Authors: Ibram X. Kendi
Across history, racist power has produced racist ideas about the racialized ethnic groups in its colonial sphere and ranked them—across the globe and within their own nations. The history of the United States offers a parade of intra-racial ethnic power relationships:
Anglo-Saxons discriminating against Irish Catholics and Jews;
Cuban immigrants being privileged over Mexican immigrants; the
model-minority construction that includes East Asians and excludes Muslims from South Asia. It’s a history that began with early European colonizers referring to the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole as the “
Five Civilized Tribes” of Native Americans, as compared to other “wild” tribes. This ranking of racialized ethnic groups within the ranking of the races creates a racial-ethnic hierarchy, a ladder of ethnic racism within the larger schema of racism.
We practice ethnic racism when we express a racist idea about an ethnic group or support a racist policy toward an ethnic group. Ethnic racism, like racism itself, points to group behavior, instead of policies, as the cause of disparities between groups. When Ghanaian immigrants to the United States join with White Americans and say African Americans are lazy, they are recycling the racist ideas of White Americans about African Americans. This is ethnic racism.
The face of ethnic racism bares itself in the form of a persistent question:
“Where are you from?”
I am often asked this question by people who see me through the lens of ethnic racism. Their ethnic racism presumes I—a college professor and published writer—cannot be a so-called lowly, lazy, lackluster African American.
“I am from Queens, New York,” I respond.
“No, no, where are you really from?”
“I am really from New York.”
Frustrated, the person slightly alters the line of inquiry. “Where are your parents from?” When I say, “My dad’s family is from New York, and my ma’s family is from Georgia,” the questioner freezes up in confusion. When I add, “I am a descendant of enslaved Africans in the United States,” the questions cease. They finally have to resign themselves to the fact that I am an African American. Perhaps the next move is for the person to look at me as extraordinary—not like those ordinary inferior African Americans—so they can leave quietly, their ethnic-racist lens intact.
But sometimes they do not leave quietly. Sometimes they take the opportunity to lecture down at my ethnic group, like a bold Ghanaian student early in my professorial career in upstate New York. He delivered a monologue to a classroom full of African Americans that touched on everything from our laziness to our dependence on welfare. I offered data that disproved his ethnic racism—e.g., the facts that the majority of Americans on welfare are not African American and the majority of African Americans eligible for welfare refuse it. But he held tightly to his ethnic racism and spoke on as the snickering of the African American students slowly turned to anger (while many of the children of Black immigrants remained quiet). To calm my African American students, I recited the ethnically racist ideas African Americans express about West Africans, to show them that the absurdity of ethnic racism is universal. It backfired. They all started nodding their heads to the litany of stereotypes about African immigrants.
To be antiracist is to view national and transnational ethnic groups as equal in all their differences. To be antiracist is to challenge the racist policies that plague racialized ethnic groups across the world. To be antiracist is to view the inequities between all racialized ethnic groups as a problem of policy.
The Ghanaian student confronted me after class as I packed up (and as some of his African American classmates glared sharply at him while leaving the room). When he finished his second monologue to me, I asked if he minded answering some questions. He agreed to. I really just wanted to keep him talking to me for a while longer, in case there were any angry students still waiting for him outside the classroom. Fights—or worse—were occasionally erupting between Black ethnic groups in New York, just as they had a century prior between White ethnic groups.
“What are some of the racist ideas the British say about Ghanaians?” I asked.
He offered a blank stare before blurting out, “I don’t know.”
“Yes, you do. Tell me some. It’s okay.”
He was silent for a moment and then started speaking again, now much more slowly and nervously than in his earlier rants, seemingly wondering where this was going. When he finished listing racist ideas, I spoke again.
“Now, are those ideas true?” I asked. “Are the British superior to Ghanaians?”
“No!” he said proudly. I was proud, too, that he had not internalized these racist ideas about his own racialized ethnic group.
“When African Americans repeat British racist ideas about Ghanaians, do you defend your people?”
“Yes. Because they are not true!”
“So these ideas about African Americans: Who did you get these ideas from?”
He thought. “My family, my friends, and my observations,” he said.
“Who do you think your fellow Ghanaian Americans got these ideas about African Americans from?”
He thought much longer this time. From the side of his eye he saw another student waiting to speak to me, which seemed to rush his thoughts—he was a polite kid in spite of his urge to lecture. But I did not rush him. The other student was Jamaican and listening intently, maybe thinking about who Jamaicans got their ideas about Haitians from.
“Probably American Whites,” he said, looking me straight in the eye for the first time.
His mind seemed open, so I jumped on in. “So if African Americans went to Ghana, consumed British racist ideas about Ghanaians, and started expressing those ideas to Ghanaians, what would Ghanaians think about that? What would you think about that?”
He smiled, surprising me. “I got it,” he said, turning to walk out of the classroom.
“Are you sure?” I said, raising my voice over the Jamaican student’s head.
He turned back to me. “Yes, sir. Thanks, Prof.”
I respected him for his willingness to reflect on his own hypocrisy. And I didn’t want to overreact when he trashed African Americans, because I knew where he was coming from: I had been there myself. When I learned the history of ethnic racism, of
African Americans commonly degrading Africans as “barbaric” or routinely
calling West Indians in 1920s Harlem “monkey chasers”—or when I remembered my own taunts of Kwame back in eighth grade—I tried not to run away from the hypocrisy, either. How can I get upset at immigrants from Africa and South America for looking down on African Americans when African Americans have historically looked down on immigrants from Africa and South America? How can I critique their ethnic racism and ignore my ethnic racism? That is the central double standard in ethnic racism: loving one’s position on the ladder above other ethnic groups and hating one’s position below that of other ethnic groups. It is angrily trashing the racist ideas about one’s own group but happily consuming the racist ideas about other ethnic groups. It is failing to recognize that racist ideas we consume about others came from the same restaurant and the same cook who used the same ingredients to make different degrading dishes for us all.
HEN STUDIES STARTED
to show that
the median family income of African Americans was far lower than that of foreign-born Blacks and that African Americans had higher rates of poverty and unemployment, numerous commentators wondered why Black immigrants do so much better than Blacks born in America. They also answered their own questions:
Black immigrants are more motivated, more hardworking, and “more entrepreneurial than native-born blacks,” wrote one commentator in
in 1996. Their success shows “that racism does not account for all, or even most, of the difficulties encountered by native-born blacks.”
Ethnically racist ideas, like all racist ideas, cover up the racist policies wielded against Black natives and immigrants. Whenever Black immigrants compare their economic standing to that of Black natives, whenever they agree that their success stories show that antiracist Americans are overstating racist policies against African Americans, they are tightening the handcuffs of racist policy around their own wrists. Black immigrants’ comparisons with Black natives conceal the racial inequities between
Black immigrants and non-Black immigrants.
Despite studies showing Black immigrants are, on average, the most educated group of immigrants in the United States, they earn lower wages than similarly trained non-Black immigrants and have the highest unemployment rate of any immigrant group. An ethnic racist asks, Why are Black immigrants doing better than African Americans? An ethnic antiracist asks, Why are Black immigrants not doing as well as other immigrant groups?
The reason Black immigrants generally have higher educational levels and economic pictures than African Americans is not that their transnational ethnicities are superior. The reason resides in the circumstances of human migration. Not all individuals migrate, but those who do, in what’s called “
immigrant self-selection,” are typically individuals with an exceptional internal drive for material success and/or they possess exceptional external resources. Generally speaking, individual Black and Latinx and Asian and Middle Eastern and European immigrants are uniquely resilient and resourceful—not because they are Nigerian or Cuban or Japanese or Saudi Arabian or German but because they are immigrants. In fact, immigrants and migrants of all races tend to be more resilient and resourceful when compared with the natives of their own countries and the natives of their new countries. Sociologists call this
the “migrant advantage.” As sociologist Suzanne Model explained in her book on West Indian immigrants, “
West Indians are not a black success story but an
success story.” As such, policies from those of Calvin Coolidge to Donald Trump’s limiting immigration to the United States from China or Italy or Senegal or Haiti or Mexico have been self-destructive to the country. With ethnic racism, no one wins, except the racist power at the top. As with all racism, that is the entire point.
HERE WERE NO
winners in eighth grade, either. In class, I’d randomly shout,
A friend would scream,
Another friend would scream,
And the whole class of African Americans would burst out laughing as the three of us pointed at Kwame and chanted,
“Ref-u-gee! Ref-u-gee! Ref-u-gee!”
The smirking White teacher would tell us to be quiet. Kwame would break the quietness with defensive jokes. The cycle would repeat, day after day.
Kwame never seemed to let the jokes bother him. In that way, he resembled Akeem in
Coming to America,
a prince so powerful, so sophisticated, so self-assured, that he was able to ignore demeaning jokes like an elite athlete ignoring a hostile crowd. Kwame had a smugness about him that maybe, subconsciously, we were trying to shatter by pulling him down to earth. As scholar
Rosemary Traoré found in a study of an urban high school, “African students wondered why their fellow African American brothers and sisters treated them as second-class citizens, while the African Americans wondered why the African students [seemed] to feel or act so superior to them.” The tensions created by ethnic racism didn’t produce any winners, just confusion and hurt on both sides.
Don’t get me wrong, Kwame joked back. Kwame and others never let me forget that I had a big-ass head. I never knew why. My head wasn’t that big—maybe a little out of proportion.
But a high school growth spurt was coming.
One who is perceiving certain racialized bodies as more animal-like and violent than others.
One who is humanizing, deracializing, and individualizing nonviolent and violent behavior.
uniforms. Through with attending chapel service. The older I became, the more I despised the conformity of private schooling and churching. After eighth grade, I was finally free of them. I enrolled in John Bowne High School, a public school that my Haitian neighbor Gil attended. It was in Flushing, in central Queens, just across the street from Queens College. We bathed in the ambient noise of the nearby Long Island Expressway.
In the mid-1950s, public-housing authorities allowed my grandmother to move into the predominantly White Pomonok Houses, due south of John Bowne. Dad went through all of his local elementary schooling in the late 1950s without noticing another Black student, only
the kids of working-class White families, who were even then fixing to flee to suburban Long Island. By 1996 they were nearly all gone.
After school, John Bowne students jammed into public buses like clothes jammed into a drawer. As my bus made its way toward Southside Queens, it slowly emptied. On this day, I stood near the back door, facing a teenage boy we called Smurf, a nickname he earned from his short, skinny frame, blue-black skin, thick ears, and big round eyes that nearly met in the center of his face.
As I stood near him, Smurf reached into his pants and pulled out a black pistol. He stared at it and I stared at it, too. Everyone did. Smurf looked up and pointed the gun—loaded or unloaded?—directly at me. “You scared, yo?” he asked with almost brotherly warmth, a smirk resting on his face.
LACKS MUST UNDERSTAND
and acknowledge the roots of White fear in America,” President Bill Clinton said in a speech on October 16, 1995, the same day as the Million Man March. He’d escaped the march and the Black men assembling practically on the White House lawn for the campus of the University of Texas. “There is a legitimate fear of the violence that is too prevalent in our urban areas,” he added. “By experience or at least what people see on the news at night, violence for those White people too often has a Black face.”
History tells the same story: Violence for White people really has too often had a Black face—and the consequences have landed on the Black body across the span of American history. In 1631, Captain John Smith warned the first English colonizers of New England that
the Black body was as devilish as any people in the world. Boston pastor Cotton Mather preached compliance to slavery in 1696: Do not “
make yourself infinitely Blacker than you are already.” Virginia lieutenant-governor Hugh Drysdale spoke of “
the Cruel disposition of those Creatures” who planned a freedom revolt in 1723. Seceding Texas legislators in 1861 complained of not receiving more
federal “appropriations for protecting…against ruthless savages.” U.S. senator Benjamin Tillman told his colleagues in 1903, “
The poor African has become a fiend, a wild beast, seeking whom he may devour.” Two leading criminologists posited in 1967 that the “large…
criminal display of the violence among minority groups such as Negroes” stems from their “subculture-of-violence.” Manhattan Institute fellow Heather Mac Donald wrote “
The core criminal-justice population is the black underclass” in
The War on Cops
This is the living legacy of racist power, constructing the Black race biologically and ethnically and presenting the Black body to the world first and foremost as a “beast,” to use Gomes de Zurara’s term, as violently dangerous, as the dark embodiment of evil.
Americans today see the Black body as larger, more threatening, more potentially harmful, and more likely to require force to control than a similarly sized White body, according to researchers. No wonder the Black body had to be lynched by the thousands, deported by the tens of thousands, incarcerated by the millions, segregated by the tens of millions.
picked up a basketball, at around eight years old, I also picked up on my parents’ fears for my Black body. My parents hated when I played ball at nearby parks, worried I’d get shot, and tried to discourage me by warning me of the dangers waiting for me out there. In their constant fearmongering about Black drug dealers, robbers, killers, they nurtured in me a fear of my own Black neighbors. When I proposed laying concrete in our grassy backyard and putting up a basketball hoop there, my father built a court faster than a house flipper, a nicer one than the courts at nearby parks. But the new basketball court could not keep me away from my own dangerous Black body. Or from Smurf on the bus.
coolly responded to Smurf’s question about my fear. My eyes locked on the gun.
“Whatever, man,” he snickered. “You scared, yo.” Then he jammed the gun in my ribs and offered a hard smile.
I looked him straight in the eye, scared as hell. “Naw, yo,” I said, giggling a little, “but that’s a nice piece, though.”
“It is, ain’t it?”
Satisfied, Smurf turned, gun in hand, and looked for somebody else to scare. I exhaled relief but knew I could have been harmed that day, as I could have other days. Especially, I thought, inside John Bowne High School, surrounded by other Black and Latinx and Asian teens.
Moving through John Bowne’s hallways, eyes sharper than my pencils, I avoided stepping on new sneakers like they were land mines (though when I did accidentally step on one, nothing exploded). I avoided bumping into people, worried a bump could become a hole in my head (though when I did inevitably bump into someone, my head stayed intact). I avoided making eye contact, as if my classmates were wolves (though when I did, my body did not get attacked). I avoided crews, fearing they would flock at me at any moment (though when I did have to pass through a crew, I didn’t get jumped). What could happen based on my deepest fears mattered more than what did happen to me. I believed violence was stalking me—but in truth I was being stalked inside my own head by racist ideas.
Crews ran my high school—like crews run America—and
I considered joining the Zulu Nation, awed by its history and reach. Witnessing an initiation changed my mind. The perverse mix of punches and stomps, handshakes and hugs, turned me off. But I did have an informal crew, bound by an ironclad loyalty that required us to fight for each other, should the occasion arise.
One day we met another crew on a block near the Long Island Expressway—maybe five of us and fifteen of them, all staring menacingly at each other as we approached. This was new to me, the showdown, the curses flying and landing, the escalating displays of anger. Threats slamming like fists. I was in the mix with the rest of them—but passing drivers glancing over could not see that I was fighting my nervousness more than anything.
One threat led to another. No one rushed me, as small and unassuming as I was. I saw big Gil fighting off punches. I wanted to help him, but then I saw a tall, skinny, solitary teen looking around nervously. He reminded me of myself. I crept up behind him and jump-threw a vicious right hook. He went down hard on the pavement and I skittered off. Soon we heard sirens and scattered like ants, fearful of getting smashed by the NYPD.
E WERE UNARMED,
but we knew that Blackness armed us even though we had no guns. Whiteness disarmed the cops—turned them into fearful potential victims—even when they were approaching a group of clearly outstrapped and anxious high school kids. Black people comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population. And yet,
in 2015, Black bodies accounted for at least 26 percent of those killed by police, declining slightly to 24 percent in 2016, 22 percent in 2017, and 21 percent in 2018, according to
The Washington Post
Unarmed Black bodies—which apparently look armed to fearful officers—are about twice as likely to be killed as unarmed White bodies.
Gil and I ran over the Long Island Expressway overpass and hopped onto a departing bus, feeling lucky, catching our breath. I could have gone to jail, or worse, that day.
More than the times I risked jail, I am still haunted by the times I did not help the victims of violence. My refusal to help them jailed me in fear. I was as scared of the Black body as the White body was scared of me. I could not muster the strength to do right. Like that time on another packed bus after school. A small Indian teen—tinier than me!—sat near me at the back of the bus that day. My seat faced the back door, and the Indian teen sat in the single seat right next to the back door. I kept staring at him, trying to catch his eye so I could give him a nod that would direct him to the front of the bus. I saw other Black and Indian kids on the bus trying to do the same with their eyes. We wanted so badly for him to move. But he was fixated on whatever was playing on his fresh new Walkman. His eyes were closed and his head bobbed.
Smurf and his boys were on the bus that day, too. For the moment, they were blocked from the Indian teen by the bodies of other kids—they couldn’t see him sitting there. But when the bus cleared enough for them to have a clear lane to him, Smurf, as expected, focused in on the thing we didn’t want him to see.
He did not have his pistol that day. Or maybe he did.
Smurf motioned to his boys and stood up. He walked a few feet and stood over the Indian teen, his back to me, his head turned to face his boys.
“What the fuck!”
He pointed his finger, gun-like, at the seated teen’s head. “Look at this motherfucker!”
N 1993, A
bipartisan group of White legislators introduced the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. They were thinking about Smurf—and me. The Congressional Black Caucus was also thinking about Smurf and me. They asked for $2 billion more in the act for drug treatment and $3 billion more for violence-prevention programs. When
Republicans called those items “welfare for criminals” and demanded they be scaled back for their votes, Democratic leaders caved.
Twenty-six of the thirty-eight voting members of the Congressional Black Caucus caved, too. After all, the bill reflected
their fear for my Black body—and of it. The policy decision reflected their dueling consciousness—and their practical desire to not lose the prevention funding entirely in a rewrite of the bill. On top of its new prisons, capital offenses, minimum sentences, federal three-strike laws, police officers, and police weaponry, the law made me eligible, when I turned thirteen in 1995, to be tried as an adult. “Never again should Washington
put politics and party above law and order,” President Bill Clinton said upon signing the bipartisan, biracial bill on September 13, 1994.
O, NIGGA, RUN
that Walkman,” Smurf said rather gently. The kid did not look up, still captivated by the beat coming from his headphones. Smurf punch-tapped him on the shoulder. “Yo, nigga, run that Walkman,” he shouted.
I wanted to stand up and yell, “Leave that nigga alone. Why you always fucking with people, Smurf? What the fuck is wrong with you?” But my fear caged me. I remained seated and quiet.
The kid finally looked up, startled. “What!” The shock of Smurf looming over him and the loudness of the music made him raise his voice. I shook my head but without shaking my head. I remained still.
they had won the political turf war to own crime as an issue—to war on the Black body for votes. But it took little time for racist Americans to complain that even the most expensive crime bill in human history was not enough to stop the beast, the devil, the gun, Smurf, me. Around Thanksgiving in 1995, Princeton political scientist
John J. DiIulio Jr. warned of the “coming of the super-predators,” especially young bodies like mine in “Black inner-city neighborhoods.” DiIulio later said he regretted using the term. But DiIulio never had to internalize this racist idea and look at his own body in fear. He never had to deal with being hunted. My friends at John Bowne did. I did. In 1996, I turned fourteen. A super-predator was growing in me, in Smurf, they said. I believed what I heard.
“Most inner-city children grow up surrounded by teenagers and adults who are themselves deviant, delinquent or criminal,” DiIulio wrote. Watch out. “A new generation of street criminals is upon us—the youngest, biggest and baddest generation any society has ever known,” he warned. My band of “juvenile ‘super-predators’ ” were “radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters, including ever more preteenage boys, who murder, assault, rape, rob, burglarize, deal deadly drugs, join gun-toting gangs and create serious communal disorders.” We, the young Black super-predators, were apparently being raised with an unprecedented inclination toward violence—in a nation that presumably did not raise White slaveholders, lynchers, mass incarcerators, police officers, corporate officials, venture capitalists, financiers, drunk drivers, and war hawks to be violent.