Apart from factual issues, I disagreed with Kendi’s ideological assumptions at many points. In fact, when pushed their logical conclusion, Kendi’s ideological commitments lead to extremely implausible or undesirable conclusions.
The Definition of Equality
Perhaps the fundamental problem with Kendi’s ideology is his definition of ‘antiracism.’ According to Kendi, antiracist thinking is recognizing that “there is nothing wrong with Black people [and] that racial groups are equal…Black Americans’ history of oppression has made Black opportunities – not Black people- inferior. ” (p. 11) While this definition sounds eminently reasonable, we need to pay close attention to the words ‘inferior’ and ‘equal’ here. While I would absolutely affirm that all groups of people, whether racial groups, ethnic groups, genders, or people of different physical or mental capacities, are equal in value and dignity, Kendi means something very different when he talks about ‘equality’.
For example, he continues by saying: “When you truly believe that the racial groups are equal, then you also believe that racial disparities must be the result of racial discrimination” (p. 11). This claim demonstrates that ‘equality’ -as Kendi is using the term- is not equality of value or equality of dignity. In fact, it is not clear exactly what he does mean by ‘equality’ because it is very hard to argue that the ‘equality’ of two groups entails that any disparities between them are due to discrimination. Let me give several examples that illustrate the implausibility of this claim.
First, think about what we mean when we say that ‘men’ and ‘women’ are equal. Should we immediately conclude that all disparities between men and women are due to discrimination? Are higher rates of breast cancer among women, or the greater average stature of men examples of sexism? Does the fact that men are ten times more likely than women to be imprisoned demonstrate systemic sex discrimination in the judicial system? Presumably not. Sex discrimination surely exists, but it is not the only cause of group disparities.
Second, there are many disparities between racial subgroups that almost certainly cannot be attributed to discrimination. For example, the median annual income of an Indian American family is $122,000 while the median income of Pakistani Americans is $63,000. The median income of a Taiwanese American is $90,000 while the median income of a Chinese American is $73,000. The median income of a Nigerian American is $61,000 while the median income of a Somali American is $24,000. While discrimination may account for some of these differences, is it really safe to assume that discrimination is the only reason for these differences?
Third, we are generally unwilling to attribute disparity to discrimination when it runs in the opposite direction. For example, between 2007 and 2011, the percentage of Asian and Jewish students at Ivy League universities was 16% and 23% respectively, compared to their representation of 5.6% and 1.4% in the U.S. population. In other words, they’re overrepresented by factors of 3 and 16. Yet presumably, no one in his or her right mind would argue that the Ivy League is discriminating in favor of Asians and Jews. Like it or not, I think we have to concede that the cultural emphasis that Asians and Jews place -on average- on education accounts for part of this disparity.
Keep in mind that in none of these observations am I claiming that discrimination is not a factor in disparities. It is a factor. Perhaps it is even the largest factor. I am merely showing that it is very unlikely that discrimination is the only factor. It is Kendi who is explicitly committed to the radical thesis that “racial discrimination is the sole cause of racial disparities in this country and in the world at large” (p. 11). According to Kendi, to concede that there are factors at work other than discrimination is a form of racism.
Racism: immoral or empirical?
Apart from its intrinsic implausibility, Kendi’s view of ‘racism’ has a second problem: it ties antiracism to empirical, measurable claims about racial disparities. Imagine that we were to accept Kendi’s argument that belief in “racial equality” necessitates that all disparities are the result of discrimination. What if we began to suspect that standardized tests do in some sense measure ability? What if we realized that the academic success of Asians cannot be plausibly attributed to pro-Asian bigotry? According to Kendi’s reasoning, we would be forced to conclude that racial groups are not equal. This horrifying view would not contradict Kendi’s arguments; it would instead be the consequence of Kendi’s arguments.
By insisting on such a hard, unbreakable connection between racial disparities and racial discrimination, Kendi runs the risk of affirming the very thing he is trying so desperately to avoid. His logic inadvertently creates the following maxim that he and his followers are forced to accept: If we conclude that there are in fact legitimate, empirical disparities between racial groups, then we have to conclude that racial groups are not actually equal. To put it another way, if “racism” means “believing that some racial disparities are partially caused by factors other than discrimination,” then some racist ideas might be true.
There is a simple alternative to this abhorrent conclusion; we should return to a traditional understanding of racism. If racism is “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior” then we can decouple our moral rejection of racism from empirical concerns. Racism is not a statement about observable facts, but is instead immoral behavior towards other people based on a denial of their value. Given this traditional definition, we do not have to prove that all individuals are identical in their interests or abilities in order to insist that they are still equal in value or in order to craft public policy that treats them as equals.
What we’re really seeking here is a Christian conception of human equality. Christians believe that all humans are equal because we are equally made in the image of God, and therefore have inestimable dignity and worth, regardless of our natural abilities or characteristics. And isn’t it obvious that this is the proper view of human equality? Don’t we want to affirm that a disabled person or a person with Down Syndrome or an elderly person with dementia or a beggar on the street is just as worthy of our respect and love and just as fully human as the most athletic, brilliant, healthy billionaire on the planet? Shouldn’t we insist that the many observable differences between us have no bearing whatsoever on how we should treat each other or on our value as human beings?
I’ll mention two other minor points of particular interest to Christians interacting with this work.
Kendi flirts with ‘cultural relativism’ throughout the book. He seems to recognize that Blacks in the U.S. are not merely a socially-constructed racial group, but are also an ethnic group that largely shares a common culture. So when he insists on ‘racial equality’ he is simultaneously insisting on ‘cultural equality’, an idea which he seems to affirm here:
The confines of enslavement were producing Black people who were intellectually, psychologically, culturally, and behaviorally different, not inferior. (p. 98)
“[Montagu] shared the antiracist concept that ‘all cultures must be judged in relation to their own history… and definitely not by the arbitrary standard of any single culture.'(p. 353).
Yet if we truly insist that no culture can be judged as superior or inferior to any other culture “in any way”, on what basis do we condemn the undeniably racist culture of Whites in the antebellum South? Or the racist culture of Whites in South Africa under apartheid?
I understand (and share) a hesitancy to pass moral judgments on other cultures, particularly when this condemnation is so often an excuse for the self-righteous exaltation of our own culture. But cultural relativism is not a solution to this problem. A better approach is to recognize that all cultures are accountable to God’s moral standard, and that all cultures, including our own, fall short of this standard.
Antiracism and other oppressions
Finally, Kendi affirms that consistent ‘antiracism’ requires more than just opposition to racial inequality: “in order to truly be antiracists, we must also oppose all of the sexism, homophobia, colorism, ethnocentrism, nativism, cultural prejudice, and class bias teeming and teaming with racism to harm so many Black lives” (p. 502-503). In the same way, he declares that “A truly multicultural nation ruled by multiculturalists would not have Christianity as its unofficial standard religion… No cultural group would be directly and indirectly asked to learn and conform to any other group’s cultural norms in public in order to get ahead.” (p. 469).
Here we see the influences of critical theory on Kendi’s ‘antiracism.’ Racial equality is only one aspect of the equality of all groups, whether groups determined by race, or gender, or sexual orientation, or culture. Antiracists find solidarity with women, and the LGBT community, and the working class because all of these groups experience oppression. According to Kendi (and according to critical theory) their struggles and the struggle for racial equality are inextricably linked.
Here, Christians again must be very careful. On the one hand, we should oppose any law or policy or action or belief which denies or defaces the Imago Dei, which all human beings share equally. Similarly, Christians should not want to live under a theocracy in which the power of the State is used to coerce external conformity to Christian doctrine while human hearts are unconverted.
Nor should we confuse Christian moral norms with American cultural norms. The two are different. Christianity was birthed in the Middle East, and came to Asia Minor and Africa before it ever reached Europe, let alone North America. We must be exceptionally careful not to conflate Christianity with the United States.
On the other hand, Christians do want as many people as possible to embrace the gospel and we do want Christian moral norms to shape how people think about God and about other human beings. We do not want to live in a culture where infanticide or human sacrifice are seen as legitimate expressions of culture. In this sense, we cannot simply celebrate multiculturalism for the sake of multiculturalism.
Nor, I suspect, can Kendi. In his final paragraphs, he imagines eradicating racism through “Americans [who are] committed to antiracist policies seizing power and maintaining power over institutions, neighborhoods, countries, states, nations – the world…. [so that] antiracist policies become the law of the land, and then antiracist ideas become the common sense of the people” (p. 510). Of course, in this ideal antiracist society, racist or sexist or homophobic cultures would indeed be “directly and indirectly asked to learn and conform to other group’s cultural norms in public in order to get ahead,” which Kendi claims to oppose. But here we return to the paradox of cultural relativism. When push comes to shove, the cultural relativist wants to marginalize certain cultures (the intolerant, regressive ones) and to normalize other cultures (the tolerant, progressive ones). We can’t avoid making moral judgments about certain cultural practices, so why not be up front about it?
Stamped from the Beginning is an important and influential book. Yet it suffers from numerous serious flaws, both in the historical and factual claims it makes and in the overall ideology which shapes the work. Read it, but read it critically.
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