In his One View, “Middle-school antiracist curriculum bears reading,” (Viewpoints, page 32), Wednesday Journal reader and Oak Park resident Adrian Johnson rightly urges people to read Jason Reynolds’ and Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You, which he unfortunately shows he has critically misread.
“Barack Obama is a racist,” Johnson writes in the opening sentence of his One View. He claims this isn’t his view, but that of the authors.
“Specifically,” Johnson continues, claiming to paraphrase Reynolds and Kendi, Obama is “an assimilationist, which is a cowardly type of racist.”
It’s important to point out early on that Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You is what the people marketing the book have called a “remix” for teens and young adults of Kendi’s National Book Award-winning 2016 book, Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.
The teen adaptation is part of District 97’s anti-racist curriculum, which also includes other popular material like the New York Times’ “1619 Project podcast.
I read Johnson’s thoughtful piece very carefully alongside Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You, as well as Kendi’s 2016 book.
Kendi discusses former president Obama at some length in both books and what he says about the former president is consistent with what he writes in the prologue of his 2016 book.
For starters, Kendi categorizes the basic tenets of what he describes as the three groups engaging in the historic “polarizing debate over racial disparities, over why they exist and persist, and over why White Americans as a group were prospering more than Black Americans as a group.”
The group he calls “segregationists” blame “Black people themselves for the racial disparities. A group we can call antiracists has pointed to racial discrimination. A group we can call assimilationists has tried to argue for both, saying that Black people and racial discrimination were to blame for racial disparities.”
Some of the key personalities that Kendi writes about, and whom Johnson names, including Martin Luther King Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois and Obama, have, throughout their lives, straddled between attributing racial disparities to defects in Black culture and to racial discrimination.
But Kendi is not so much interested in permanently tagging this person or that as “racist,” “antiracist,” or “assimilationist,” as if they’re members of a team. His books primarily focus on these terms as ideas that have been deployed throughout history by groups of people to consolidate and maintain power, mainly through creating and defending discriminatory policies. The books also explore how those ideas are perpetuated, wittingly or unwittingly, by people of all races.
“This history could not be made for readers in an easy-to-predict narrative of absurd racists clashing with reasonable antiracists,” Kendi writes in the prologue of Stamped From the Beginning, directly countering Johnson’s flawed characterization of the teen version as a script casting “good guys” and “bad guys.”
“This history could not be made for readers in an easy-to-predict, two-sided Hollywood battle of obvious good versus obvious evil, with good triumphing in the end,” Kendi writes.
Importantly, far from making white people feel bad, good histories of this country’s racial dynamics, of which Stamped is one, are able to easily dispense with the cartoon version of racism that has been a staple of American history classrooms for generations and get to the truth of why racism is such a powerful social force, which is that it functions even without racists.
With respect to Obama, Kendi dedicates a good chunk of a chapter in his 2016 book to the former president’s pattern of “following in the racist footsteps of every president since Richard Nixon: legitimizing racist resentments, saying those resentments were not racist, and redirecting those resentments toward political opponents.”
Obama’s famous “race speech,” delivered March 18, 2008 in Philadelphia, is a case in point. At the time it was delivered, the speech was lauded by people across political and ideological spectrums. The speech is probably the second most important one that Obama has given behind his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech.
But, as Kendi correctly explains, many elements of that race speech were flat-out racist, just as much of the DNC speech was largely mythological (aspirational is the preferred term if you’re a cable news talking head).
Obama had been forced to deliver the race speech as damage control for comments his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, made in a sermon — the now-infamous “God Damn America!” clip that went viral.
Ironically, people who would vote for Donald Trump years later and who would tell us that it’s time to move past an attempted coup by white nationalists (and their Black and Brown tokens) that happened less than a year ago, are the same people who attempted to cancel Obama’s presidential candidacy because of a sermon clip that, if delivered by Trump’s white or “white-adjacent” pastor, would barely register in the national consciousness.
Rather than directly denounce the racism and ignorance underlying most of the opportunistic reactions to Wright’s sermon, Obama did what would help get him elected president — he equivocated.
More specifically, as Michael Eric Dyson writes in his 2016 book, The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America, he exercised a privilege with Blacks that Dyson terms “forgiveness knowledge.”
That’s the “pardon offered in advance to one who gives a negative spin to ideas that might otherwise be interpreted positively if the choice to do so were not deemed so costly to the greater good.”
In other words, Wright’s sermon, if encountered within the safe confines of virtually any Black church or barbershop in the nation (including mine) would be lavished with praise for its indictment of some of the worst aspects of American imperialism, unchecked capitalism and systemic racism.
I know, because I myself sat spellbound once by a speech Rev. Wright delivered at a Martin Luther King Day banquet. Back then, Wright hit upon the same themes. That must have been at least a decade before I even knew who Obama was. For myself and many other freedom-loving Black people, Wright is an incredibly well-respected figure in the Chicago area and his treatment by both the mainstream media and Obama was pathetic. At the time, though, we gave Obama a pass and, to be honest, were kind of rough on Wright ourselves, because we thought the pastor, by not simply shutting up and laying low, was torpedoing the potential first Black president’s chances of electoral success.
“Blacks forgave Obama even before he spoke about Wright because they believed that he had no choice but to agree with the white mainstream’s negative reading of Wright’s words as a starting point before attempting to set those words in historical context,” Dyson correctly writes.
He adds that Obama’s “forgiveness knowledge” would permit the presidential candidate to say why he loved Wright and loathed his words “in one fell rhetorical swoop. True, he would have to misrepresent Wright a bit so that he might represent him as best he could to a white mainstream that simply was not accustomed to hearing complex black views about too many issues.
“The fault was not entirely, or even primarily, Obama’s but that of a white mainstream that had the power to dismiss what it did not want to know as illegitimate and immoral — or in the case of Wright, as utterly illogical and indefensible.”
Obama gave whites “permission to be angry with Wright without fearing that they would be seen as bigots, and without feeling that they alone were responsible for racial healing,” Dyson continues.
That was then. After two terms of Obama abusing that privilege again and again (Google his 2013 Morehouse commencement speech or his 2008 Father’s Day speech, in which he bandies about all sorts of disproven tropes of black pathology; and then compare this tough, “no excuses” rhetoric he deploys with Blacks, with his coddling of racist whites, perhaps most notably in the case of Shirley Sherrod), the jig is up.
With the first Black presidency consigned to the history books, scholars like Kendi and Dyson are now calling Obama out on his routine denigrating of Blacks while in office (Dyson calls Obama the “scold of Black folk” in his book).
Dyson, still referencing the Philadelphia race speech, continues:
“Obama did not feel he could be nearly as generous to black folk — or that it was even necessary to try,” Dyson writes. “He relegated black anger to the sixties, as if no current troubles might incense a righteous and reasonable black person. Obama also put black anger at racism in the same moral orbit as white resentment of having to bother with fixing the racial problem. And he may have overplayed the extent of blacks’ displaying a victim mentality while underplaying their true victimization.”
We can accurately say that Kendi and other scholars like Dyson argue that Obama, the country’s first Black president (indeed, elected precisely because he told white people what they wanted to hear), trafficked in racist ideas about largely fictional Black cultural pathologies without errantly claiming that these scholars are calling Obama a racist.
Pertaining to Du Bois, I’ll simply say that Kendi does not argue that the famous scholar was a “king of assimilation,” because he “advocated for things like Black people getting more education as a way to improve their situation,” as Johnson claims in Viewpoints. This is patently absurd and, quite frankly, insulting.
Johnson also claims that Kendi argues that people who espouse antiracism “believe that whenever there are unequal outcomes by race, it is because racism is the problem in need of changing, not Black people.”
This, too, is a misreading. Kendi writes in the prologue to his 2016 work: “I am not saying all individuals who happen to identify as Black (or White or Latina or Asian or Native American) are equal in all ways.”
I think Kendi knows the difference between equality of outcomes and equality of opportunity. He argues that the systematic denial, or granting, of opportunities on the basis of race leads to unequal outcomes that cannot be justified by claiming that Black people are, or Black culture is, inherently inferior or pathological. To make the justification (as I’ve done myself at points in my life) is to propagate a deeply racist ideology that has a long and brutal history, which Kendi’s work attempts to delineate.
I agree with Johnson on one thing: Please read Kendi’s book (preferably his 2016 work intended for a general audience).
But read it accurately.