It has taken me a long time to read this book. The problem was not that I found it boring or difficult to read or unpersuasive—anything but. The problem was simply that it was too persuasive, and what it persuaded me of was profoundly depressing. I found myself resisting picking it up yet once more and going on to read yet more of, and be yet again convinced and depressed by, Kendi’s detailed and ugly history of the ongoing power of racist ideas in the United States (and really, for that matter, in Canada and Europe and elsewhere).
Kendi’s main argument is that, contrary to popular belief, the development of racist theories about human differences has not led to the racist behaviour that has marginalized, impoverished, and enslaved people of African origins in the US. Instead, the desire to use people as slaves, or to prevent them from having a political voice or a right to fair housing, or to otherwise take advantage of them and make money from doing so has preceded the development of the theories that justify that behaviour—and continues to do so.
There were people who wanted to buy and sell slaves before there was a theoretical justification for doing so. More recently, an urge to make money from the incarceration of massive numbers of Americans of colour has encouraged the development of theories of differences in racal intelligence and the misleading and inaccurate intelligence tests that still maintain them. they have also supported an unthinking faith in ideas of individual self-reliance, the dangers of welfare, etc. that still blames people of colour rather than economic conditions for their poverty. Those theories then allow for and sustain the ongoing existence of the slums and other social conditions that encourage poverty and lack of opportunity and thus lead to crime and profitable incarceration—and those in turn appear to confirm the racist theories that allowed the inequitable social conditions n the first place. Racist theory works by offering to account for why Whites have no choice but to take advantage of Black people, always by placing the blame on a theoretically-established and clearly false conception of Black inadequacy.
Kendi identifies three main types of racist theories. First is the idea that people whose ancestors came from different continents are inherently and unalterably different from each other and that Africans and Asians, etc., are inherently inferior to the Europeans who wish to take economic advantage of the supposedly inferior others, thus justifying taking that advantage. Second is the idea that matters like primitive social conditions or the hot African climate or later, the experience of slavery, have made people of certain races debilitated or without morals or otherwise inferior to the supposedly advanced Europeans, and so those other people need to be encouraged and helped to become more like Europeans before they can be treated equally. The third idea is antiracism, or the belief that all people are already and have always been equal to one in any way that matters, and it is those who think otherwise who need to change their ideas and also, change the laws and social customs, etc., that still now create differences and promote inequality, sometimes even by professing to combat it.
For Kendi, the beliefs of a lot of Americans of both African and European backgrounds who have played significant parts in the fight against slavery and other form of inequality, in the past and now, fall into the first two categories. There have been Blacks as well as Whites who have believed so fervently in the undeniability of racial difference that they worked for the development of a society of separate but equal races—forms of apartheid. And there have been both Blacks and Whites who have bought into the idea that Blacks have been made different and inferior by a history of ill treatment, and need to become better, i.e., almost always, more like Whites, in order to deserve, and before they can achieve, equality. These assimilationist views fall within Kendi’s second category.
For Kendi himself, only anti-racism is an acceptably safe position—the one that doesn’t sustain racism even while trying to fight it. He finds very few people throughout history or even now who represent it. That’s what makes the book so depressing—that, and the overwhelming evidence he presents to support the conclusion that the white suprematist ideas that have received so much attention in recent times are neither new or newly powerful. They have always been there, and they have always had more profoundly powerful effects on the lives of people of colour in North America than have public avowals of belief in or the passing of laws in support of equal treatment for all.
Stamped from the Beginning is well worth reading, in spite or, no, exactly because of, how depressingly convincing it is.