Ibram X. Kendi: A New Theory of Racism

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What is Ibram X. Kendi’s theory of racism? What comes first—racist ideas or racist policies?

In his book Stamped from the Beginning, Ibram X. Kendi presents a new theory of racism. Common wisdom holds that racist ideas lead to racist policies, but Kendi argues that the opposite is true.

Keep reading to learn about Kendi’s theory of racism.

A New Theory of Racism

One of the main purposes of Stamped from the Beginning is to articulate a new theory of racism—which he argues is necessary if we’re to effectively fight racism. Kendi makes two major conceptual claims in this book. First, he argues that racist ideas are invented to justify racist policies already in place. If we don’t realize this, he says, we’ll mistakenly try to address racism by fighting racist ideas when it would be more effective to fight racist policies. Second, he argues that debates about race encompass three possible stances—segregationism, assimilationism, and antiracism. He suggests that if we don’t learn to recognize all three stances, we might accidentally perpetuate racist ideas.

Defining “Racism” and “Race”

Racism is a charged term, so before going further, it’s a good idea to establish its definition and usage in this guide.

In Stamped from the Beginning, Kendi defines racism as “any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way.” In other words, racism doesn’t require hatred or discrimination—it only requires believing that any race is better or worse than another. As we’ll see, this definition will be important for understanding Kendi’s arguments about the different kinds of thoughts about race.However, this definition raises another question: What is race? Kendi never explicitly defines the term in Stamped from the Beginning, but in How to Be an Antiracist, he defines it as a hierarchical group into which people are sorted. He argues that race isn’t based on culture, ethnicity, or biological difference—instead, he says, it’s a purely political construct. As we’ll see, that construct changes over time depending on which era and which culture we’re looking at. But in any case, it’s important to note that despite centuries of pseudoscientific claims of racial difference, contemporary science has found no significant biological difference between so-called racial groups.

Claim #1: Racist Policies Lead to Racist Ideas

Kendi argues that while most people think that ignorance and hatred lead to racist policies, the reality is the exact opposite: People who are motivated by economic or political self-interest introduce racist policies, they justify these policies by inventing racist ideas, then those racist ideas take hold and produce ignorance and hatred

In Kendi’s account of American anti-Black racism, the original racist policy was the African slave trade, which slave traders and enslavers justified by inventing ideas about Black inferiority. 

As we’ll see in Part 2, much of Kendi’s book is dedicated to tracking the evolution of these policies and ideas over time. Kendi argues that it’s crucial to understand the policy-first nature of racism because otherwise, we’re likely to take the wrong approach to combating racism. In other words, if we believe that racism stems from hatred and ignorance, we’ll focus on educating racists to show them the illogic and factual inaccuracy of racist ideas—an approach that can’t possibly work because racist ideas don’t come from ignorance in the first place. 

Claim #2: There Are Three Positions on Race

While we might assume that ideas are either racist or nonracist, Kendi’s other major theoretical argument is that there are three types of thoughts on race: segregationist, antiracist, and assimilationist. When we think about racist ideas, we tend to think about openly hateful, hostile, or discriminatory rhetoric. But as we’ll see, Kendi’s three positions show that racist thinking can take subtler forms and even disguise itself as nonracist:

1) Segregationist ideas blame racial disparities on Black people by proposing that they’re inferior or defective in some way. These are the kinds of ideas we’d typically identify as racist. For example, a segregationist explanation for the low number of Black Fortune 500 CEOs might be that Black people lack the intelligence and motivation to be business leaders.

2) Antiracist ideas blame racial disparities solely on racism and maintain that all races are equal. An antiracist explanation for the lack of Black Fortune 500 CEOs might be that hiring and promotion procedures discriminate against Black candidates and employees.

3) Assimilationist ideas blame racial disparities on Black people and on racism. Assimilationist ideas can take two forms—they can maintain that both Black people and racist Whites are at fault, or they can propose that Black people are defective as a result of racism. 

For example, the first type of assimilationism might explain the low number of Black Fortune 500 CEOs by saying that hiring policies are discriminatory and that many Black people lack the skills to be business executives (such an explanation might even suggest that businesses should try harder to find the few qualified Black people out there). 

The second type of assimilationism is especially pernicious because its racism is subtler—for example, it might argue that after centuries of racial discrimination, most Black people can’t imagine themselves in leadership roles. As Kendi points out, an idea like this seems to place the blame on racism, but in doing so, it also promotes the idea that Black people are inferior (even if the inferiority isn’t their fault, but was caused by racism).

Ibram X. Kendi: A New Theory of Racism

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Here's what you'll find in our full Stamped from the Beginning summary:

  • How enslavers convinced themselves that slavery benefited slaves
  • Why most antiracist reformers harbored racist thoughts
  • How to achieve an antiracist society

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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