About this time last year, a discussion ran on the blog on Ibram X. Kendi’s great book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. I returned to the book recently, going through materials for an African American History course. During roughly the same week, in preparation for the S-USIH conference in Chicago, in preparation for the two panels that were offered on environmental thought, I had the good fortune to read papers by Elesha Coffman, John Compton, Daniel Rinn, and Matthew Stewart. The result was that I couldn’t think about the latter without thinking about the former. Whether the merger between Kendi and the work of my S-USIH panel colleagues will lead anywhere, I don’t know. Maybe a reader of this post will have a helpful insight.
Kendi’s analysis emphasized several analytical moves that required some conscious adjustment on my part. The first had to do with the source of racist ideas. Kendi argues that racist ideas are not the result of ignorance and hatred but are developed in response to racist policies. Why this should be so isn’t given much theoretical attention in his book, but I think Kendi is saying that people are disturbed by the disparities that are the essence and the consequence of racist policies, and so they’re motivated to respond with thought–with criticism (anti-racist ideas) or with justification (racist ideas).
The concept is appealing. Richard Wilkinson’s and Kate Pickett’s book, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, makes a case for the social significance of disparity and how the response to it figures into matters as basic as health and happiness.
Experience teaching also weighs in. I wonder sometimes how my students explain racism to themselves. Talking about the Dred Scott decision just the other day, for instance, I read on their faces mixtures of surprise, confusion, and disgust. We can talk science, we can talk social construction, we can think of the racists we know in our own families and even of the racism in ourselves. But all that doesn’t necessarily answer the question about racism’s persistence or of its resurgence in national life during the past several years. Aren’t we getting smarter? Aren’t we making progress? And so on.
The second concept I drew from Kendi was his clear and irrevocable identification of assimilationist ideas as a species of racism. Anti-racist thinking, therefore, isn’t involved in a binary conflict with racism. Rather, anti-racist ideas battle with a two-headed monster, a good-cop-bad-cop duo of assimilationism and segregationism.
Here’s a graphic representation of my understanding of Kendi’s analytical frame.
The third concept I drew from Kendi is to think of these different species of ideas as actual or near-actual species–as living entities that evolve, go dormant, change form, and adapt according to conditions. It’s too simplistic–and we might say, hubristic–to think that they can be eradicated solely by rational argument or better information. They live. They grow. What’s more, an individual can harbor a variety of racist and anti-racist ideas, in the manner a body holds parasites, sometimes beneficial, other times not.
Now, I may not have gotten Kendi just right. I might need to be schooled a little. But I hope it’s clear that his analysis has been fruitful for me. I wondered, could I take his analytical frame and recode it onto environmental thought? As a simple thought experiment, could I use this new frame to break up old frames and old ways of seeing?
One of the conference panelists was John Compton, a professor of political science at Chapman University. His paper triggered the experiment. Its title was, “‘If You’ve Seen One Redwood, You’ve Seen Them All’: Lynn White and the Decline of Protestant Stewardship in the Long 1960s.” Chapman used Lynn White, Jr.’s seminal 1967 article, “The Religious Roots of our Ecological Crisis,” as an opening gambit. From there, he detailed a rift, contemporary to White’s article, between evangelicals and mainline Protestants in Southern California concerning the proper relationship between humankind and the environment. White had charged that the environmental threats Americans were confronting had their origin in the book of Genesis, with its verse about “man” having “dominion” over the fish, the birds, and “every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”
This put things a bit too simply, many critics have since pointed out. Mainline Protestants had a long tradition of understanding God’s people as stewards or trustees of the living earth and its resources. This could already be seen in, to name a common instance, the Good Use or Conservationist policies of Gifford Pinchot, Chief of the United Forest Service under Theodore Roosevelt.
Compton’s paper traces the mobilization of a more radical approach, one that stressed dominion. This new dominionism (my word) was woven into Ronald Reagan’s platform when he ran for governor in 1966 and that he continued to advocate as US President. The stewardship/conservationist camp recognized that humans had a God-given responsibility to care for the sacred earth, to manage its resources so that they would be available for later generations. In contrast, the dominionist view might be summed up this way: non-human nature had no rights that any human was bound to respect.
Compton’s paper may have been the trigger, but the papers by Coffman, Stewart, and Rinn played a role, too. Each was smartly argued, beautifully detailed, thoroughly sourced, and a great pleasure to read. Yet when set by side with each other, when set amongst the historiography of environmental thought, a certain abstraction is inevitable. What emerges is a handful of ideological battles, battles that grow stale with repetition: anthropocentric ideas versus eco-centric ideas; conservationist ideas versus preservationist ideas; social ecology versus deep ecology. What a reader longs for is new light.
That’s when the experiment to recode Kendi’s frame onto environmental thought took shape. Here it is in graphic form:
Certainly, there are problems here. This recoding may be useful or not. I’ll need more time, or maybe a little help, in seeing how.