How to be an antiracist, by Ibram Kendi

A critique

In his influential How to be an antiracist, Ibram Kendi begins with a series of definitions. A racist is “one who supports racist policy through their actions or inaction or who expresses a racist idea.”  Policy refers to “written and unwritten laws, procedures, processes, regulations, and guidelines”.  “Racist policy and racist policymakers” are the central agents of racism.  They constitute “racist power.”  “A racist idea is any idea that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way.”  Racism “is a marriage of racist policies and racist ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequities.”   Racial inequity “is when two or more racial groups are not standing on approximately equal footing,” exemplified by the fact that 71% of white families are homeowners, as against 41% of black families.  In contrast, racial equity is standing on relatively equal footing. 

     With these definitions, Kendi establishes a situation in which it is very difficult for whites to escape the accusation of being racist.  Even whites who are not policymakers and who reject the racist idea that one racial group is inferior to another, if they are inactive in the face of unwritten guidelines and social processes that generate unequal standing, they too are racist.  There is no forgiveness here for persons who do not approve of the racial situation into which they were born and live, but do not know what they can do about it.

     Standing accused of racism, some white people, who in general are not educated with respect to structures of domination nor processes of social change, undertake some form of activism, thereby escaping the accusation.  The most common forms of such redemptive activism are shouting slogans in the street and calling out the racism of other persons on the Internet.  Such activism may not contribute to the creation of a more just world, but it does enable the attainment of personal redemption.

      But in the world of Ibram Kendi, black people too stand accused.  Black people nearly always internalize racist ideas in some form or another, according to Kendi, including Ibram himself.  The book is part social analysis and part intellectual autobiography, and it describes Kendi’s own struggle to be anti-racist, which is implied in the title of the book.  This is truly a sad thing, that all of us must live under the burden of the social sin of racism, whites and blacks, including Kendi. 

      I myself believe that the nation has made sufficient progress in overcoming racism and discrimination that all of us, blacks and whites, ought to be freed from the personal burden of living under a racist accusation.  We now can make further progress in a different way, by laughing and playing with one another, loving one another, reasoning with one another, and struggling together to do justice, for those of us so inclined, all of which would prepare us to lead the nation toward further progress on the issue.

     Kendi addresses and defends affirmative action.  He maintains that it is morally acceptable to discriminate against a person on the basis of race, if the intention is to create equity.  If it creates equity, it is not racist but anti-racist.  Affirmative action is discriminating today to correct the discrimination of the past, Kendi maintains. 

     I find this defense of affirmative action as justifiable discrimination to be problematic.  In the first place, affirmative action generates resentment and resistance among white men, not necessarily because of racism or sexism, but because it exists in the absence of programs that address the rights of workers and the educational and health needs of their families.  It would be much more politically viable if it were part of a larger project that attends to the social and economic needs of all of the people   Moreover, in addition to being politically costly, affirmative action does not accomplish much social justice; it benefits primarily minorities and women with credentials, not women and minorities with limited credentials and in conditions of economic need.  Kendi’s formulation adds to these liabilities a rationale that violates the liberal principal of equal treatment for all, a principle at the foundation of the American Republic.  History teaches us that social change is not accomplished by rejecting historic principles of a nation, but by rejecting existing practices in the name of sacred historic principles.

     In his analysis of racism, Kendi assumes that racist policy is the cause of racial inequities.  From a social scientific point of view, this is a highly problematic assumption.  Certainly, racist ideas and policy could be a factor in explaining racial inequity; but so could class factors.  To what extent is racial inequity in income a reflection of policies that perpetuate income inequity in the nation as a whole?  How can it be assumed that racism is the more important factor, when there are laws and policies against racial discrimination, but there does not exist a national program to address income inequalities, and there is very limited governmental effort to attend to the needs of the poor, be they black or white?  Kendi does not offer the reader any explanation of why class factors should not be taken into account in addressing racial inequities.

     On the other hand, Kendi does demonstrate a capacity to take class factors into account, when it is necessary for his political agenda.  He cites a study finding that young black males are more violent than young white males.  He argues that this alleged relation between race and violence disappears when class factors are taken into account.  He notes that low-income neighborhoods, regardless of their racial and ethnic composition, have higher levels of unemployment and crime, thus producing violent crime.  And the solution to this problem, he notes, is higher paying jobs.  He is explaining that the higher level of violence of young black males has nothing to do with race.

      Could not such de-racialization of a social problem be applied to the crude relation in the data between race and income?  Could it not be that the relation is explained by factors other than white racism?  Factors such as historic discrimination prior to the civil rights reforms of the 1960s, the absence of a comprehensive national program to address poverty and to generate higher paying jobs in the nation, and insufficient attention by black leadership on the economic development of low-income black neighborhoods.  Should not all of these factors be taken into account in seeking to understand racial inequity in income?

     To be sure, some whites are opposed to greater attention to the needs of lower-income persons because they have been duped by unethical politicians into believing that government programs are handouts to black people, and thus their opposition can be understood as a form of racism.  But white resistance to greater state involvement in the distribution of goods and services cannot be reduced to racism.  Since 1980, the elite and the political establishment have undertaken an ideological attack on the state, in reaction to the sustained structural crisis of the capitalist world-economy.  They have created an ideological environment of resistance to state involvement in the economy, regardless of the race of the perceived beneficiaries.  Perhaps more than accusations of racism, we need today a profound national debate and discussion concerning the role of the state in the economy and society, concerning the necessary role of the state in directing the development of the economy and in ensuring a just distribution of goods and services.  National policies emerging from such discussion would benefit the lower and working classes, regardless of race; it would benefit blacks disproportionately, since blacks are disproportionately poor.  But this does not need to be said; the rationale for the program would be improving the living conditions of all of our citizens who have need.  It is their need that justifies the program, not their color.

     There also are possible cultural factors in explaining racial inequity in income, and Kendi does address this issue.  He attempts to refute those who argue that cultural factors are important in explaining racial inequities.  He rightly criticizes the assimilationist view, which has had both white and black proponents.  The assimilationist view, assuming the inferiority of black culture, maintains that blacks can be instructed to acquire the behaviors of white culture and integrate into white society.  And he rightly criticizes the “culture of poverty” literature of the 1960s, which described black inner-city culture as full of pathologies.  Kendi maintains that neither the culture nor the people are pathological; rather, it is the conditions of poverty that are pathological.  He notes that in response to pathological conditions, the people invent cultures and behaviors that may be different from those of the richer neighborhoods, but not inferior.  If the elite race-class evaluates by its own cultural and behavioral norms, then it will judge the culture of the black poor to be inferior, when it actually is simply different. 

     Fair enough.  But there are questions that need to be asked here.  What if some of these culturally different but not inferior behaviors are in fact obstacles to reducing poverty in the neighborhood?  If this is so, as some black leaders and scholars have asserted for four decades, does someone somewhere have the responsibility to educate the black poor, to bring them to behaviors that are faithful to who they are, to their ancestors, to their history and culture, but yet at the same time would empower them to education and employment, or to whatever they need to satisfy their material needs as they define them?  Clearly, white people cannot do this, out of respect for the cultural autonomy of the black community, and in order to stay clear of paternalism.  Development in the culture of the black poor is and must be the responsibility of black society, and a generalized accusation of white racism does not address this responsibility.

      The question can be put differently.  Is it possible to define values, goals, standards, and norms that pertain to the whole nation, without falling into the trap of assimilationism?  Perhaps the Third World national liberation movements can serve as a relevant example.  They appropriated key Western values, but redefined them from the perspective of the colonized.  In this reformulation, which arrived to be a consensus in the Third World, the great leaders of the national liberation movements of the 1950s and 1960s stood against traditionalists who were for the total rejection of Western structures and values.  The leaders prevailed because of the impracticality of traditionalism in the wake of colonial domination and imposed economic transformations.  Because of the decisive role of Third World leaders of the epoch, there emerged by the 1970s a declaration of the principles that ought to guide humanity, affirmed by virtually all of the nations of the world.  The implementation of these principles remains central to the diplomatic posture of Third World governments today, including working with UN agencies in their practical application.

      In this regard, Kendi displays a weak understanding of the historical development of colonialism in the world, and even less of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements of national liberation forged by the colonized.  Illustrating this, he demonstrates very limited understanding of the historically significant examples of China and Cuba.  In these limitations he reflects American culture.  As a result, he is unable to go very far beyond anti-racism in the U.S. social and political context.  He criticizes Cuba for being racist; but he should spend more time observing Cuba, for it exemplifies the road to a more just world, as the movements of the Third World today understand and affirm.

     Kendi implicitly frames the slavery of Africans in America as exceptional.  But history teaches that domination and forced labor have been the normal human tendency since the agricultural revolution, and they are the foundation of empires and civilizations.  White racist southern slaveholders were really not so different from the rest of us humans as is sometimes inferred.  Kendi then proceeds to note that the few anti-racist measures of 1964-1965 were compelled by white elite interest, as if to say that even when the white man does the right thing, he is compelled to do so.  But this, too, could be framed in a more positive light.  We could proclaim that corporate elite support for the 1964-1965 reforms shows that humans are capable of acting in just ways, when they see it is in their interests to do so. 

     How can these insights be applied to the situation today?  It can be seen, upon observation of global conflicts and dynamics, that humanity as a whole now has an interest, a common human interest, in ending neocolonialism and imperialism and building an international community of sovereign nations that have mutually beneficial trade with one another, to the benefit of the economies and peoples of all nations.  If it is the case that social groups and sectors are capable of acting with justice when they see that it is in their interests to do so, then this indicates the necessary road.  The road of cooperation and social justice seeking the transformation of neocolonial structures and imperialist policies, building a world-system composed of sovereign nations and defined by mutually beneficial trade, creating better social and economic conditions in all nations. Today, should whites be accused, or should we be invited to participate in the construction of a more just world, knowing that, as humans, we surely have defects, but as humans, we will overcome them in common struggle for the attainment of our common interests and of meaningful national and global goals.

     Kendi insightfully observes that when we fail to influence others, we blame their stupidity, rather than our incapacity to explain well.  We should self-criticize our ideas, he maintains, and refine our ideologies.  He expressed this insight in the context of his failure to persuade his graduate school classmates with respect to a protest proposal. 

     I think the insight has broad applicability.  Since the 1960s, the U.S. Left has failed to educate the people of the United States beyond ethnocentrism, beyond elite-disseminated and false ideas concerning the role of the state with respect to the economy and the social and economic rights of the people, and beyond a superficial understanding of national security.  The Left failed because of its superficial concepts and poorly-considered strategies.  Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump were elected not primarily because of white racism, but because of the failure of the Left to educate the people concerning their true interests.  And the Left has not critically evaluated its concepts and strategies, instead opting to blame common folk for being ignorant and racist.

      During my college teaching career, in which my students were overwhelmingly white upper-middle and middle class, I sensed that whites were resistant to change because of what could be called “fear of a great reversal,” where one asks, “What if they come to power and treat us the same way we treated them?”  As a result of fear, people are going to be reluctant to give support to the process of change and all of the uncertainties that it implies, unless they feel confident that their rights will be respected in the new order being born.  Therefore, agents of social change have to make abundantly clear that they seek nothing more than liberty and justice for all; they do not want vengeance, but rectification. 

     Our people have been instructed of the bad examples of the terror of the French Revolution, the Stalinist Soviet Union, and the cultural revolution of Maoist China.  Our people do not know of the numerous examples of revolutions that came to power, in which the new leaders exercised power with responsibility: Toussaint in Haiti, Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, Fidel in Cuba, Allende in Chile, Ortega and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, Chávez and Maduro in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Correa in Ecuador, Lula and Wilma in Brazil, the Kirchners in Argentina, and Xi Jin Ping in China today.  We must teach our people that the Third World movements of national liberation today demonstrate the human potentiality for the construction of a more just world.  We must not accuse them for their human limitations; we must call them to the construction of a society “for all, and for the good of all,” in the words of the nineteenth century Cuban revolutionary José Martí.

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Preface - April 6, 2021