Dr. Ibram’s X. Kendi’s recent book How to Be An Antiracist deftly interweaves anecdotes from the author’s life with discussions of various form of racism: gender-racism, ethnic-racism, cultural racism, queer racism, etc… While the question of how we can undo the corruption of racist ideas and the legacy of centuries of institutional racism is undoubtedly an important one, Kendi’s fundamental assumptions about the nature of racism, antiracism, and equity are dubious. In what follows, I’ll review Kendi’s work, while trying to avoid duplicating the topics treated in Coleman Hughes’ excellent review.
The key to Kendi’s work is the strict dichotomy he establishes between “racist” and “antiracist”. He is adamant that these labels cleanly divide reality into two hemispheres with respect to ideas, actions, laws, and policies:
there is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘anti-racist.’ What’s the difference? One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an antiracist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an antiracist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist. There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.’ (p. 9)
For good measure, he adds:
The claim of ‘not racist’ neutrality is a mask for racism… The language of colorblindness –like the langue of ‘not racist’ — is a mask to hide racism. (p. 9-10)
But how exactly does Kendi define a ‘racist’? In Chapter 1, he writes that a racist is “One who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea,” (p. 13) where a “racist policy” is “any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity” (p. 18) and a “racist idea” is “any idea that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way” (p. 20). The phrase “in any way” is crucial because it encompasses not just biology, but behavior and culture. For example, Kendi later defines a “cultural racist” as “One who is creating a cultural standard and imposing a cultural hierarchy among racial groups” (p. 81), and a “behavioral racist” as “One who is making individuals responsible for the perceived behavior of racial groups and making racial groups responsible for the behavior of individuals” (p. 92).
These redefinitions lead to numerous problems. For example, the institution of marriage perpetuates racial inequities for many reasons (differential marriage rates, inheritance laws, tax breaks, etc…). Thus, according to Kendi’s definitions, a federal law that abolished marriage would qualify as “antiracist” while opposition to such a law would be “racist.” Given that most people realize that the abolition of marriage would be horrifically destructive and unjust, we’re then put in the awkward position of arguing that some “antiracist” policies (like the abolition of marriage) are evil while “racist” opposition to such policies is good and just.
Also notice the present-tense verbs in all of these definitions. To Kendi, “racist” and “anti-racist” are “not fixed identities. We can be racist one minute and an antiracist the next. What we say about race, what we do about race, in each moment, determines what -not who- we are” (p. 10).
Many of these assertions don’t merely run afoul of cultural conservatives; they also contradict the beliefs of Kendi’s fellow antiracists. For example, Kendi is particularly strident in his rejection of the idea that “Blacks can’t be racist.” He responds: “I had no sense of the reactionary history of this construction, of its racist bearing… Like every other racist idea, the powerless defense understimates Black people and overestimates white people” (p. 140). Elsewhere, he says that the claim that “Black people can’t be racist because Black people don’t have power” is “illusory, concealing, disempowering, and racist” (p. 136).
While readers should appreciate the clarity and straight-forwardness of Kendi’s definitions and claims, they commit him to extremely implausible conclusions, turning his book into a lengthy reductio ad absurdum against the antiracist cause he’s trying to defend.
Hierarchies and value
One of Kendi’s fundamental mistakes is his assumption that all hierarchies entail “inferiority.” Despite his hostility towards hierarchy, Kendi would presumably want to preserve any number of hierarchies in society: between parents and children, between elected officials and regular citizens, between doctors and patients, between pilots and passengers. Not all hierarchies imply differences in value. No matter how progressive we are, we don’t think that 6-year-olds should be performing open-heart surgery or that Joe the milkman should be able to rewrite our tax codes.
Similarly, according to Kendi, to deny the “equality” of any two groups with respect to every possible permutation of attributes and characteristics is to be a racist of one kind or another: “Antiracist ideas are based on the truth that racial groups are equals in all the ways they are different” (p. 31), “To be antiracist is to view national and transnational ethnic groups as equal in all their differences” (p. 64), “Cultural relativity [is] the essence of cultural antiracism. To be antiracist is to see all cultures in all their differences as on the same level, as equals” (p. 91).
Paradoxically, the kind of extreme cultural relativism proposed by Kendi calls into question his entire antiracist project. If he’s right, then who is to say that the wildly racist culture of Mississippi in the 1910s or South Africa in the 1970s is “worse” than the staunchly antiracist culture that Kendi is urging us to create? To argue that a culture can make progress is to assume that there is some objective standard against which the culture can be measured. But such a standard would also permit trans-cultural comparisons with respect to issues like racial tolerance, exactly the kinds of comparisons which Kendi insists are illicit.
Perhaps nowhere is Kendi’s willingness to follow his definitions to their bitter end more apparent that in his rejection of the “academic achievement gap.” I’ll quote him at length:
The acceptance of an academic-achievement gap is just the latest method of reinforcing the oldest racist idea: Black intellectual inferiority. The idea of an achievement gap means there is a disparity in academic performance between groups of students; implicit in this idea is that academic achievement as measured by statistical instruments like test scores and dropout rates is the only form of academic ‘achievement’… Remember, to believe in a racial hierarchy is to believe in a racist idea. The idea of an achievement gap between the races – with Whites and Asians at the top and Blacks and Latinx at the bottom- creates a racial hierarchy, with its implication that the racial gap in test scores means something is wrong with the Black and Latinx test takers and not the tests. From the beginning, the tests not the people, have always been the racial problem. (p. 101-102)
He goes on to ask: “What if different environments lead to different kinds of achievement rather than different levels of achievement? What if the intellect of a low-testing Black child in a poor Black school is different from -and not inferior to- the intellect of a high-testing White child in a rich White school?” (p. 103)
Kendi’s relativism here has absolutely staggering implications. If it is really true that we should reject the very idea of an achievement gap, then why bother to enact any educational reforms at all? Indeed, shouldn’t we view any effort to “close” the “achievement gap” in literacy rates or drop-out rates as a subtly racist attempt to impose White standards onto the Black community? Why work to secure equal opportunity for all students if poor Black schools and rich White schools already produce different but equal outcomes, as Kendi insists?
While Kendi defines “racism” in terms of inequities between racial groups, he adds that racism can be inflected with other forms of bigotry based on group identity, whether gender, skin color, class, or sexuality. The idea of “interlocking oppressions” is familiar to anyone who has studied the concept of intersectionality, which posits that “Race, class, gender, and similar systems of power are interdependent and mutually construct one another” (Collins, Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory, p. 44). What’s sometimes less appreciated is how the “mutually constructing” character of these supposed systems of power makes it impossible to divorce antiracism from other forms of social activism.
Kendi draws out this implication clearly and explicitly in numerous places: “Antiracist policies cannot eliminate class racism without anticapitalism policies. Anticapitalism cannot eliminate class racism without antiracism.” (p. 159) “To truly be antiracist is to be feminist. To truly be feminist is to be antiracist” (p. 189). “We cannot be antiracist if we are homophobic or transphobic… To be queer antiracist is to understand the privileges of my cisgender, of my masculinity, of my heterosexuality, of their intersections” (p. 197)
Kendi is not merely offering us a practical guide to fighting racism, but an entirely new way to see the world, in which “privilege” is the original sin, “systems of power” are the enemy, “activism” is atonement, and “equity” is the new heavens and the new earth.
If there is any doubt about the religious overtones of his work, Kendi makes the connection himself in the book’s opening chapter, in which he describes his own parents’ racial awakening at a Christian missions conference in 1970:
At Urbana ’70, Ma and Dad found themselves leaving the civilizing and conserving and racist church they realized they’d been part of. They were saved into Black liberation theology and joined the churchless church of the Black Power movement… [Dad] began reading the work of James Cone…‘What is your definition of a Christian?’ Dad asked in his deeply earnest way. Cone looked at Dad with equal seriousness and responded: ‘A Christian is one who is striving for liberation.’… Receiving this definition was a revolutionary moment in Dad’s life. Ma had her own similar revelation in her Black student union – that Christianity was about struggle and liberation. My parents now had, separately, arrived at a creed with which to shape their lives, to be the type of Christians that Jesus the revolutionary inspired them to be... This new definition of the Christian life became the creed that grounded my parents’ lives and the lives of their children. I cannot disconnect my parents’ religious strivings to be Christian from my secular striving to be an antiracist. (p. 14-17)
Kendi’s final line is illuminating. He recognizes that his antiracism fulfills the same longings that were fulfilled by his parents’ Christianity. Likewise, the similarities between his “steps to be an antiracist” and the “Sinner’s Prayer” of many evangelicals are striking. He writes that becoming an antiracist follows successive steps:
- “stop using the ‘I’m not a racist’ or ‘I can’t be racist’ defense of denial…”
- “admit the definition of racist…”
- “confess the racist policies I support…”
- “accept their source (my upbringing inside a nation making us racist)…”
- “acknowledge the definition of antiracist…”
- “struggle for antiracist power and policy in my spaces…” (p. 226)
Kendi is not pressing his readers to engage in a few new activities or even adopt a few new ideas; he is pressing them to convert. “To be an antiracist,” he writes, “is a radical choice in the face of this [country’s racist] history, requiring a radical reorientation of our consciousness” (p. 23).
Kendi’s book presents us with a sweeping account of race, gender, sexuality, power, morality, culture, and law. As a country, we’re only 70 years removed from Jim Crow and only 150 years removed from slavery. As a result, we can and should ask questions about persistent racial inequality. But we should also be careful to scrutinize the answers offered to us.
What’s notably lacking from Kendi’s antiracism are the Christian concepts of sin, redemption, forgiveness, and grace. Instead of seeing the fundamental problem as “in here”, in our own hearts, lives, and choices, we see the fundamental problem as “out there” in systems of power constructed by self-interested policy-makers. Instead of a salvation that comes from outside of us and is received as a gift, salvation is something that we accomplish as we struggle against the forces of racism, sexism, capitalism, homophobia, and transphobia.
Christians, of all people, should have a view of reality that is both more pessimistic and more optimistic than Kendi’s. In his last paragraph, he writes: “There is nothing I see in our world today, in our history, giving me hope that one day antiracists will win the fight… if we ignore the odds and fight to create an antiracist world, then we give humanity a chance to one day survive” (p. 238). Christians should realize that both the problem and the solution are far greater than Kendi imagines. We can fight against racism and injustice not with a grim desperation, but with assurance that in the end, evil will be wiped away, not only in the world, but in us as well.
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