the problem is ignorant individuals. So it allows people to deny how fundamental racism has historically been to America.
It also allows people to believe that I as an activist can go out and educate people. I know the path in which that can be done. It’s a lot harder though as an activist to say, okay, you know what, the fundamental problem is power and policy. So it allows for some people to go the easier route as it relates to anti-racist reform.
LOIS BECKETT: One of the things that I found so helpful about your book is that you explained that to understand the dynamics of debates over racism in America, you can't just assume there are two categories, racist ideas and anti-racist ideas, that, in fact, there are three categories. Can you talk me through that?
DR. IBRAM X. KENDI: The fundamental question has been why do racial disparities exist and persist? One side have stated that black people are twice as likely to be unemployed in this country and have been so for the last 50 years because black workers are inferior; they’re less qualified, they don’t want to work, they’re lazy.
The other side of the debate has stated that it's because of discrimination. And then you’ve had some who’ve made the case of both. They’ve stated that it is the case that black people are being discriminated against but it’s also the case that they’re suffering from a cycle of poverty that has created inferior behavioral traits. In other words, black people are not inferior by nature, black people are inferior by nurture.
So that first perspective, which states that the reason why inequality exists is because of black inferiority is what I call the segregationist perspective. The second perspective that states that the reason why inequality exists is because of discrimination is the anti-racist perspective. The third position that states both is the assimilationist position.
LOIS BECKETT: When you think about Americans, how many fall into each of these three categories? What’s your sense?
DR. IBRAM X. KENDI: [LAUGHS] In lieu of a survey, I, I would suspect that the vast majority of Americans, no matter their race, fall into the assimilationist category.
LOIS BECKETT: When you were researching this book and examining your own ideas about black Americans, about white Americans, about yourself, how many of your ideas were assimilationist?
DR. IBRAM X. KENDI: Oh, I realize that I had quite a few assimilationist ideas. I, I think probably the most obvious was the idea that black people in black neighborhoods are more dangerous because of the poverty, because of the discrimination, because of these environmental factors.
Of course, through researching and writing this book, I came to realize that those two ideas are simply not true. There’s actually more violence occurring in impoverished black neighborhoods than there are richer black neighborhoods. It’s the same among all the other racial groups. [LAUGHS] In other words, there’s an actual correlation between violence and unemployment rates. The problem is not people, the problem is actually unemployment. And then it changes the calculus of how we, of course, fight violent crime.
LOIS BECKETT: Why have so many black Americans, yourself included, accepted these ideas, blaming black Americans for their own situation?
DR. IBRAM X. KENDI: It’s extremely difficult to grow up in a country where racist ideas are, are being rained on your head and never get wet. Unless we’re sort of scholars and scientists and are people who have taken a macro view of communities and nations, people are only really understanding their own interpersonal relations. It’s a lot easier to put the blame on those people who harm you than on those distant people and those distant policies that you don't even know about.
LOIS BECKETT: As you’re writing this book, which was published in 2016, you are seeing the rise of these emboldened white nationalist leaders and groups who are tremendously excited about Trump's candidacy and then his presidency. What did you make of this and what have you made of the media coverage of this phenomenon?
DR. IBRAM X. KENDI: These white nationalist groups were already organizing and accelerating in numbers in reaction to Obama's election. Their surfacing in the public was not surprising to me. What has been disturbing has been those Americans who have tried to make Trump, just like they tried to make these white nationalists, into people who were espousing ideas that are, quote, “not American.” To me, that's a reflection of America's denial of racism, which is the heartbeat of racism.
LOIS BECKETT: Do racist policies in America serve the interests of the majority of white Americans? I mean, is this an issue of white Americans have to actually go against their own self-interests to do what is right?
DR. IBRAM X. KENDI: So I think that’s one of the more critical fallacies of racism, that even people who are very well-meaning have put forth: this idea that racist policies benefit white people. They call on white people to be altruistic in ending racism. It was a fallacy during slavery when there were five million impoverished white people in 1860 directly related to the riches of a very small group of families that were the richest group of families in the world.
You know, it’s a fallacy that the white middle class has actually been helped by the Republican Party that has shifted money away from public schooling of their children and into prisons and have led to a growing divide between the white middle class and the white upper class, which is what they’ve been seeking to do ever since the New Deal. It’s certainly not in the interest of the vast majority of Americans to support racist policies.
LOIS BECKETT: How do we actually have this debate in America because it seems like most of us -- are racist? So what should this conversation even look like?
DR. IBRAM X. KENDI: We, I think, have failed, and when I say “we,” people who are truly interested in eliminating racism have failed in providing language and concepts that clarifies this complex truth. And that’s really personally what I'm attempting to do. Over 500 years, people have made the case that the problem is people and that all of these ideas have proved themselves to not be true. And so, if the problem is not people, the problem must be policies, and that’s what we need to focus on.
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LOIS BECKETT: Dr. Kendi, thank you so much for talking with us.
DR. IBRAM X. KENDI: Thank you for having me on.
LOIS BECKETT: Dr. Ibram X. Kendi is the founding director of the Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center at American University and author of Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.
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AL LETSON: People may say that they don't believe that most of America is like Richard Spencer but when you dig deeper into the truth of what America is, most people are okay with a lot of the things that Richard Spencer says.
LOIS BECKETT: Reveal’s Al Letson.
AL LETSON: Richard Spencer doesn’t want to live with black people. Neither do most white Americans in America. Look at the statistics. America is segregated. Listen, when I first started on NPR, I got more racist hate mail from [LAUGHS] white people that listened to NPR than I've experienced at any other time of my life. Let me tell you this story.
LOIS BECKETT: I have to warn you that the following features an all-too-well-known racial slur.
AL LETSON: True story. In New York City, I went out to dinner with a couple that was really well-to-do, and a friend of mine had introduced me to them, and so we went out and had dinner. And, and it was, it was a nice dinner. I really liked these people. At the end of the dinner, the woman who I was sitting next to asked us if we wanted to go back to her house for tea. And I said, sure, of course. And she turns to me and smiles and laughs and says, “Oh, Al, you know, I've never had a nigger in my house before.” This is in New York City, maybe five years ago. She and her husband give to Democratic causes. They are extremely liberal. They loved my show, “State of the Reunion.” And she looked me in the face and said that. So -- it’s everywhere.
BOB GARFIELD: This special hour was conceived and reported by Lois Beckett, generously loaned to us by Guardian US, and produced by our very own Jesse Brenneman. On the Media is also produced by Alana Casanova—Burgess, Micah Loewinger and Leah Feder. We had more help from Jon Hanrahan, Isaac Napell and Philip Yiannopoulos. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Sam Bair. And our show was edited -- by Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Special thanks to Andy Lancet and the WNYC Archives Department. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s vice president for news. And this week, especially, we hope you’ll visit our website where we have more reading and even activities focused on the sticky issues we examined this hour. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.