By Kelefa Sanneh, The New Yorker, August 12, 2019
Sixteen years ago, in 2003, the student newspaper at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, a historically black institution in Tallahassee, published a lively column about white people. “I don’t hate whites,” the author, a senior named Ibram Rogers, wrote. “How can you hate a group of people for being who they are?” He explained that “Europeans” had been “socialized to be aggressive people,” and “raised to be racist.” His theory was that white people were fending off racial extinction, using “psychological brainwashing” and “the aids virus.” Perhaps the most incendiary line appeared at the end, after the author’s byline and e-mail address: “Ibram Rogers’ column will appear every Wednesday.”
As it turned out, that final claim, like a few of the claims that preceded it, was not quite accurate. The column caused a stir, and Rogers was summoned to see the editor of the local newspaper, the Tallahassee Democrat, where he was an intern. The editor demanded that Rogers discontinue his column, and Rogers agreed under protest, though he resolved to continue his examination of race in America, which became his life’s work. He eventually earned a Ph.D. in African-American studies from Temple, and gained a reputation in the field, along with some new names. He changed his middle name from Henry to Xolani, which is Zulu for “be peaceful,” after learning the history of Prince Henry the Navigator, a fifteenth-century Portuguese explorer who helped pioneer the African slave trade. And at his wedding, in 2013, he and his wife, Sadiqa, told their guests that they had chosen a new last name: Kendi, which means “the loved one” in the Kenyan language of Meru. In 2016, as Ibram X. Kendi, he published “Stamped from the Beginning,” a voluminous, sober-minded book that aimed to present “the definitive history of racist ideas in America.”
In the thirteen years since his abortive college-newspaper column, Kendi had become ever more convinced that racism, not race, was the central force in American history, and so he reached back to 1635 to show how malleable racism could be. The preachers who justified slavery used racist arguments, he wrote, but so did many of the abolitionists—the ubiquity of racism meant that no one was immune to its seductive power, including black people. In his view, the pioneering black sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois was propping up racist ideas in 1897, when he condemned “the immorality, crime, and laziness among the Negroes.” So, too, was Barack Obama, when, as a Presidential candidate in 2008, he decried “the erosion of black families.” Although Obama noted that this erosion was partly due to “a lack of economic opportunity,” he also made an appeal to black self-reliance, saying that members of the African-American community needed to face “our own complicity in our condition.” Kendi saw statements like these as reflections of a persistent but delusional idea that something is wrong with black people. The only thing wrong, he maintained, was racism, and the country’s failure to confront and defeat it.