Stamped From the Beginning

Today I finished Ibram X. Kendi’s book Stamped From the Beginning, which is about the history of racist ideas in the USA. I found it insightful and eye-opening, and it gave me some meaningful perspective shifts on racism.

I’m glad I read this book after White Fragility because the former book was much more lightweight, a very basic starter book compared to the scope and depth of Stamped From the Beginning.

In particular I found it illuminating to consider that racist ideas ultimately arise from self-interest, which often includes economic interests but could also include social interests, political interests, career interests, and more. People and societies lean towards racist ideas when such ideas benefit the self-interest of enough people. This same self-interest leads to racist social norms and government policies as well.

I appreciated learning about the relationship between racist ideas and racist policies, and it was helpful to consider how self-interest binds them to each other. When there’s a demand for racist ideas to fuel more racist policies to advance the self-interests of enough people who want them, more racist ideas are spawned, which leads to racist policies. Then those racist policies can produce outcomes that generate even more racist ideas and in turn more racist policies.

For example, when Southerners wanted to take advantage of the demand for cotton production, this created more demand for new racist ideas to justify an increase in slavery, a racist policy.

We still have a similar pattern of self-interest fueling racist ideas today. Trump has voiced racist statements aplenty, including “Laziness is a trait in blacks,” “Go back to their huts,” and many more. And he’s promoted many racist policies, including the border wall and the “law and order” position, which negatively affect some races a lot more than others. With some people he clearly gains favor by expressing racist ideas and promoting racist policies, so this can be motivated by self-interest. The behavior persists because people keep rewarding it.

He’s certainly not alone. As the book points out, many Presidents (including Obama) have gone a similar route, promoting racist ideas and racist policies, particularly when it was politically beneficial for them to do so.

One new term I learned from the book was uplift suasion, which “was based on the idea that White people could be persuaded away from their racist ideas if they saw Black people improving their behavior, uplifting themselves from their low station in American society.”

The burden of race relations was placed squarely on the shoulders of Black Americans. Positive Black behavior, abolitionist strategists held, undermined racist ideas, and negative Black behavior confirmed them.

I don’t recall hearing this term previously, but I’m familiar with the concept behind it. It was eye-opening to consider that uplift suasion is a racist idea – and also highly ineffective at helping to create parity among races.

This book gave me a better understanding of racism and why it’s been so persistent. I don’t recall linking racism to selfishness before, but now I can see how much sense that framing makes. Now when I see racist ideas being expressed or racist policies being promoted, I’ll be inclined to ask: Who benefits from this? A good place to start would be to consider the self-interest of the very person doing the expression or the promotion.

If you’d like to learn a lot more about the history of racist ideas and policies in the USA, I can definitely recommend this book. It’s dense with details, so it’s not the type of book you’d want to rush through. I feel like it’s still generating more ripples in my thinking, and I like books that have that effect on me.

As soon as I was done, I immediately started on the book How to Be an Anti-Racist from the same author. Now that I have a better understanding of the historical context and the connection between self-interest, racist ideas, and racist policies, I want to learn more about how to apply this knowledge and act in alignment with it.

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Steve Pavlina

Steve Pavlina is an American self-help author, motivational speaker and entrepreneur. He is the author of the web site and the book Personal Development for Smart People.

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