Reading a book or article outside of one’s area of expertise requires a certain level of trust between the reader and the author. As a theoretical chemist, I don’t have an independent reservoir of knowledge from which I can draw to test the claims of a historian (or an economist or a French literature professor). Therefore, I have to assume that a well-respected academic like Dr. Kendi can be trusted implicitly when speaking about his own field. Yet as I read the book, I became uncomfortable. A quotation here or there would stand out; either it seemed to be truncated in odd places, or seemed to be open to multiple interpretations, or just didn’t sound plausible. Yet when I checked online reviews, I found that Stamped from the Beginning had won the 2016 National Book Award. Moreover, it received positive reviews from numerous high-profile sources, including historians, none of whom raised concerns about its factual content.
I continued to read but began to probe a few of the passages that I had flagged. As I checked references and primary sources, I grew more and more disturbed. Keep in mind that I could only spot-check a handful of the hundreds of footnotes, only those which didn’t seem “quite right” or which set off alarm bells based on the other reading I’ve done on race. Many of these claims turned out to be fine. Yet in the examples I provide below, I think we can see a pattern of erroneous claims and carelessness. While I’m not quite ready to don a tin foil hat, I think these problems raise some serious questions about the reliability of this work and the willingness of the scholarly community to self-correct. If a theoretical chemist with Google and few spare hours could uncover errors like these, why weren’t they recognized by professional historians?
1. Boyle, Newton, and Whiteness
The first passage that caught my eye involved the notion of ‘whiteness’ that fascinated Europeans around the 16th and 17th centuries. I will quote Kendi at some length because I want to ensure that I’m not taking him out of context or misreading his statements. Kendi is discussing eminent English chemist Robert Boyle and his scientific forays into race:
The year before , Boyle had jumped into the ring of the racial debate with Of the Nature of Whiteness and Blackness. He rejected both curse [black skin was caused by the curse of Ham] and climate theorists [black skin was caused by climate] and knocked up a foundational antiracist idea: “The Seat of human pigmentation ‘seems to be but the thin Epidermes, or outward Skin,’ he wrote. And yet, this antiracist idea of skin color being only skin deep did not stop Boyle from judging different colors. Black skin he maintained, was an ‘ugly’ deformity of normal Whiteness. The physics of light, Boyle argued, showed that Whiteness was ‘the chiefest color.’ He claimed to have ignored his personal ‘opinions’ and ‘clearly and faithfully’ presented the truth, as his Royal Society deeded. As Boyle and the Royal Society promoted the innovation and circulation of racist ideas, they promoted objectivity in all their writings.
Isaac Newton took it upon himself to substantiate Boyle’s color law: light is white is standard… Newton created a color wheel to illustrate his thesis. ‘The center’ was ‘white of the first order,’ and all the other colors were positioned in relation to their ‘distance from Whiteness.’ In one of the foundational books of the upcoming European intellectual renaissance, Newton imaged ‘perfect whiteness.’ (p. 45)
In this passage, Kendi is trying to show that “Boyle and the Royal Society”, which published Of the Nature of Whiteness and Blackness, attempted to use “objective” science to demonstrate White racial supremacy, a theme he will return to frequently. He repeats this charge against Boyle and Newton in at least two other places: “As Boyle and Newton painted unblemished light white, Locke more or less painted the unblemished mind white” (p. 50); “Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton had already popularized light as White.” (p. 60). Furthermore, the index entry on ‘antiracism’ refers to this passage as “Boyle’s scientific racism” (p. 576)
Yet when I tracked down the primary sources to which this passage refers (with the help of this article), I found that Kendi had made several serious mistakes in this passage:
- Boyle’s essay Of the Nature of Whiteness and Blackness does not contain the word ‘ugly’ or the phrase ‘the chiefest color.’
- Kendi does not actually cite a primary source here. He cites Gary Taylor’s Buying Whiteness which is referencing a different essay of Boyle’s. This essay was written 17 years before On the Nature of Whiteness and Blackness and was not published by the Royal Society.
- The topic of this earlier essay, A Dissuasive from Cursing, was not science, race, skin color, or whiteness. It was a long treatise against swearing.
- The phrase ‘ugly Negro’ is used only once in this earlier essay on page 130. It is used metaphorically to refer to the vice of swearing and is not a direct statement about race or whiteness or blackness: “For every Sinner naturally beholding Vice upon which he dotes, through the contracting Optick of Self-love, must have the Idea of his Crime enlarged beyond its true proportions, to make him see it in its just quantity. I might add, That ’tis scarce possible to paint this ugly Negro in blacker Colours than his own; especially since now this Sin is grown so much in fashion.” While Boyle may indeed have found black skin ugly (although he denies this idea in On the Nature of Whiteness and Blackness) he is not making this claim in this passage.
- The word ‘deformities’ that Taylor mentions is used on page 42, but refers to the moral deformities of swearing, not to black skin: “This is the usual Objection of the French, amongst whom this Vice is grown so Epidemical (as of Blackness amongst the Ethiopians) its commonness has removed all the deformities they would otherwise find in it.“
- The phrase ‘chiefest colour’ is not found in any of Boyle’s writings. It comes from from Sir Kenelm Digby.
- Newton’s work Optiks is not about race. It is about, well, “optics.” The word ‘race’ is never used. The word ‘skin’ refers five times to the ‘surface’ of an object and once to the whitish color Newton obtained by mixing pigment together: “For thus it became of a Colour equal in Whiteness to that of Ashes, or of Wood newly cut, or of a Man’s Skin.”
Before commenting on the import of these errors, let me give a few other examples.
2. Cotton Mather and Race
The first section of Kendi’s book focuses on Cotton Mather, the highly influential Puritan preacher who was involved in the Salem Witch trials. In his chapter “Black Hunts” Kendi draws a connection between anti-Black racism and the conception of the Devil as black. After describing the uproar over witchcraft in the New England colonies, Kendi writes:
in nearly every instance, the Devil who was preying upon innocent White Puritans was described as black. One Puritan accuser described the Devil as ‘a little black bearded man’; another saw ‘a black thing of a considerable bigness.’ A Black thing jumped in one man’s window. ‘The body was like that of a Monkey,’ the observer added. ‘The Feet like a Cocks, but the Face much like a man’s.’ Since the Devil represented criminality and since criminals in New England were dais to be the Devil’s operatives, the Salem witch hunt ascribed a Black face to criminality – an ascription that remains to this day.” (p. 61)
In this passage, Kendi implies that ‘Black’ is a racial description rather than a description of color (notice Kendi’s capitalization of “a Black face to criminality” which is how he refers to racial groups throughout the book). Yet the descriptions he cites are taken from Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World, which includes this explicit statement in describing a purported encounter with witchcraft:
“[Spectators] suppose’d the Black man (as the Witches call the Devil; and they generally say he resembles an Indian) might give him that Assistance.”
The Devil is referred to here as ‘the Black Man‘ but is said in the very same sentence to resemble an Indian, showing that it would be anachronistic to assume that Black always refers to race in these reports rather than to the color black. This caution is further supported by the fact that other apparitions reported in this discourse include “a Black pig,” “a Black cloud,” and “a Black puppy… as Black as Cole.” The reference here is clearly to color, not to race.
Mather is also criticized for the way in which he refers to his slave, Onesimus:
Mather named ‘it’ Onesimus, after St. Paul’s adopted son, a converted runaway (p. 69)
Kendi cites passages in two secondary sources here, neither of which say anything about Mather referring to Onesimus as ‘it.’ Indeed, they both refer to a primary source The Diary of Cotton Mather which records Mather’s own account of his reception and naming of the slave. He says the following:
This Day, a surprising Thing befel me. Some Gentlemen of our Church, understanding (without any Application of mine to them for such a Thing,) that I wanted a good Servant at the expence of between forty and fifty Pounds, purchased for me, a very likely Slave; a young Man, who is a Negro of a promising Aspect and Temper, and this Day they presented him unto me. It seems to be a mighty Smile of Heaven upon my Family; and it arrives at an observable Time unto me. I putt upon him the Name of Onesimus; and I resolved with the Help of the Lord, that I would use the best Endeavours to make him a Servant of Christ, and also be more serviceable than ever to a Flock, which laies me under such Obligations.
Notice that, in this short passage, Mather refers to Onesimus three times as ‘him.’
Finally, in the close of his section on Mather, Kendi criticizes him for “[preaching] that African people could become White in their souls” (p. 75). Again, notice the capitalization of “White.” He concludes with this anecdote to illustrate his point: “In 1729, Samuel Mather completed his esteeming biography of his deceased father [and how he] ‘blessed many person who never knew it with Secret Wishes.’ He blessed the Black man, clearly praying ‘Lord, Wash that poor Soul, make him white by the Washing of THY Spirit'” (p. 75-76).
Here is the original passage which Kendi is quoting:
When he walked the Streets, he still blessed many Persons who never knew it, with Secret Wishes after this manner for them; UPON the sight of a tall Man; ‘Lord, Give that Man high Attainments in Christianity: Let him fear GOD above man’. A lame Man; ‘Lord, Help that Man on moral Accounts to walk uprightly.’ A Negro; ‘Lord, Wash that poor Soul; make him white by the Washing of the SPIRIT.’
The blessings for which Mather prayed were occasioned by physical observations (‘tall, lame, Negro’) but were spiritual in nature. In context, Mather is invoking a biblical metaphor of white being symbolic of moral purity. Of course, it is possible that Mather and others were increasingly connecting ‘moral purity’ with ‘European.’ But we can’t anachronistically assume that ‘White’ means Caucasian, especially when context seems to suggest otherwise.
Three more short examples will suffice.
3. Malcolm X’s Assassination
In a passage recounting the assassination of Malcolm X, Kendi makes the following statement:
“On February 22, 1965, the New York Times banner headline read: ‘The Apostle of Hate is Dead’.” (p. 389)
It’s not clear where this claim comes from, as Kendi’s only footnotes are to a telegram from MLK to Malcolm X’s widow and a NYPost story on James Baldwin; he does not cite the NYTimes itself. However, the NYTimes archive shows a photo of their Feb. 22, 1965 edition, which reported the assassination. Its banner headline reads “Malcolm X Shot to Death at Rally Here.”
4. Black, Out-of-Wedlock Births
In discussing the furor surrounding the rising incidence of single, Black motherhood in the 1960s and 70s, Kendi challenges the idea that the larger percentage of Black unmarried mothers was caused by a larger number of Black unmarried mothers. Instead, he attributes the growing percentage of out-of-wedlock births to a decrease in fertility among married Black mothers:
“Davis explained that the ‘disproportionate number of births to unmarried teenagers’ had been caused by the fact that older, married Black women had started having fewer children in the 1960s and 1970s. Therefore, it was the overall percentage of babies born to young and single Black mothers as opposed to married mothers – not the sheer numbers of babies born to single Black mothers– that dramatically rose. But to the Reagan propagandists, welfare cause the nonexistent spike in Single Black mothers, and the nonexistent spike had made the Black family disappear.” (p. 438)
Regardless of what we think about the connection to welfare, this argument about the cause of rising out-of-wedlock births is incorrect. Yes, the fertility rate of married Black women did drop from 1960 to 1980. However, the absolute number of births to single Black mothers also rose significantly, from 189,000 in the late 60s to 337,000 in the early 1980s, just as the percent of married Black women dropped from 56% to 40%. (It should be noted that White women followed very similar trends during this time period.)
5. Standardized Testing
Finally, Kendi is highly critical of standardized tests, which show significant racial disparities (as well as disparities based on gender and family income). He writes:
“Since segregationists had first developed them in the early twentieth century, standardized tests – from the MCAT to the SAT and IQ exams – had failed time and again to predict success in college and professional careers or even to truly measure intelligence…Standardized exams have, if anything, predicted the socioeconomic class of the student and perhaps a student’s first-year success in college or in a professional program – which says that the tests could be helpful for students after they are admitted, to assess who needs extra assistance the first year” (p. 426-427)
These claims are false. Whether or not we think standardized tests should be used for admission or whether they are accurate in measuring generalized intelligence, they do indeed predict success in college and in professional programs. For example, SAT scores strongly predict college graduation rates even when controlling for socioeconomic status. Similarly, MCAT scores predict medical school graduation rates at every level of college-GPA. (See this article for a summary of the evidence for the validity of standardized testing). To fail to even acknowledge any of this evidence is a major oversight.
I think we’re now in the position to draw a few tentative conclusions. The first is that, at least in these examples, Kendi has been very careless in his use of sources. In particular, he has relied heavily on secondary sources rather than on primary sources which would have undermined his claims. Second, these errors were not random, sometimes working against his overall thesis and sometimes supporting it. Instead, they all tended to support his thesis.
As I said at the outset, I only checked a small number of claims, relative to the thousands made in this book. My spot checks are not a representative sample because I did not select them at random; instead I chose claims that seemed questionable, thus biasing any inferences we draw. Moreover, many of the claims I flagged did appear to be accurate. Finally, it’s always possible that I am misreading or inaccurately interpreting sources; if so, then I welcome readers’ scrutiny and urge them to verify my claims for themselves.
With all these caveats, I think that these examples (and many others I could have provided) do call into question the level of implicit trust we can place in Kendi’s work. Moreover, I am disturbed that none of the major reviews of Kendi’s book mentioned any of these issues. On the contrary, Stamped from the Beginning won a 2016 National Book Award! What should a theoretical chemist make of all this?
My tentative hypothesis is that certain views and causes are so widely accepted in academia that scholars are hesitant to level even the slightest criticism. To criticize a proponent of the ‘correct’ views, even for factual errors or fallacious reasoning, is seen as tantamount to criticizing the view itself. In an increasingly polarized culture, this kind of zero-sum reasoning is understandable. But it is deadly. We should never be so committed to an ideology that we’re unwilling to critique its proponents. And we should welcome such scrutiny ourselves.
In conclusion, at a purely factual level, I think that Kendi’s book still has much to offer. Yet we should read it alongside other authors who do not share Kendi’s perspective on race, so that we can weigh the arguments made and the evidence provided instead of embracing one perspective uncritically.
In the final section of this review, I’ll consider the negative aspects of Kendi’s racial ideology, independent of historical and factual claims.