Certainly, Stamped is not all bad. It has many redeeming qualities, which helps to account for the many gushing reviews in newspapers, blogs, and popular journals. The first chapters of the book, which trace racist (and antiracist) ideas from Ancient Greece to colonial America, are mostly clear, informative, and balanced. While the first part of the book is generally critical towards Christianity (Part 1 is entitled “Cotton Mather” because it focuses on the Puritans’ complicity in racial slavery), Kendi nonetheless credits two Christians, Lactantius and Augustine, as being the earliest known “antislavery and egalitarian champions” in the world (18). He also acknowledges that the first antislavery crusaders in England and America were Quakers. Likewise, he places much of the blame for the rise of hardcore racist ideas on Enlightenment and secular writers and figures (84-85). Kendi must also be given credit for clearly exposing the hypocrisy and irrationality of the racist ideas espoused by some of Europe and America’s most noted thinkers, while also telling the story of American slavery from the oft-neglected perspective of an African American. One example of this is Kendi’s examination of early American stereotypes of African Americans. As he put it, African American slaves were put in a no-win situation: “If they did not clamor for freedom, then their obedience showed [in the minds of whites that] they were naturally beasts of burden. If they…resisted enslavement…[then it confirmed in white minds that] they were barbaric murderers” (70).
The most praiseworthy aspect of Stamped, however, stems from one of Kendi’s main arguments in the book. That argument is that Blacks are humans, just like any and all other humans. As he memorably states it, “Black is beautiful and ugly, intelligent and unintelligent, law-abiding and law-breaking, industrious and lazy – and it is those imperfections that make Black people human, make Black people equal to all other imperfectly human groups” (505). Throughout Stamped Kendi rails against the tendency of non-Blacks to magnify problems when they are associated with African Americans while minimizing those same or similar problems when they are associated with non-Blacks. It is this perceived bias that leads him to conclude Stamped by predicting “there will come a time when Americans will realize that the only thing wrong with Black people is that they think something is wrong with Black people” (511).
The problems in Stamped start when Kendi seemingly contradicts his assertion on page 505 (quoted above) that Blacks are imperfect. To be fair, Kendi never asserts that Blacks are indeed perfect. But what Kendi clearly does is assert is that any problems that African Americans face cannot be attributed to those imperfections. This assertion serves as the primary thesis and framework for Stamped (and his subsequent books). Kendi starts Stamped by asserting that when it comes to the matter of Blacks and racism, all Americans (really, all people) fall into one of three categories or groups. The first group he identifies are the segregationists, who “blame Black people themselves for…racial disparities” (2). The second group, the assimilationists, say “that Black people and racial discrimination [are] to blame for racial disparities” (2). The final group, in which Kendi places himself, and hails as the heroes in American history, are the Antiracists, who “have long argued that racial discrimination was stamped from the beginning of America, which explains why racial disparities have existed and persisted” (4). Thus, for antiracists like Kendi, virtually all problems faced by blacks are solely the result of racial discrimination. In their view, racial disparities in poverty, low graduation rates, and high rates of incarceration, for example, can only be attributed to past and present racial discrimination.
This assessment is the fatal flaw in Kendi’s argument. This is where he seemingly fails to grasp – or at least consistently apply – what we as evangelical Christians understand as the fallen nature of human beings. Although he acknowledges that Blacks (like all other people groups) can be unintelligent, lawbreakers, and lazy, he refuses to concede that such vices can account for any racial disparities. Such disparities can only be the result of racial discrimination. This is the antiracist position. The fallaciousness of this explanation of the origins and nature of racial disparities is clearly revealed when applied to other races. If the disparities between Blacks and whites can only be explained by racial discrimination, then the disparities between whites and Indians or whites and Asians must also be explained solely by racial discrimination. But no one asserts that the reason whites lag behind Indians and Asians in education, literacy, income, etc. is because of the racial discrimination that whites in America have experienced as the hands of Indians and/or Asians in America. It is universally accepted, rather, that these disparities stem from things such as more whites being lazy than Indians or Asians. Or to put it differently, some of the disparities between Asians and Indians on one hand, and whites on the other, stem from the fact that more of the former have a high work ethic than do the latter.
Applying this logic to the disparities between Blacks and whites does not mean one must conclude that racial discrimination has absolutely nothing to do with such disparities. Most open-minded white Americans acknowledge that actual racial discrimination, or the indirect ramifications of past racial discrimination, account for some of the plight that many Blacks find themselves in. But they also acknowledge that some of these less-than-ideal circumstances for Blacks are also attributable to the unwise decisions and actions of Blacks themselves. This is, in short, the position that Kendi identifies as assimilationist. But it is a position that he considers to be little, if any, better than that of the segregationists. In fact, it can be said that the purpose of Stamped is not only to expose and reveal the irrationality of segregationist (racist) arguments, but also to show that assimilationists have led many of the efforts to aid Blacks in America, and that those efforts have failed. Therefore, if true equality is to be achieved between Blacks and whites in America, the country must embrace antiracism. Therefore, Kendi denounces “assimilationists” such as Booker T. Washington, Bill Cosby, and John McWhorter, who have called upon Blacks to make wise decisions and to take steps to improve their lot in life. In Kendi’s view, such calls imply that there is something wrong with Blacks.
The fact that Kendi refuses to consistently apply the idea that Blacks (like all human beings) have a fallen, sinful nature, is most explicitly evidenced in his treatment of the the phrase “personal responsibility,” which he dismisses as “a racist slur” (502). He views the phrase as one that was ignobly conjured up by racist politicians in order to further secure the white vote. According to Kendi,
- The term “personal responsibility” had been playing minor roles for some time. In 1994, Georgia representative Newt Gingrich and Texas representative Richard Armey, the main authors of the “Contract with America,” brought the term to prime time – to the lexicon on millions of American racists – targeting not just Black welfare recipients. The mandate was simple enough: Black people, especially poor Black people, need to take “personal responsibility” for their socioeconomic plight and racial disparities, and stop blaming racial discrimination for their problems, and depending on government to fix them. The racist mandate of “personal responsibility” convinced a new generation of Americans that irresponsible Black people caused the racial inequalities, not discrimination – thereby convincing a new generation of racist Americans to fight against irresponsible Black people. (457-458)
In contrast to Kendi’s assertion, it is safe to say that both the concept of personal responsibility, as well as the phrase itself, has been used by men and women, of all races, from the birth of human civilization. To dismiss it as an idea that was only recently crafted by racists as a code word and mere political slogan leads one to wonder whether Kendi believes that people can and do make choices, and that those choices have consequences, both for good and ill. For Kendi, it appears that if anything bad happens to a Black person it cannot be the fault of that person, but rather of the forces of racism. It’s as if, in Kendi’s mind, Blacks are the only humans that are not fallen and sinful; they don’t make unwise choices or take self-defeating actions. Rather, their problems stem solely from the racist actions of others.
An example of this seen in Kendi’s handling of a report that showed that the murder rate for Black teens had increased 300% between 1985 and 1992 (six times the rate of white teens during the same period). In the end, Kendi could not allow any of the blame for this tragic development to fall on Blacks. Rather, the blame fell squarely on “drug enforcement units [who] were disproportionately mass incarcerating young Black drug dealers, in some cases knowing full well that the consequence of breaking up a drug ring was a violent struggle for control of the previously stabilized market” (462). Such a situation was clearly a problem in need of a solution. The assimilationist solution, presumably, would be to try keeping Black teens from dealing drugs. But in Kendi’s mind, that is a preposterous, even racist, approach to the problem. Rather, one can seemingly conclude from what Kendi wrote that the antiracist solution would be either for drug enforcement units to stop breaking up drug rings, or for them to at least break up as many white drug rings as black so as to eliminate the racial disparity in the increased murder rates and make them equally horrific. The problem stemmed not from the fact that some Blacks chose to deal drugs, but rather from the actions of racist drug enforcement units.
Another problem in Stamped is the fact that Kendi makes numerous claims, some of them quite dubious, without providing adequate citations or evidence to substantiate them. For instance, in the quote just cited, Kendi provides no evidence that drug enforcement units were disproportionately mass incarcerating Blacks. What does he mean by “disproportionately”? Is he asserting that those leading these units are turning a blind eye to white drug dealers and out of racism primarily targeting Blacks? If so, this serious charge would presumably necessitate evidence of intent, not the mere existence of a racial disparity in the number of those arrested. In another example, Kendi refers to the “disproven racist theory of ‘the erosion of black families’” (492), but provides no citation, nor any evidence to dispute the fact that at present about seven out of every ten Black babies born in America have single mothers. On page 130 he asserts that “in the Christian world, sexuality was believed to be the animal trait of humans,” which is completely contrary to the biblical view of sex. Likewise, Kendi mentions “the exploding fury of hate attacks on Black people” in the weeks after Barack Obama’s election as President, but again provides no citation or evidence of such attacks, or, more importantly, that such attacks reached the level of accurately being described as an exploding fury (496). And finally, some of Kendi’s claims are simply wrong. An example of this stems from his examination of Thomas Jefferson. After (accurately) painting Jefferson as a racist, Kendi implies that white Americans were racist because “white male voters” put Jefferson and his party into power (130). However, it could also, of course, be said that white male voters voted against Jefferson and his party (and thus were not racist). That is because when Jefferson was elected President the only voters in America, with few exceptions, were white males. The most egregious error, however, made by Kendi appears in his subtitle, where he proclaims Stamped to be “The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.” The notion that his work (or any work for that matter) would be final word on the history of racism in America flies in the face of historical scholarship, which recognizes that interpretations of the past change over time and from the emergence of different perspectives and previously unknown or under-utilize sources.