Once at the pulpit, Kendi responded with his own Douglass quote, one from 1874 that, he said, sums up the entire sorry history of racist thought: “When men oppress their fellow men, the oppressor ever finds in the character of the oppressed, a full justification.”
…“How and why did racist ideas become, literally, our common sense — in which racist ideas make sense to us, and antiracist ideas seem radical, extreme, and completely nonsensical and illogical?” Kendi wondered.
……He argued that ultimately there are only two causes of racial tension, or only two exits from any discussion of racism. Either the inferiority of some races to others is a true fact, or the existence of discrimination is.
…He said that writing Stamped from the Beginning, which chronicles that ideological evolution over more than five centuries to the present, led him to a concept he calls the “dual racial history of America” — a dynamic process, like something from Newtonian physics but a lot harder on people. In this duality, every evidence-based effort to undo racism provokes a new and more sophisticated defense of racism.
Take, for example, the Jim Crow laws that followed the defeat of the South in the Civil War.
…He argued that people implement racist policies to protect their own political, cultural, and economic interests and then, perhaps on the principle that the best defense is a good offense, deploy racist ideas to advance those policies.
…“A dominant strain within abolitionist thought,” Kendi said, “was this idea that slavery, of course, was wrong — but one of the reasons it was so bad is because it was preventing black people from receiving the fruits of superior New England culture.
…“Following the Civil War, there were many well-meaning former abolitionists who were like, ‘We finally now have the ability to go down into the South and civilize some of these people.’ Probably some of your well-meaning ancestors went down there and did that” — albeit with antiracist motivations, as they rejected the racist notion that former slaves couldn’t be civilized because they were biologically inferior.
But in fact, Kendi said, slaves brought culture from Africa and developed culture in slavery (and elements from those cultures, obviously, remain vital in contemporary U.S. culture). If you want to be an antiracist, don’t judge other cultures by the standards of your own culture — that only creates a hierarchy in which other cultures can’t prevail.
…Kendi’s conclusion wasn’t surprising, but was certainly uplifting. “What becomes the activity of the antiracist?” he asked. “I would encourage each of you, when you look out at racial disparities, to see not what’s wrong with people, but what’s wrong with policies.”