Probing how Racist Ideas are Born

We usually think that ideas lead to policies. But a book by NEA Higher Ed member Ibram X. Kendi argues persuasively that it’s actually the other way around.

The book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, walks us through the centuries to show how racist policies and discriminatory actions have led people to hold—and spread—racist ideas to justify them. You can read a fascinating Q&A with Kendi in the Winter 2017 edition of Thought & Action. He won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction—at 34, the youngest-ever winner in that category.

Kendi, an assistant professor at the University of Florida, wrote Stamped to explore the genesis of racist ideas. He defines these as “any idea that suggests a racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way.”

“I found, over and over again, that these producers were not ignorant,” he said in the Q&A. “They were not hateful. Many of them were the most brilliant minds in American history. And they typically were producing these ideas to defend existing racist policies. The disparities were in place, their effects were profound, and these racist ideas were an attempt to normalize and justify those racist policies.”

Coming to grips with this is important because sometimes even people with the best of intentions can hold onto racist notions. (See more on institutional racism and how NEA is addressing it, including suggestions for how to have a conversation about and take action on racial justice, here. Read about the conversation members of the Rainer Educators of Color Network engaged other educators in here. )

As a teacher, I look at it this way: If we want our students to question their perspectives and assumptions, it’s a good idea for us to do the same. Holding onto ideas that get in the way of seeing students as individuals means we can’t discover their passions or unlock their potential.

Kendi covers many issues, including standardized tests. He doesn’t believe they measure either a child’s intellect or potential for success. This sentence from the book really resonates with me: “The word intelligence describes something real and that it varies from person to person is as universal and ancient as any understanding about the state of being human.”

He also looks at the Brown v. Board of Education decision through his theory. Usually the discussion of Brown focuses on desegregation of public schools, but not the under-resourcing of the public schools that black students attended (then and now). The court “essentially offered a racist opinion in this landmark case: separate black educational facilities were inherently unequal and inferior because black students were not being exposed to white students.”

Kendi said in the Thought & Action Q&A that making classrooms and school systems more antiracist means teacher-activists must focus on “closing the school resource gap” because they know firsthand “how difficult it is for them to do their jobs in an under-resourced school.”

In higher education, administrators and boards must look honestly at a host of policies, especially admissions. A racist idea, he said, is “we can’t get more black students because black students are not qualified.”

“Look at the resources allocated to recruiting the best black athletes and compare them to the resources allocated to recruiting the best black students and faculty, and there’s no comparison.”

Kendi doesn’t address the school-to-prison pipeline directly, but he does write that black students are more likely to get hit with zero-tolerance policies for misbehavior than white students. (Read more about what NEA’s doing to shut down the pipeline here.)

The bottom line is this, he writes: The best way to change racist ideas is to be the person writing antiracist policies, or to be at the table when those policies are written.

By educating ourselves on the complexity of racism and racial disparities, we can become better educators—ultimately, more adept at advocating for our students and more capable of providing them with the support and tools to be successful.

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One Response to “Probing how Racist Ideas are Born”

  1. Joshua Lee

    Racist ideas are also born from bias in literature. One example of this is Dr. Seuss, who the NEA supports, that wrote racist literature and drew racist depiction about blacks and asians. He never apologized, he only wrote a book called “horton wears who,” that basically reinforces savior complex. When is the NEA going to acknowledge there own role in supporting Bias? As a parent and a teacher, the NEA should stop celebrating this man and center diverse authors and multicultural literacy instead

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