Book Review: Stamped From The Beginning

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi is timely, to say the least. The conflict between racists and anti-racists has dominated public discourse in recent years, and Kendi expertly shows how similarly unfurled over the course of American history.

Kendi begins with a startling and fascinating admission: that even as a black professor of African-American History, he unknowingly harboured racist ideas until he started researching this book. The admission demonstrates how insidious and powerful the ideas that support American racism are — even those who consider themselves committed anti-racists are vulnerable to racist thought.

Stamped from the Beginning starts by describing the initial development of anti-racist ideas in medieval Europe. Discriminatory and prejudiced ideas had existed long before then, but they tended to be based on ethnicity or culture as opposed to race. So, for example, Western Europeans enslaved both Africans and Slavs, and justified both on the ground of ethnic inferiority.

According to Kendi, specifically anti-black racism developed in Portugal during the medieval period. The Portuguese were shut out of the Eastern European slave trade, but were able to buy slaves from Africa. As a result, they promoted the idea that “whites” were naturally superior to “blacks.” That theory allowed them to posture as morally superior to the other European nations that enslaved whites and blacks alike.

That anecdote also illustrates one of Kendi’s core theses: that racist policies are not caused by racist ideas, but rather that racist ideas are developed to justify already existing racist policies. Kendi develops this thesis by examining the lives of 5 prominent Americans, from the pre-Revolutionary period until the present.

The topic of racism, and particularly how racist ideas develop and become popular, is vitally important right now. Kendi’s book offers a guide to understanding this complex question.