An accomplished history of racist thought and practice in the United States from the Puritans to the present.
Anyone who thought that the 2008 election of President Barack Obama marked the emergence of post-racial America has been sorely disillusioned in the subsequent years with seemingly daily reminders of the schism wrought by racism and white supremacy. And yet anyone with even a cursory understanding of this country’s tortured history with race should have known better. In this tour de force, Kendi (African-American History/Univ. of Florida; The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972, 2012) explores the history of racist ideas—and their connection with racist practices—across American history. The author uses five main individuals as “tour guides” to investigate the development of racist ideas throughout the history of the U.S.: the preacher and intellectual Cotton Mather, Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, ardent abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, and activist Angela Davis. Kendi also poses three broad schools of thought regarding racial matters throughout American history: segregationist, assimilationist, and anti-racist. Although this trio can be reductionist, it provides a solid framework for understanding the interplay between racist ideas, anti-racism, and the attempts to synthesize them—“assimilationism,” which the author ultimately identifies as simply another form of racism, even when advocated by African-Americans. The subtitle of the book promises a “definitive history,” but despite the book’s more than 500 pages of text, its structure and its viewing of racial ideas through the lens of five individuals means that it is almost necessarily episodic. Although it is a fine history, the narrative may best be read as an extended, sophisticated, and sometimes (justifiably) angry essay.
Racism is the enduring scar on the American consciousness. In this ambitious, magisterial book, Kendi reveals just how deep that scar cuts and why it endures, its barely subcutaneous pain still able to flare.