Authors: Ibram X. Kendi
Who are the cursed descendants of Canaan? In 1578, English travel writer George Best provided an answer that, not coincidentally, justified expanding European enslavement of African people. God willed that Ham’s son and “
all his posteritie after him should be so blacke and loathsome,” Best writes, “that it might remain a spectacle of disobedience to all the worlde.”
Racist power at once made biological racial distinction and biological racial hierarchy the components of biological racism. This curse theory lived prominently on the justifying lips of slaveholders until Black chattel slavery died in Christian countries in the nineteenth century. Proof did not matter when biological racial difference could be created by misreading the Bible.
But science can also be misread. After Christopher Columbus discovered a people unmentioned in the Bible, speculations arose about Native Americans and soon about Africans descending from “a different Adam.” But Christian Europe regarded polygenesis—the theory that the races are separate species with distinct creations—as heresy. When Isaac La Peyrère
Men Before Adam
in 1655, Parisian authorities threw him in prison and burned his books. But powerful slaveholders in places like Barbados “preferred” the proslavery belief that there existed a “
race of Men, not derivable from Adam” over “the Curse of Ham.”
Polygenesis became a source of intellectual debate throughout the Age of Enlightenment. The debate climaxed in the 1770s, during the first transatlantic antislavery movement. In 1776, Thomas Jefferson came down on the side of monogenesis. But over the next few decades, polygenesis came to rule racial thought in the United States through scholars like Samuel Morton and Louis Agassiz, prompting biologist Charles Darwin to write in the opening pages of
The Origin of Species
in 1859, “The view which most naturalists entertain, and which I formerly entertained—namely, that
each species has been independently created—is erroneous.” He offered a theory of natural selection that was soon used as another method to biologically distinguish and rank the races.
The naturally selected White race was winning the struggle, was evolving, was headed toward perfection, according to social Darwinists. The only three outcomes available for the “weaker” races were extinction, slavery, or assimilation, explained the social Darwinist who founded American sociology. “Many fear the first possibility for the Indians,” Albion Small co-wrote in 1894; “the
second fate is often predicted for the negroes; while the third is anticipated for the Chinese and other Eastern peoples.”
The transatlantic eugenics movement, powered by Darwin’s half cousin Francis Galton, aimed to speed up natural selection with policies encouraging reproduction among those with superior genes and re-enslaving or killing their genetic inferiors. Global outrage after the genocidal eugenics-driven policies of Nazi Germany in the mid-twentieth century led to the marginalization of biological racism within academic thought for the first time in four hundred years. Biological racism—curse theory, polygenesis, and eugenics—had held strong for that long. And yet marginalization in academic thought did not mean marginalization in common thought, including the kind of common thinking that surrounded me as a child.
CIENTISTS AND APPLAUSE
accompanied the president of the United States as he walked into the East Room of the White House on June 26, 2000. Bill Clinton took his position behind a podium in the middle of two screens featuring this headline:
DECODING THE BOOK OF LIFE / A MILESTONE FOR HUMANITY.
Geneticists had started decoding the book of life in 1990, the same year I identified myself in that book as Black.
After thanking politicians and scientists from around the world, Clinton harkened back two hundred years, to the day Thomas Jefferson “
spread out a magnificent map” of the continental United States “in this room, on this floor.”
“Today, the world is joining us here in the East Room to behold a map of even greater significance,” Clinton announced. “We are here to celebrate the completion of the first survey of the entire human genome. Without a doubt, this is the most important, most wondrous map ever produced by humankind.” When scientists finished drawing the map of “our miraculous genetic code,” when they stepped back and looked at the map, one of the “great truths” they saw was “that in genetic terms, all human beings, regardless of race, are more than 99.9 percent the same,” Clinton declared. “What that means is that modern science has confirmed what we first learned from ancient faiths. The most important fact of life on this Earth is our common humanity.”
No one told me the defining investigation in modern human history was unfolding behind the racial wars of the 1990s. It was arguably one of the most important scientific announcements ever made by a sitting head of state—perhaps as important to humans as landing on the moon—but the news of our fundamental equality was quickly overtaken by more-familiar arguments.
planning the next phase of the human genome project are being forced to confront a treacherous issue: the genetic differences between human races,” science writer Nicholas Wade reported in
The New York Times
not long after Clinton’s announcement. In his 2014 bestseller,
A Troublesome Inheritance,
Wade made the case that “there is a genetic component to human social behavior.” This connecting of biology to behavior is the cradle of biological racism—it leads to biological ranking of the races and the supposition that the biology of certain races yields superior behavioral traits, like intelligence.
But there is no such thing as racial ancestry. Ethnic ancestry does exist. Camara Jones, a prominent medical researcher of health disparities, explained it this way to bioethics scholar Dorothy Roberts: “
People are born with ancestry that comes from their parents but are assigned a race.” People from the same ethnic groups that are native to certain geographic regions typically share the same genetic profile. Geneticists call them “populations.” When geneticists compare these ethnic populations, they find there is
more genetic diversity between populations within Africa than between Africa and the rest of the world. Ethnic groups in Western Africa are more genetically similar to ethnic groups in Western Europe than to ethnic groups in Eastern Africa. Race is a genetic mirage.
Segregationists like Nicholas Wade figure if humans are 99.9 percent genetically alike, then they must be 0.1 percent distinct. And this distinction must be racial. And that 0.1 percent of racial distinction has grown exponentially over the millennia. And it is their job to search heaven and earth for these exponentially distinct races.
Assimilationists have accepted a different job, which has been in the works for decades. “What should we be teaching inside our churches and beyond their four walls?” Christian fundamentalist Ken Ham, the co-author of
One Race One Blood,
asked in an op-ed in 2017. “For one, point out the common ground of both evolutionists and creationists:
the mapping of the human genome concluded that there is only one race, the human race.”
Singular-race makers push for the end of categorizing and identifying by race. They wag their fingers at people like me identifying as Black—but the unfortunate truth is that their well-meaning post-racial strategy makes no sense in our racist world. Race is a mirage but one that humanity has organized itself around in very real ways. Imagining away the existence of races in a racist world is as conserving and harmful as imagining away classes in a capitalistic world—it allows the ruling races and classes to keep on ruling.
Assimilationists believe in the post-racial myth that talking about race constitutes racism, or that if we stop identifying by race, then racism will miraculously go away. They fail to realize that if we stop using racial categories, then we will not be able to identify racial inequity. If we cannot identify racial inequity, then we will not be able to identify racist policies. If we cannot identify racist policies, then we cannot challenge racist policies. If we cannot challenge racist policies, then racist power’s final solution will be achieved: a world of inequity none of us can see, let alone resist. Terminating racial categories is potentially the last, not the first, step in the antiracist struggle.
The segregationist sees six biologically distinct races. The assimilationist sees one biological human race. But there is another way of looking, through the lens of biological antiracism. To be antiracist is to recognize the reality of biological equality, that skin color is as meaningless to our underlying humanity as the clothes we wear over that skin. To be antiracist is to recognize there is no such thing as White blood or Black diseases or natural Latinx athleticism. To be antiracist is to also recognize the living, breathing reality of this racial mirage, which makes our skin colors more meaningful than our individuality. To be antiracist is to focus on ending the racism that shapes the mirages, not to ignore the mirages that shape peoples’ lives.
HE PRINCIPAL FINALLY
sat down next to me. Maybe she suddenly saw me not as the misbehaving Black boy but as a boy, a student under her care, with a problem. Maybe not. In any case, I was allowed to speak. I defended my dissertation. I did not use terms like “racist abuse” and “racist ideas.” I used terms like “fair” and “unfair,” “sad” and “happy.” She listened and surprised me with questions. My one-boy sit-in ended after she heard me out and agreed to talk to that teacher.
I expected to be punished when the principal summoned Ma that afternoon. After describing what happened, the principal told her my behavior was prohibited at the school. Ma did not say it would never happen again, as the principal expected. Ma told her she would have to speak to me.
“If you are going to protest, then you’re going to have to deal with the consequences,” Ma said that night, as she would on future nights after my demonstrations.
“Okay,” I replied. But no consequences came this time. And the teacher eased up on the non-White students.
Third grade ended it. My parents took me out of that school. One year was enough. They looked for a Christian private school that better validated my racial identity. They found the Black teaching staff at St. Joseph’s Parish Day School, an Episcopalian school closer to our home in Queens Village, where I attended fourth, fifth, and sixth grades.
For seventh grade and the yearlong comedy show that kept my eighth-grade classroom filled with laughs and hurt feelings, I transferred to a private Lutheran school around the corner from St. Joseph’s. Almost all my Black eighth-grade classmates were jokesters. Almost everyone got joked on for something. But one joke stung more than others.
A powerful collection of racist policies that lead to inequity between racialized ethnic groups and are substantiated by racist ideas about racialized ethnic groups.
A powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to equity between racialized ethnic groups and are substantiated by antiracist ideas about racialized ethnic groups.
because he was so uptight. We rode camel jokes on another boy for the divot on the top of his head. We pointed mercilessly at one girl’s skyscrapers for legs. “You expecting?” we kept asking the obese boy. “We know you expecting,” we kept saying to the obese girl. They renamed me Bonk, after the video-game character whose only weapon was his insanely large head, which made a rhythmic “Bonk. Bonk. Bonk” as he attacked his enemies.
I dished out as many jokes as anyone—the eight-year-old third-grade dissident had turned into a popular teenager with a penchant for cruel jokes. Maybe my empathetic sensibilities would have been rekindled if I’d gotten on the bus and Million Man–marched in Washington, D.C., that fall of 1995. But my father, caring for his ailing sibling, did not take us.
None of us attended that fall’s other big event, either: the O. J. Simpson trial in Los Angeles. Two weeks before the Million Man March, I sat in my eighth-grade classroom, waiting patiently with my Black classmates, listening to the radio. When “not guilty” sliced the silence like a cleaver, we leapt from behind our desks, shouting, hugging each other, wanting to call our friends and parents to celebrate. (Too bad we didn’t have cellphones.)
Over in Manhattan, my father assembled with his accounting co-workers in a stuffed, stiff, and silent conference room to watch the verdict on television. After the not-guilty verdict was read, my father and his Black co-workers migrated out of the room with grins under their frowns, leaving their baffled White co-workers behind.
Back in my classroom, amid the hugging happiness, I glanced over at my White eighth-grade teacher. Her red face shook as she held back tears, maybe feeling that same overwhelming sensation of hopelessness and discouragement that Black people feel all too many times. I smiled at her—I didn’t really care. I wanted O.J. to run free. I had been listening to what the Black adults around me had been lecturing about for months in 1995. They did not think O.J. was innocent of murder any more than they thought he was innocent of selling out his people. But they knew the criminal-justice system was guilty, too. Guilty for freeing the White cops who beat Rodney King in 1991 and the
Korean storekeeper who killed fifteen-year-old Latasha Harlins that same year after falsely accusing her of stealing orange juice. But the O.J. verdict didn’t stop justice from miscarrying when it came to Black bodies—all kinds of Black bodies. New Yorkers saw it two years later, when NYPD officers inside a Brooklyn police station rammed a wooden stick up the rectum of a thirty-year-old
Haitian immigrant named Abner Louima, after viciously beating him on the ride to the station. And two years after that, the justice system freed another group of NYPD officers who’d blasted
forty-one bullets at the body of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed twenty-three-year-old immigrant from Guinea. It did not matter if Black people breathed first in the United States or abroad. In the end, racist violence did not differentiate.
But back in my eighth-grade class, my fellow African Americans did differentiate. Kwame probably bore the nastiest beating of jokes. He was popular, funny, good-looking, athletic, and cool—yet his Ghanaian ethnicity trumped all. We relentlessly joked on Kwame like he was Akeem, from the kingdom of Zamunda, and we were Darryl, Lisa’s obnoxious boyfriend, in the 1988 romantic comedy
Coming to America
. After all, we lived in Queens, where Akeem came in search of a wife and fell for Lisa in the movie.
Coming to America,
Darryl, Lisa, Akeem, and Patrice (Lisa’s sister) are sitting in the stands, watching a basketball game. “Wearing clothes must be a new experience for you,” Darryl quips with a glance at Akeem. An annoyed Lisa, sitting between the two men, changes the subject. Darryl brings it back. “What kind of games do y’all play in Africa? Chase the monkey?” Darryl grins. African Americans in the audience were expected to grin with Darryl and laugh at Akeem. Back in our classrooms, we paraphrased Darryl’s jokes about barbaric and animalistic Africans to the Kwames in our midst.
These were racist jokes whose point of origin—the slave trade—was no laughing matter. When Black people make jokes that dehumanize other branches of the African diaspora, we allow that horror story to live again in our laughs. Ethnic racism is the resurrected script of the slave trader.
The origins of ethnic racism can be found in the slave trade’s supply-and-demand market for human products. Different enslavers preferred different ethnic groups in Africa, believing they made better slaves. And the better slaves were considered the better Africans. Some French planters thought of the
Congolese as “magnificent blacks” since they were “born to serve.” Other French planters joined with Spanish planters and considered captives
from Senegambia “the best slaves.” But most planters in the Americas considered the ethnic groups from the Gold Coast—modern-day Ghana—to be “
the best and most faithful of our slaves,” as relayed by one of Antigua’s wealthiest planters and governors, Christopher Codrington.
Planters and slave traders least valued Angolans, considering them the worst slaves, the lowest step on the ladder of ethnic racism, just above animals. In the 1740s, captives from the Gold Coast were sold for
nearly twice as much as captives from Angola. Maybe Angolans’ low value was based on their oversupply:
Angolans were traded more than any other African ethnic group. The twenty or so
captives hauled into Jamestown, Virginia, in August 1619, beginning African American history, were Angolan.
Planters had no problem devising explanations for their ethnic racism. “
The Negroes from the Gold Coast, Popa, and Whydah,” wrote one Frenchman, “are born in a part of Africa which is very barren.” As a result, “they are obliged to go and cultivate the land for their subsistence” and “have become used to hard labor from their infancy,” he wrote. “On the other hand…Angola Negroes are brought from those parts of Africa…where everything grows almost spontaneously.” And so “the men never work but live an indolent life and are in general of a lazy disposition and tender constitution.”
My friends and I may have been following an old script when it came to ethnic racism, but our motivations weren’t the same as those old planters’. Under our laughs at Kwame and Akeem was probably some anger at continental Africans. “
African chiefs were the ones waging war on each other and capturing their own people and selling them,” President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda told a 1998 crowd that included President Bill Clinton, taking a page out of African American memory of the slave trade. I still remember an argument I had with some friends in college years later—they told me to leave them alone with my “Africa shit.” Those “African motherfuckers sold us down the river,” they said. They sold their “own people.”
The idea that “African chiefs” sold their “own people” is an anachronistic memory, overlaying our present ideas about race onto an ethnic past. When European intellectuals created race between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, lumping diverse ethnic groups into monolithic races, it didn’t necessarily change the way the people saw themselves. Africa’s residents in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries didn’t look at the various ethnic groups around them and suddenly see them all as one people, as the same race, as African or Black. Africans involved in the slave trade did not believe they were selling their own people—they were usually selling people as different to them as the Europeans waiting on the coast. Ordinary people in West Africa—like ordinary people in Western Europe—identified themselves in ethnic terms during the life of the slave trade. It took a long time, perhaps until the twentieth century, for race making to cast its pall over the entire globe.
HROUGHOUT THE 1990S,
the number of immigrants of color in the United States grew, due to the combined effects of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the Refugee Act of 1980, and the Immigration Act of 1990. Taken together, these bills encouraged family reunification, immigration from conflict areas, and a diversity visa program that spiked immigration from countries outside Europe.
Between 1980 and 2000, the Latinx immigrant population ballooned from 4.2 million to 14.1 million.
As of 2015, Black immigrants accounted for 8.7 percent of the nation’s Black population, nearly triple their share in 1980. As an early-eighties baby, I witnessed this upsurge of immigrants of color firsthand.
While some African Americans were wary of this immigrant influx from the Black world, my parents were not. A Haitian couple with three boys lived across the street from us, and I befriended the youngest boy, Gil, and his cousin Cliff. I spent many days over there eating rice and peas, fried plantains, and chicken dishes with names I couldn’t pronounce. I learned a little Haitian Creole. Gil’s father pastored a Haitian church in Flatbush, Brooklyn, the heart of New York’s West Indian community. I often joined them for church, taking in large helpings of Haitian American culture along with the day’s sermon.
Gil and Cliff held me close, but Gil’s parents did not. They were nice and accommodating, but there was always a distance between us. I never felt part of the family, despite how many times I ate at their dinner table. Maybe they kept me at arm’s length because I was African American, at a time when Haitian immigrants were feeling the sting of African American bigotry. Maybe not. Maybe I am making something out of nothing. But that same feeling recurred in other encounters.
West Indian immigrants tend to categorize African Americans as “lazy, unambitious, uneducated, unfriendly, welfare-dependent, and lacking in family values,” Mary C. Waters found in her 1999 interview-rich study of West Indian attitudes.
African Americans tended to categorize West Indians as “selfish, lacking in race awareness, being lackeys of whites, and [having] a sense of inflated superiority.”
I grew up with different kinds of Black people all around me—I never knew anything else. But being surrounded by Black immigrants was new for my parents’ and grandparents’ generations.
The loosening immigration laws of the 1960s through 1990s were designed to undo a previous generation of immigration laws that limited non-White immigration to the United States. The
1882 Chinese Restriction Act was extended to an even broader act, encompassing a larger “Asiatic Barred Zone,” in 1917. The 1921 Emergency Quota Act and the Immigration Act of 1924 severely restricted the immigration of people from Africa and Eastern and Southern Europe and practically banned the immigration of Asians until 1965. “
America must be kept American,” President Calvin Coolidge said when he signed the 1924 law. Of course, by then “American” included millions of Negro, Asian, Native, Middle Eastern, and Latinx peoples (who would, at least
in the case of Mexican Americans, be forcibly repatriated to Mexico by the hundreds of thousands). But Coolidge and congressional supporters determined that only immigrants from northeastern Europe—Scandinavia, the British Isles, Germany—could keep America American, meaning White. The United States “was a mighty land settled by northern Europeans from the United Kingdom, the Norsemen, and the Saxon,”
proclaimed Maine representative Ira Hersey, to applause, during debate over the Immigration Act of 1924.
Nearly a century later, U.S. senator Jeff Sessions lamented the growth of the non-native-born population. “
When the numbers reached about this high in 1924, the president and Congress changed the policy. And it slowed down significantly,” he told Breitbart’s Steve Bannon in 2015. “We then assimilated through to 1965 and created really the solid middle class of America with assimilated immigrants. And it was good for America.” A year later, as attorney general, Sessions began carrying out the Trump administration’s anti-Latinx, anti-Arab, and anti-Black immigrant policies geared toward making America White again. “
We should have more people from places like Norway,” Trump told lawmakers in 2018. There were already enough people of color like me, apparently.
HE CURRENT ADMINISTRATION’S
throwback to early-twentieth-century immigration policies—built on racist ideas of what constitutes an American—were meant to roll back the years of immigration that saw America dramatically diversify, including a new diversity within its Black population, which now included Africans and West Indians in addition to the descendants of American slaves. But regardless of where they came from, they were all racialized as Black.
The fact is, all ethnic groups, once they fall under the gaze and power of race makers, become racialized. I am a descendant of American slaves. My ethnic group is African American. My race, as an African American, is Black. Kenyans are racialized as a Black ethnic group, while Italians are White, Japanese are Asian, Syrians are Middle Eastern, Puerto Ricans are Latinx, and Choctaws are Native American. The racializing serves the core mandate of race: to create hierarchies of value.