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Response to Review of Stamped from the Beginning, The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America

I appreciate this review of Stamped from the Beginning. And thank you to the journal editors for giving me the opportunity to respond.

I cannot respond to the imprudent critiques for more detail in a 500-page book, or for a more transnational picture of differences of racist ideas in different countries in a book clearly focused on one nation-state (and how globally circulating race concepts were applied to the specific historical conditions in one nation).

It appears that this reviewer primarily took issue with my concept of assimilationist ideas, which will be the focus of my response. First and foremost, the reviewer misrepresented my definition of assimilationist ideas and then critiqued his or her own misrepresentations. Read the review closely: the reviewer at no point critiques what I actually wrote. Instead the reviewer critiques his or her own interpretation of what I wrote, or what the author felt I meant. For example, the reviewer interprets my argument to mean that I conceived of affirmative action as an anti-racist idea; and then challenges me in arguing it was assimilationist idea. I never said affirmative action was an anti-racist idea. Here is my first mention of affirmative action on page 386: ‘…and equalizing policies – like eliminating or reducing White seniority, or instituting affirmative action policies’. I clearly described affirmative action as an anti-racist policy and not an anti-racist idea. Something can be based on an assimilationist idea– as affirmative action was – and have an anti-racist effect in reducing racial disparities.

Another example is the author’s interpretation of my concept of assimilationist ideas, namely that this is ‘passive’ in a pejorative sense. The reviewer suggests that my assimilationist concept does not allow for for active selection of the ‘dominant culture’. Never in the book do I say this or even infer this. If anything, I show countless times that this is not what I mean, from my discussion of the spirituals, to African American Christianity, to Ebonics, none of which I render as fundamentally assimilationist products. But I do render those ideas looking down on the spirituals, African American Christianity, and Ebonics, as assimilationist ideas. A cultural being can actively adopt from another culture, while not considering that culture to be superior. To adopt when thinking the other culture is superior is assimilationist thinking – not whether the adoption is active or passive.

The most crucially obvious misrepresentation in the review is how the author listed my three analytical categories as racism, assimilationism, and anti-racism. In fact, my three categories all throughout the book are segregationist ideas, assimilationist ideas – or two kinds of racist ideas; and anti-racist ideas.

The reviewer writes: ‘Beyond that the modern concept of race was organized around the view that race was a biological concept, not a cultural, religious or climatological one. It was essentially secular, intellectually undergirded by a late 19th-century racialized Darwinian consensus that saw the essence of history to consist in racial conflict’. The reviewer critiques my analytical categories as ‘too abstract and one-dimensional’ when ironically it is in fact the reviewer’s categorization here that suffers from these faults. The reviewer critiques my ‘constant labeling’ when in fact the real problem for this reviewer is that I did not label in the way the reviewer would have labeled. This is the one-dimensional biological labeling of the race concept that Stamped from the Beginning challenges. That is why the reviewer classifies my book as ‘polemical’, as it disrupts this narrow doctrine, that clearly the reviewer wants to hold onto. The reviewer takes offense at the lack of historiography in my book, even though the historiography is dominated by this doctrine, which is what caused me to write the book in the first place.

Biologically racist ideas became popular in the 19th century, not racist ideas, which I define as any idea that suggests a racial group is superior or inferior to another racial group in any way. Racist ideas, particularly religious, environmental, and cultural, predated the 19th century because the need to justify Black slavery/White freedom predated the 19th century. And slaveholders and their defenders used all the conceptual tools and categories at their disposal to render Black people worthy of slavery and White people worthy of freedom. It is quite amazing to me how 500 years in which various ideas of Black inferiority have been espoused to justify slave trading and enslaving can leave the reviewer still holding the traditional doctrine that racist ideas are only biological.

Either these assimilationist ideas of Black inferiority are not racist, or something is wrong with the way we define racism and write history. It is the latter and it not hard to figure the cause. Well-meaning assimilationists who thought of Black people as culturally or behaviorally inferior first coined the term racism and first defined racist ideas as a biological concept, thus defining their notions of cultural/behavioral hierarchy as being outside of racism. I show this history in Stamped from the Beginning. It is the history of racist ideas in a nutshell: of every conceiver of racist ideas placing their own ideas outside of racism.