This book is a brilliant work of history that challenges and changes what you think you know about race and racism. While I purchased this book prior to the national protest that has erupted after the murder of George Floyd, I started reading it right while the protests were heating up. Reading this book then turning on the news was jarring and disturbing because while Kendi is talking about racist ideas in our nation’s past, you can see the same racist ideas being promulgated right now.
This was less and less surprising as the story progressed. Its one thing to read of a racist idea back in the 1400s or 1800s. Its another to see the same ideas today.
Kendi shows there have always been three attitudes towards race: segregationist, assimilationist and anti-racist. The segregationists are easy to spot: we see them from the enslavers to defenders of the confederacy to advocates of Jim Crow and murderers posing for photos at lynching. The eye-opening idea in Kendi’s book comes when he discusses assimilationists because to be an assimilationist is often to be seen as one of the “good guys.” But to be an assimilationist is still to be racist, for the idea lifts one race above another. So assimilationists would look to ideas such as “uplift suasion” and see the solution to racism as black people essentially becoming more like white people: dressing a certain way, getting an education, speaking a certain way, etc. Kendi identifies the assimilationist ideas in people such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama.
To be assimilationist is still to hold to the idea that one race is superior to another. The challenge is that segregationists are more obvious in their racism. Kendi shows how segregationists used science and “facts” (I put that in quotes because it is easy to forget that facts need interpretation) to promote their racist ideas. Assimilationists have been more likely to argue that slavery and segregation have made black people inferior and thus black people would be better off by becoming like white people. One illustration of this would be the Cosby Show which essentially told black people if you work really hard you can have the same sort of life that white people do.
Part of the problem with assimilationist ideas was that for segregationists, this all just reinforced that black people as a group were inferior. Sure, a few could rise above but they were seen as unique, as the exception. Not only then would white people look down on inferior blacks, but these exceptional blacks would also look down on the other blacks who have not risen above.
The third position is to be anti-racist: to oppose the idea and practice that one race is superior to another. Throughout the story we see that people are not easily divided into “anti-racist” and “assimilationist” groups. The same person can make anti-racist and assimilationist at points throughout their life or even in the same speech. Kendi ends the book with a few brief thoughts on how to be anti-racist. He argues that a few common tactics do not work: it does not work for white people to just give up privilege, nor does uplift suasion work. Education also does not work, for everyone already knows the truth.
This is one of the more disturbing parts of the book: you cannot educate away racism. From slavery to civil rights and everything around it, people acted in their own self-interest. Planters wanted cheap (free) labor, so they enslaved Africans and built up arguments of racism to justify their slavery. Reagan wanted a war on drugs so he built up arguments about drug use. Speaking of that point, over and over Kendi shows how as certain terms and policies were not allowed (the “n” word being spoken, Jim Crow) new policies and words were invented (“thug” as a replacement for the “n” word, mass incarceration). So even though blacks and whites use drugs at about the same rate, the war on drugs targeted black people and led to the disproportionate and unjust incarceration of black men. Then the assimilationists argue the problem with the black community is lack of fathers, ignoring the policies that took away public assistance (which white people receive as much of, it not more than, black people despite stereotypes) and targeted black men for prison.
There’s so much here…am I making side notes inside of tangents?
Overall, this makes me want to read Kendi’s book How to be an Anti-Racist. Like I said, he spends about 2-3 pages on this at the end. You can piece together what he thinks throughout the book, but this is more a work of history than a call for what to do now. That said, if you like history and want your eyes open to uncomfortable, troubling and necessary truths, read this book.
Or, if you want to learn but can’t take a 500 page tome, there is a Remixed version by Kendi and young adult authors (and one of my wife’s favorites) Jason Reynolds. Check that one out, she says its
You have probably heard some form of what Jeanne Theoharis calls “the fable.” It is the common story told of the Civil Rights movement that focuses mostly on the problems in the South and revolves around a few tremendous figures (Rosa Parks, MLK Jr.) who led the way in overcoming racism and putting America on the path to a post-racial future. In this fable, the primary figures arose out of seemingly nowhere, were mostly friendly as they called for some abstract dream of everyone getting along, and they mostly succeeded.
Theoharis shows how this fable is historically erroneous and does a disservice in the present as well. She shows how the Civil Rights movement was not just focused on the South, for racism was prevalent in the North as well. The media played a role in portraying it as a southern problem, and Theoharis spends a lot of time showing how the media downplayed the activism that was happening for years in the north. Then, when the North exploded in riots and protests, the media and politicians acted like this had come out of nowhere. The fact was, they were just ignoring it. Further, the North masked their school segregation through code words such as “busing” and “neighborhood schools.”
Just as activists in the North were working for years prior to being noticed, so too were they in the South. Perhaps the best part of this book is how it fills out Rosa Parks’ story. She was not just a tired woman who got fed up one day and unintentionally started a movement. She was an activist, part of groups planning for years, and she continued to work for years after. In this work she, like MLK, was mostly opposed throughout her life. This is because the Civil Rights movement was not just about all people getting along (the fuzzy, friendly part of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech) but was about economic equality, justice, accountability in policing and more.
Essentially, all the things Black Lives Matter is working on today.
Of course, we often hear today that BLM is too extreme. Because of the fable of the Civil Rights Movement, we hear that they are not advocating for the things King and Parks were. Except, they are advocating for exactly the same things, if we know a fuller and more accurate story of the movement. Theoharis shows how many of the criticisms of BLM today (they are too young, too extreme) were the same criticisms of King, Parks, and their peers.
Mentioning their peers is important, for another point she focuses on is that the movement was not just a few heavyweights. Instead, the movement was driven by dozens of activists who are mostly unknown. Included in this are many amazing women who were often pushed to the side then and still do not get their due today.
Overall, this is an important work of history. Theoharis gets a bit repetitive at times, but its worth it to get her point across. If you want to learn more of what the Civil Rights Movement was really about and if you want to learn to notice when and how it is mistaken and misused today, check this one out.