Monday, October 22, 2018

How we got here (book and podcast recommendation)

I've been doing a lot of learning about the origins of race and racism in the United States, and want to share the resources that I think have been the best.

If you read only one book about how American racism was constructed, it should be Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi. The book presents three belief sets - segregationism, which says that Black people are inherently inferior and racial disparities are natural; assimilationism, which says that discrimination created Black inferiority and racial disparities will disappear when Black people are fixed; and anti-racism, which says that there is nothing wrong with Black people and racial disparities will only disappear when we stop discriminating. Kendi traces these three belief sets through the lives of five figures - Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Angela Davis (this last being the one weak part of the book). I learned so much from this book that I ended up underlining about half the text. It continuously made me realize that there is nothing new about our current arguments about race. Assimilationist ideas run as deep as segregationist ones - if Black people just acted the way White people wanted them to act, racism would be over. Kendi calls this "uplift suasion" - the idea that it is the responsibility of Black people to persuade away racism - and he shows how in the 500-year history of American racism, this has never worked. It hasn't worked because racism doesn't come from anything Black people are doing wrong, nor from White ignorance and hate. Racism comes from a tiny and powerful minority seeking to maintain their power.

If you listen to only one podcast about how American racism was constructed, it should be Seeing White, especially Episode 32: How Race was Made and Episode 33: Made in America. These two episodes will show you in a nutshell how it all began.

If you're looking for more, here are a few other books that I've read:
Race in North America by Audrey Smedley - comprehensive and well-written history.
Birth of a White Nation by Jacqueline Battalora - not as well written but useful focus on the origins of racism in colonial America.
The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter, The Invention of the White Race by Theodore Allen - I haven't finished either; the writing is a little dry, but both are worth a second look.
Slave Counterpoint by Philip Morgan - a close study of African American culture in the colonial South; I've only read part.

If, like me, you've looked at race relations in America today and wondered how we got here, these resources will go a long way toward answering your question.


  1. Thank you for sharing these resources.

  2. I'll just repeat what the other commenter said and thank you for sharing this information.