Authors: Ibram X. Kendi
Halftime over, the exodus out of the stands startled me. The people had come to see what the people had come to see.
to see Clarence. I walked into our off-campus apartment, all giddy, like after watching the Marching 100 that first time. Quietness shrouded the afternoon. Dirty dishes sat in the open kitchen. Clarence had to be in his room, finishing homework.
The door was open; I knocked on it anyway, disturbing him at his desk. He looked up in wonder. We had roomed together for nearly two years. Clarence had gotten used to my midday interruptions. He braced himself for my latest epiphany.
One who is classifying people of European descent as biologically, culturally, or behaviorally inferior or conflating the entire race of White people with racist power.
STOOD IN THE
doorframe, sometime in March 2002. Clarence probably sensed another argument coming. We were tailor-made to argue against each other. Intensely cynical, Clarence seemed to believe nothing. Intensely gullible, I was liable to believe anything, a believer more than a thinker. Racist ideas love believers, not thinkers.
“So what you want to tell me?” Clarence asked.
“I think I figured White people out,” I said.
“What is it now?”
’D ARRIVED AT
FAMU trying to figure Black people out. “I had never seen so many Black people together with positive motives,” I wrote in an English 101 essay in October 2000. The sentence seemed out of place, sandwiched nastily between “I had never heard the world famous ‘Marching 100’ perform” and “This was my first ever college football game.” The idea—even more out of place. How did I overlook all those Black people who came together with positive motives in all those places and spaces of my upbringing? How did I become the Black judge? Racist ideas suspend reality and retrofit history, including our individual histories.
Anti-Black racist ideas covered my freshman eyes like my orange contacts when I first moved into Gibbs Hall at FAMU. When you entered the lobby, to the right you’d see a busy, tired-looking office. If you took a slight left, you’d find yourself walking down the hallway to my dorm room; a sharper left would take you to the television room, where our dorm’s cluster of basketball fans regularly lost bitter arguments to the army of football fans over television rights.
There were no arguments on, or games on, in the television room on the evening of November 7, 2000. We still had our game faces on, though. Rookie voters, we were watching the election results unfold, hoping that our votes would help keep the brother of Florida’s governor out of the White House. Black Floridians had not forgotten
Jeb Bush’s termination of affirmative-action programs earlier in the year. We had voted to save the rest of America from the racist Bushes.
The election was coming down to the winner of Florida. The polls closed, and before long we saw
Al Gore’s winning face flash on the screen. Game over. We rejoiced. I joined a joyful exodus out of the television room. We marched to our dorm rooms like fans streaming from the stadium when the Marching 100’s halftime show ended. The people had come to see what the people had come to see.
The next morning, I awoke to learn that George W. Bush somehow held
a narrow lead in Florida of 1,784 votes. Too close to call, and Jeb Bush’s appointees were overseeing the recount.
The unfairness of it all crashed on me that November. My anti-Black racist ideas were no consolation. I walked out of my dorm room that morning into a world of anguish. In the weeks that followed, I heard and overheard, read and reread, angry, tearful, first- and secondhand
stories of FAMU students and their families back home not being able to vote. Complaints from Black citizens who’d registered but never received their registration cards. Or their voting location had been changed. Or they were unlawfully denied a ballot without a registration card or ordered to leave the long line when polls closed. Or they were told that as convicted felons they could not vote. Earlier in the year, Florida purged fifty-eight thousand alleged felons from the voting rolls. Black people were only
11 percent of registered voters but comprised 44 percent of the purge list. And about twelve thousand of those people purged were not convicted felons.
Reporters and campaign officials seemed more focused on Floridians whose votes were not counted or counted the wrong way.
Palm Beach County used confusing ballots that caused about nineteen thousand spoiled ballots and perhaps three thousand Gore voters to mistakenly vote for Pat Buchanan. Gadsden County, next to Tallahassee, had
Florida’s highest percentage of Black voters and the highest spoilage rate. Blacks were ten times more likely than Whites to have their ballots rejected. The racial inequity could not be explained by income or educational levels or bad ballot design, according to
New York Times
statistical analysis. That left one explanation, one that at first I could not readily admit: racism. A total of 179,855 ballots were invalidated by Florida election officials in a race ultimately won by 537 votes.
Ted Cruz served on Bush’s legal team that resisted efforts at manual recounts in Democratic counties that could have netted Gore tens of thousands of votes while pushing for manual recounts in Republican counties that netted Bush 185 additional votes.
Watching this horror flick unfold, I recoiled in fear for days after the election. But not some of my peers at FAMU. They amassed the courage I did not have, that all antiracists must have. “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the strength to do what is right in the face of it,” as the anonymous philosopher tells us. Some of us are restrained by fear of what could happen to us if we resist. In our naïveté, we are less fearful of what could happen to us—or is already happening to us—if we don’t resist.
On November 9, 2000, FAMU’s courageous student-government leaders directed
a silent march of two thousand students from campus to Florida’s nearby capitol, where they conducted a sit-in. The sit-in lasted for about twenty-four hours, but the witch hunt we launched back at campus lasted for weeks, if not months. We hunted out those thousands of FAMU students who did not vote. We shamed those nonvoters with stories of people who marched so we could vote. I participated in this foolish hunt—one seems to recur every time an election is lost. The shaming ignores the real source of our loss and heartbreak. The fact was that Black people delivered enough voters to win, but those voters were sent home or their votes spoiled. Racist ideas often lead to this silly psychological inversion, where we blame the victimized race for their own victimization.
When on December 12, 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court stopped Florida’s recount, I no longer saw the United States as a democracy. When Gore conceded the next day, when White Democrats stood aside and let Bush steal the presidency on the strength of destroyed Black votes, I was shot back into the binary thinking of Sunday school, where I was taught about good and evil, God and the Devil. As Bush’s team transitioned that winter, I transitioned into hating White people.
White people became devils to me, but I had to figure out how they came to be devils. I read “The Making of Devil,” a chapter in Elijah Muhammad’s
Message to the Blackman in America,
written in 1965. Muhammad led the unorthodox Nation of Islam (NOI) from 1934 until his death in 1975.
According to the theology he espoused, more than six thousand years ago, in an all-Black world, a wicked Black scientist named Yakub was exiled alongside his 59,999 followers to an island in the Aegean Sea. Yakub plotted his revenge against his enemies: “to create upon the earth a devil race.”
Yakub established a brutal island regime of selective breeding—eugenics meeting colorism. He killed all Dark babies and forced Light people to breed. When Yakub died, his followers carried on, creating the Brown race from the Black race, the Red race from the Brown race, the Yellow race from the Red race, and the White race from the Yellow race. After six hundred years, “on the island of Patmos was nothing but these blond, pale-skinned, cold-blue-eyed devils—savages.”
White people invaded the mainland and turned “what had been a peaceful heaven on earth into a hell torn by quarreling and fighting.” Black authorities chained the White criminals and marched them to the prison caves of Europe. When the Bible says, “Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,” NOI theologians say the “serpent is symbolic of the devil white race Moses lifted up out of the caves of Europe, teaching them civilization” to rule for the next six thousand years.
Aside from the White rule for six thousand years, this history of White people sounded eerily similar to the history of Black people I’d learned piecemeal in White schools of racist thought. White racists cast Black people as living in the bushes of Africa, instead of in caves, until Moses, in the form of White enslavers and colonizers, arrived as a civilizer. Slavery and colonization ended before Black people—and Africa—became civilized in the ways of White people. Black people descended into criminality and ended up lynched, segregated, and mass-incarcerated by noble officers of the law in “developed” White nations. “Developing” Black nations became riddled with corruption, ethnic strife, and incompetence, keeping them poor and unstable, despite all sorts of “aid” from the former mother countries in Europe. The NOI’s history of White people was the racist history of Black people in Whiteface.
According to NOI mythology, during World War I, God appeared on earth in the form of Wallace Fard Muhammad. In 1931, Fard sent Elijah Muhammad on the divine mission to save the “Lost-Found Nation of Islam” in the United States—to redeem Black people with knowledge of this true history.
My first time reading this story, I sat there in my dorm room, sweating, mesmerized, scared. It felt like I had climbed up and consumed forbidden fruit. Every White person who’d maltreated me, since my third-grade teacher, suddenly rushed back into my memory like a locomotive blaring its horn in the middle of the forest. But my attention remained focused on all those Whites who’d railroaded the election of 2000 in Florida. All those White policemen intimidating voters, White poll officials turning away voters, White state officials purging voters, White lawyers and judges defending the voter suppression. All those White politicians echoing Gore’s call to, “for the sake of
our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy,” concede the election to Bush. White people showed me they did not actually care about national unity or democracy, only unity among and democracy for White people!
I lay in my dorm room, staring up at the ceiling, silently raging at the White people walking away into the wilderness to plan Bush’s presidency.
creation story made so much sense to me. Half a century earlier, it also made sense to a calculating, cursing, and crazy young Black prisoner nicknamed “Satan.” One day, in 1948, Satan’s brother, Reginald, whispered to him during a visit, “
The white man is the devil.” When he returned to his Massachusetts cell, a line of White people appeared before his eyes. He saw White people lynching his activist father, committing his activist mother to an insane asylum, splitting up his siblings, telling him being a lawyer was “no realist goal for a nigger,” degrading him on eastern railroads, trapping him for the police, sentencing him to eight to ten years for robbery because his girlfriend was White. His brothers and sisters, clutching their sore necks from a similar rope of White racism, had already converted to the Nation of Islam. In no time, they turned Satan back into Malcolm Little, and Malcolm Little into Malcolm X.
Malcolm X left prison in 1952 and quickly began to grow Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, through his powerful speaking and organizing. The suddenly resurgent NOI caught the attention of the media, and in 1959 Louis Lomax and Mike Wallace produced a television documentary on the NOI,
The Hate That Hate Produced,
which ran on CBS. It made Malcolm X a household name.
In 1964, after leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X made the hajj to Mecca and changed his name again, to el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, and converted to orthodox Islam. “
Never have I witnessed such” an “overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by people of all colors and races here in this Ancient Holy Land,” he wrote home on April 20. Days later, he began to “toss aside some of my previous conclusions [about white people]…
You may be shocked by these words coming from me. But…I have always been a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it.” On September 22, 1964, Malcolm made no mistake about his conversion. “
I totally reject Elijah Muhammad’s racist philosophy, which he has labeled ‘Islam’ only to fool and misuse gullible people, as he fooled and misused me,” he wrote. “But I blame only myself, and no one else for the fool that I was, and the harm that my evangelic foolishness in his behalf has done to others.”
Months before being assassinated, Malcolm X faced a fact many admirers of Malcolm X still refuse to face: Black people can be racist toward White people. The NOI’s White-devil idea is a classic example. Whenever someone classifies people of European descent as biologically, culturally, or behaviorally inferior, whenever someone says there is something wrong with White people as a group, someone is articulating a racist idea.
The only thing wrong with White people is when they embrace racist ideas and policies and then deny their ideas and policies are racist. This is not to ignore that White people have massacred and enslaved millions of indigenous and African peoples, colonized and impoverished millions of people of color around the globe as their nations grew rich, all the while producing racist ideas that blame the victims. This is to say their history of pillaging is not the result of the evil genes or cultures of White people. There’s no such thing as White genes. We must separate the warlike, greedy, bigoted, and individualist cultures of modern empire and racial capitalism (more on that later) from the cultures of White people. They are not one and the same,
as the resistance within White nations shows, resistance admittedly often tempered by racist ideas.