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9 of the Most Racist Americans In History That May Surprise You

By Ibram X. Kendi

It seems as if everyone — except his racist supporters — are recognizing the obvious: Donald Trump is a racist.

But racism extends far past Trump and his voting band of angry white men.

The growing recognition of Trump’s racism must rouse a growing recognition of racist ideas wherever they are found in America, in American history. Otherwise what’s the point? What’s the point of stopping a presidential candidate and leaving his racism free reign among supporters and opponents alike?

Contrary to popular perception, American history does not bequeath a clear-cut battlefield of racists squaring off against anti-racists. The history is much more complex and contradictory. Some Americans articulated both anti-racist and racist ideas. Some of America’s greatest warriors against anti-Black racism have been some of America’s greatest producers and enforcers of racist ideas. We can no longer flaunt their anti-racist achievements and hide their racist ideas about Black people being in some way inferior. Trump’s bigotry should rouse us to uncover racist ideas wherever they may be found — even in our own minds, even in the minds of our heroes.

Let’s open the closets of history.


  1. William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879) — Founder/Editor of The Liberator

Garrison is well known and well admired — and rightfully so — for popularizing the anti-racist demand for immediate emancipation in the decades before the Civil War. But Garrison also popularized one of the most racist ideas of the 19th century: that slavery had literally dehumanized enslaved Blacks and made them inferior to free Whites. “Nothing has been left undone to cripple their intellects, darken their minds, debase their moral nature, obliterate all traces of their relationship to mankind,” Garrison wrote in the preface to The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845).

It was one anti-racist thing to say slavery was dehumanizing; it was yet another racist thing to say slavery did dehumanize Black people, did sink them “in the scale of humanity” below free White people.


  1. Nelle Harper Lee (1926-2016) — Author of To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)

Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird shares the captivating story of a White lawyer successfully defending a southern Black man wrongly accused of raping a White woman. The riveting novel roused mass sympathy for civil rights in the early 1960s by pushing the button of White paternalism.

“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy,” a neighbor tells the lawyer’s strong-willed daughter. “That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Lee’s mockingbird serves as a metaphor for Black people, who Lee portrays as spectators, singing their hopeful hearts out for White saviors.

Black people must rely on Whites for their livelihood, for their rights, for their freedom? There may be no more racist idea.


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