The “hot” book to teach middle and high schoolers about anti-black racism in the U.S. is Stamped: A Remix, a condensed version of Ibram Kendi’s book Stamped from the Beginning. Jewish day schools and teen programs are among those assigning Stamped, but they should think twice. The heroine of the last third of the book is a notorious antisemite, Angela Davis; and that’s just one of the book’s problems.
While Kendi disparages a host of American civil rights heroes, from Frederick Douglass to MLK as being too moderate, Davis is his odd choice as an antiracist exemplar. After a dubious acquittal from a charge of conspiracy to murder as part of a Black Panthers jailbreak, she spent the most productive years of her career as an activist for the American Communist Party. As documents from Soviet archives have proven (e.g.), the Party was funded and controlled by the USSR. To the extent the Party spoke out against racism, it was only when and to the extent the Soviets ordered it to do so to propagandize against the West.
Of particular interest to Jewish educators, Davis’ attitude toward Soviet Jews was worse than dismissive. The Harvard Crimson reported in 1972 that Davis “explained that the situation of Jews in Russia ‘has been totally blown out of proportion by the bourgeois press because they’re going to do everything they can to discredit socialism.'”
In his book Chutzpah, Alan Dershowitz writes that he appealed to Davis, with her very close relationship with the USSR, to intercede on behalf of imprisoned Soviet Jewry activists. Dershowitz recounts, “Several days later, I received a call back from Ms. Davis’ secretary informing me that Davis had looked into the people on my list and none were political prisoners. ‘They are all Zionist fascists and opponents of socialism.’ Davis would urge that they be kept in prison where they belonged.”
Davis has not expressed the slightest regret for this and other defenses of Soviet human rights abuses. Nor does Davis seem to have evolved beyond her background in antisemitic Soviet “anti-Zionism.” For example, she supports BDS and has been a vocal defender of Palestinian terrorists such as Rasmea Odeh. Davis has also been the leading proponent of the modern-day blood libel that Israel, by occasionally giving anti-terrorism seminars to American law enforcement, is somehow responsible for day-to-day harassment and violence faced by African Americans at the hands of the police.
Besides Davis, Kendi shows a soft spot for other radical activists with a history of antisemitism, including Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and Rev. Jeremiah Wright. It’s not that Kendi absolves any of these individuals of antisemitism, or puts their antisemitic statements into any sort of historical or sociological context. It’s rather that he doesn’t mention antisemitism at all.
The Jewish community should have some boundaries, and those should include not assigning our children books that glorify unrepentant antisemites like Davis, especially books that purport to be antiracist. The notion that one can be antiracist while also promoting antisemitism should be anathema to us.
Assigning Remixed, with appropriate caveats, might nevertheless be understandable if Stamped were an especially impressive work of history. It’s not; at it’s best it presents a highly idiosyncratic and error-prone narrative, at it’s worst, as in the last third of the book, it’s more akin to historical fiction.
The book’s underlying ideology of “antiracism” is also problematic. Kendi’s “antiracism” essentially holds that all subgroups must wind up in exactly the same socioeconomic position or racism is to blame. This ideology is preposterous–if Nigerian immigrants on average are more economically successful than Somalis, or Japanese than Cambodians, is that due to racism? The ideology is also dangerous; if group disparities are inherently a product of racism, this suggests that Jews, Asian Indians, Greeks, and other American ethnic groups that do “better” than average have done so by taking advantage of racism, and should be stripped of their “excess” wealth.
That’s not to deny that racism in the U.S. has had a negative effect on African American well-being. It is to deny that disparities among groups are inherently and always a product of racism.
Moreover, obsessing over group differences in outcome rather than ensuring equal rights for individuals has been the precipitating cause of horrific inter-ethnic violence. This includes decades of violence against European Jews, culminating in the Shoah, by antisemites convinced that Jews’ success in business and the professions was a result of an anti-Gentile conspiracy.
I have no objection to teaching about the unvarnished history of racism in the United States. In fact, I’ve written a book about the history of racist labor laws, and also scholarly articles on everything from laws driving Chinese immigrants out of business to public school segregation. The subject matter isn’t the problem, Stamped is.
As alternatives, Jewish schools that want to address American anti-black racism might assign John Lewis’s March graphic novel trilogy about the civil rights movement is excellent, Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black by Gregory Williams, and The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, by James McBride. All are excellent reads, and none of them have the ideological, antisemitic, and other baggage of Stamped.