Top critical review
Good history, but not so good as political analysis, and not the "definitive history"
June 20, 2017
Stamped is a very good history, but a very poor piece of political science or political philosophy. Kendi gives us a wealth of detail on important elements in the tortured history of American race relations. But he insists on stuffing all that into poorly conceived categories which confuse more than enlighten. Many historians will see this as a history contaminated by diatribe. As a political scientist, I don’t object to a diatribe. And I agree with most of his complaints about the hypocrisy and inconsistencies of American racism. Nor do I mind, in the least, his tearing apart of myths about American icons such as Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. That is where he is as his best, in my opinion, and he is accomplishing a bit of “historical revisionism” which is needed in American history. Myself, I get irritated whenever I read something mentioning Jefferson and Sally Hemings which calls her his “mistress” or refers to their relationship as an “affair.” No, damn it, she was his captive, and being a captive that was not an “affair.” That was “rape.”
So I’m with Kendi on that. And I’m with him in all the other places where he points out the incredible hypocrisies of American politics, in which, so often, the victims are blamed for the crimes of slavery and discrimination. But I wish he had also spent a little more time revealing the racism in popular figures like Andrew Jackson and the founders of Texas, and explaining the larger connections in American political culture such as Puritanism, Exceptionalism, “Manifest Destiny,” genocide of Native Americans, and American racism. There are a lot of larger themes that he neglected. That may be an unfair criticism of a historian, because historians tend to favor individual details over general themes, and they value focus on particulars. But I don’t think it’s really an unfair criticism of a work which advertised itself as a “Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.” That’s a big claim. Sadly, this historical study does not live up to the billing.
More to the point, it is a “definitive history” of a sort, but not in a good way. That is to say, it is a work which makes many arguments by definition ~ and unworkable, unjustified, definitions at that. This is where it becomes a work of political science or political philosophy, but a very poorly conceived work in that realm. That begins on page 4, where he gives us the three categories of racial ideology which he applies throughout the work, but without defining them in any detail or justifying his use of them as exclusive categories: segregation, assimilation, and anti-racism. Aside from the fact that these categories, more applicable to modern post-slavery American politics, are anachronistic when pushed backwards in time to the period of slavery, they simply do not work as exclusive categories. The question of “assimilation” is always dilemma for any minority ~ it is a huge issue in Jewish history ~ and it does not properly reduce to simplistic “racist” versus “anti-racist” positions. For example, by insisting on condemning assimilation as inherently racist, and by condemning a particular manifestation of it which he calls “uplift suasion,” Kendi ends up being forced to condemn figures such as Sidney Poitier and Barack Obama as, implicitly, “traitors to their race,” in much in the same way as fanatical Hasidic Jews condemn all liberal and secular Jews. In more general philosophical terms, that categorization can only be justified by extreme, absolute, cultural relativism ~ which Kendi never discuses honestly, but which he seems to acknowledge implicitly at page 353, where he condemns Ashley Montague for departing from absolute “cultural relativity.” Kendi leaves himself with few political or philosophical allies when he condemns so many liberals, black and white, for their deviancy from his absolute vision of “anti-racism.” It reminds me of the worst of Jacobin or Bolshevist ideologues, always defining any divergence from an absolute vision as counter-revolutionary betrayal of the cause, and eventually defining itself into oblivion. I’m really not sure that anyone, black or white in America, or Kendi himself, can met his absolutist standard for being an “anti-racist.” After all, is not he himself guilty of “acting white,” like Poitier and Obama, or “selling out to the man,” as Angela Davis might have put it, by accepting positions as an academic historian and writing a book in Standard English?
Cultural relativism just doesn’t work. With condemnatory slurs like “uplift suasion,” Kendi implies that he would forever ghettoize African Americans. One can recognize value in distinctive elements of African American culture such as jazz and soul food without excluding African Americans from playing classical music or trying to get their kids to eat healthier food, as Michelle Obama was trying to do. Sorry, but both “soul food” and its close cousin, “Southern cuisine,” are too damn fatty and salty, alike those German hamburgers and those “French fries” that both black and white Americans stuff their faces with. At some point, culture clashes with science, and science is not the property of any culture, black or white, Asian or Western, or any other category. We are all Humans, with those closely shared genes, and secular humanism is, ultimately, the only real form of “culture” which is really non-racist. But at the same time, everyone has a right to pick and choose which pieces of the common heritage of the species they want to identify with without being condemned for being assimilationists by purists. Melissa Harris-Perry is entitled to wear her hair in a “black” style on TV while she “talks white,” in her academic manner, but uses her platform to confront the ongoing racism in American politics. But if some white women want to try corn rows, while other black women want to straighten their hair, that’s their business, and their freedom to pick and choose is what we call “freedom” in a liberal society. Kendi is completely justified in condemning the hypocrisy and the insidious, ongoing, pervasive racism in American culture. But as a white liberal who is also outraged by the legalized killing of black men by cops and the inherent racism in many rightwing policies, I sure wish he would pick his friends and enemies with more care.