Magazine August 10, 2020, Issue

Ibram X. Kendi, Prophet of Anti-racism

Ibram X. Kendi (Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images)
He says we must fight discrimination with discrimination, and that it’s racist to disagree

It is a measure of how deeply our culture is fragmented that some of the best-read people in the country have never heard of Ibram X. Kendi. Most Wall Street Journal readers would probably have to Google him. But Kendi now has four books at or near the top of the best-seller lists, including Stamped from the Beginning, which is a history of American racism that won the National Book Award in 2016, and two books on racism for younger readers. Racism is Kendi’s thing. His newest, How to Be an Antiracist, reappeared at the top of the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list this summer after having spent several months on the list last fall and winter. For many of the protesters who poured onto America’s streets in June in the wake of the videotaped killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, the book has been a conceptual road map. As the first fires were being lit in Minnesota, Boston University announced it would offer Kendi, 38, the most prestigious tenured chair at its disposal, making him only the second holder of the Andrew W. Mellon Professorship in the Humanities. The chair has been vacant since the death of the novelist and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel four years ago. BU will also host the Center for Antiracist Research, which Kendi founded at American University.

The “antiracism” of which Kendi is the most trusted exponent is not just a new name for an old precept. It is the political doctrine behind the street demonstrations, “cancelings,” Twitter attacks, boycotts, statue topplings, and self-denunciations that have come together in a national movement. Anti-racists assume that the American system of politics, economics, and policing has been corrupted by racial prejudice, that such prejudice explains the entire difference in socioeconomic status between blacks and others, that the status quo must be fought and beaten, and that anyone not actively engaged in this system-changing work is a collaborator with racism, and therefore himself a legitimate target for attack.

Under anti-racism, the private sphere becomes a battlefront. In Denver, ACLU organizers push people to “raise kids who ‘see color.’” The English department at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette has instituted quotas to increase its BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) hiring until all its senior positions are 15 percent minority. In California, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors introduced a Caution against Racially Exploitative Non-emergencies (CAREN) Act that would make it easier to prosecute those whose calls to 911 appear motivated by racial prejudice.

The anti-racism movement may sometimes be misguided: While the Floyd killing was affecting, for instance, there is still no evidence that it was an instance of racism. And the movement may be smaller than it looks, drawing primarily on those within the universe of activist foundations (such as the ACLU), the Bernie Sanders campaign (whose members fill the ranks of Showing Up for Racial Justice, or SURJ), and university ethnic-studies departments. Still, social media have broadened the networks from which each of these groups can recruit, and the anti-racism movement has grown to the point where Ibram X. Kendi can be said, for better or for worse, to be changing the country.

How to Be an Antiracist is a manifesto in the form of an autobiography. Kendi is not the first author confident that his intimate conflicts and private challenges provide sufficient raw material for a project to reorder American race relations. Ta-Nehisi Coates did something similar in Between the World and Me, his polemic against police violence. For that matter, Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father (1995) sketched out themes he would use to campaign for the Senate (“in no other country on earth is my story even possible”) a decade later. It is called “identity politics” for a reason.

Kendi’s devout parents were drawn through their churches into political activism in the 1970s and wound up worshiping at Reverend (later Representative) Floyd Flake’s Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Jamaica, Queens. They fired their son’s imagination with biographies in the Junior Black Americans of Achievement series. Kendi saw a bit of urban violence on the school bus. He was drawn to basketball, rap, and fashion. His parents moved to Manassas, Va., where he attended Stonewall Jackson High School. He won an oratory contest for a Bill Cosby–style exhortation calling on blacks to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, a performance that (on one hand) he remembers with shame but that (on the other) he begins the book with. Kendi has done a bit of everything. He is an ideological everyman of race consciousness, his life a Bunyanesque pilgrimage from the Valley of Assimilation to the Mountains of Intersectionality.

There is a moment in this life story that serves as the postmodern equivalent of George Washington’s chopping down the cherry tree with his little hatchet — a foreshadowing of the author’s most important adult virtues and commitments. It comes with a “microaggression” that Kendi witnessed in his third-grade classroom at the age of eight. A teacher, whose name Kendi forgets, called on an eager white student at the front of the class rather than a shy black girl sitting in the back. Later, in chapel, Kendi defied the teacher and refused to leave. The principal was called. His parents were sent for. The incident doesn’t sound like much, not even in Kendi’s purple description, but to remember it brings rage: “What other people call racial microaggressions I call racist abuse,” he writes. “And I call the zero-tolerance policies preventing and punishing these abusers what they are: antiracist.”

Decisive and unflinching though Kendi is when it comes to retribution against people such as his third-grade teacher, the autobiographical parts of this book show him to be tentative, even anguished, about identity. He grew up with the surname Rogers; he changed it to “Kendi” on his wedding day a few years ago. His parents gave him the middle name “Henry,” although he dropped it, he says, when he discovered the role of Henry the Navigator in the slave trade, eventually replacing it with “Xolani.” In college he was both fascinated by whiteness (wearing eye-lightening “honey” contact lenses) and repelled by it (writing in a college newspaper column that “Europeans are simply a different breed of human”). He is tormented by what he calls a “dueling consciousness” and believes many other blacks are too: “I felt the burden my whole Black life to be perfect before both White people and the Black people judging whether I am representing the race well.” It is, mutatis mutandis, a worry common to people of many ethnicities. In his classic memoir of assimilation, Making It, Norman Podhoretz calls it “the brutal bargain.”

In African-American studies, first at Florida A&M and then at Temple, Kendi began to resolve some of these questions. His mentor in Philadelphia was Molefi Kete Asante, notorious at the dawn of political correctness a generation ago as the author of Afrocentricity (1980), which stressed that, long before the high point of Greek culture, Egyptians, who lived in Africa, were building the Pyramids. This is perhaps not an insight it required the founding of a whole new academic discipline to impart, but Asante’s goals were polemical as much as scholarly. “The rejection of European particularism as universal is the first stage of our coming intellectual struggle,” he taught Kendi, who quotes these words midway through How to Be an Antiracist.

As a prose stylist, Kendi is clear, direct, and even witty. But the academic discipline he practices is built from bundles of esoteric “intersectional” concepts, such as “race-class” and “gender racism” and “space antiracism.” Kendi’s arguments are often disjointed: “An ethnic racist asks, Why are Black immigrants doing better than African Americans? An ethnic antiracist asks, Why are Black immigrants not doing as well as other immigrant groups?” Actually, both sound like perfectly legitimate avenues of speculation for a sociologist — or, for that matter, some guy sitting on a barstool. Why drag racism into it? To figure that out, we must understand what Kendi means by “racism” in the first place.

Kendi’s definition of racism is short but far from simple: “Racism is a marriage of racist policies and racist ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequities.” Certain reviewers, including Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy, have faulted the definition for the way it uses the concept of racism to define the concept of racism. It will seem less strange, and more powerful, when examined through the lens of academic race theory.

As the Minnesota legal theorist Alan David Freeman noted in his landmark 1978 essay “Legitimizing Racial Discrimination through Antidiscrimination Law,” the beneficiaries of a racist system (Freeman calls them “perpetrators”) are likely to view its dismantling as an ethical challenge. Getting over such a system means adopting an attitude of fairness and treating everyone the same.

The historic victims of that system, however, have a different perspective. They look at the system as having taken from them concrete things that were theirs by right — above all, jobs, money, and housing. They will not consider the problem fixed until those deprivations have been remedied. Kendi writes from this victim’s perspective. He wants not pious talk but the actual policies that will redistribute the advantages, the stuff, that whites have undeservingly acquired. “What if instead of a feelings advocacy,” he asks at one point, “we had an outcome advocacy that put equitable outcomes before our guilt and anguish?”

You might think that such a focus would render the talk of “racist ideas” in Kendi’s definition superfluous. As long as we’re talking about redistribution, what the haves and have-nots believe about race shouldn’t matter. This, in fact, is the way Marxists have traditionally solved (or evaded) the race problem. But ideas about race and racism are central to Kendi’s system of thought, and you will understand why when you focus on its one truly original element: His “antiracism” is not a doctrine of nondiscrimination. In fact, it is not even anti-racist, as that term is commonly understood.

Kendi belongs to the generation of activists who understand affirmative action to be an immovable part of the U.S. Constitution — and he has reason to understand it this way, if the complaisance of the Supreme Court is anything to go by. He does not even pay lip service to neutral treatment. If practical equality for blacks is the imperative, discriminating on their behalf is going to be necessary, and Kendi grasps the nettle:

The defining question is whether the discrimination is creating equity or inequity. If discrimination is creating equity, then it is antiracist. If discrimination is creating inequity, then it is racist. . . . The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination. 

This is a momentous defection from the consensus that has shaped discussion of race in newsrooms and faculty clubs for the last half century. It is why this book really is as “bold” as reviewers say it is, and why the judges who in 2016 gave Kendi the National Book Award were right to say he “turns our ideas of the term ‘racism’ upside-down.” Kendi has decided that the two approaches to civil rights described by Freeman are not simply different perspectives on the same issue; they are mutually incompatible — one must destroy the other. “There is no neutrality in the racism struggle,” he insists. The old view of the perpetrators — that everything will be well as long as we treat people with equality, neutrality, and respect — is no longer just a different approach to the problem. It is illegitimate. It is a “racist” obstruction.

A lot of things that only yesterday seemed like uncontroversial opinions become, under the terms this book lays out, crimes against decency. To oppose reparations for slavery (or to have no opinion on the matter) is racist. To say “All lives matter” is to place oneself among those “beleaguered White racists who can’t imagine their lives not being the focus of any movement.” To allude to color blindness or talk of a “post-racial society,” to back religious freedom or voter-ID laws . . . these are racist things, too. Even the overarching vision that rallied white liberals to civil rights — the belief that blacks could, and should, assimilate into American society — becomes morally suspect. Assimilation, Kendi announces at the start of his second chapter, expresses “the racist idea that a racial group is culturally or behaviorally inferior.” The idea is racist, Kendi reasons, because it is assumed the out-group would be improved by joining the in-group. Kendi returns to this theme again and again, and we shall return to it, too.

Also racist are those intellectuals and politicians whose explanations lessen in any way the weight of white racism among the causes of inequality: Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Nathan Glazer, naturally, for their ideas on black family structure in Beyond the Melting Pot (1963). But also Oscar Lewis, once considered the hippest of radical anthropologists, for describing a “culture of poverty” in La Vida (1966) and other books. Even Eleanor Holmes Norton, the longtime black congressional delegate from Washington, D.C., is accused of using “racist talking points” in formulating crime policy, racist in the sense that they discussed the culture of Washington’s urban neighborhoods.

Kendi grants that blacks, too, can be racist, but we must understand the grudging sense in which he concedes this. He believes blacks can collaborate with the structures of white racism, as turncoats, agents, and enforcers, the way Ohio secretary of state Ken Blackwell did by working for the George W. Bush presidential campaign in 2000:

Black on Black criminals like Blackwell get away with their racism. Black people call them Uncle Toms, sellouts, Oreos, puppets — everything but the right thing: racist. Black people need to do more than revoke their “Black card,” as we call it. We need to paste the racist card to their foreheads for all the world to see. 

But the racism itself is always white, no matter what the color of the person practicing it. When Kendi opposes “racism,” he means only the treatment of blacks by European-descended peoples since the Age of Discovery, especially under the American system of slavery and Jim Crow. He explicitly does not mean that he considers it wrong to discriminate by race in any abstract ethical sense. On the contrary: He is carrying out the de-universalization of Western values that his mentor Asante urged. One of the more interesting days in the culture wars will come when the trustees of Boston University discover that the ethical commitments of their second Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities are diametrically opposed to those of the first.

‘Ihad to forsake the suasionist bred into me, of researching and educating for the sake of changing minds,” Kendi writes. “I had to start researching and educating to change policy.” Something similar is inscribed on Karl Marx’s gravestone in Highgate Cemetery in London. It is the credo of an activist, not a scholar. Undisciplined in its arguments, audacious in its demands, How to Be an Antiracist bears the hallmarks of the ethnic-studies departments from which it arose.

Kendi spends a lot of energy turning up ancient grievances — an article in a 1903 issue of Medicine about the “sexual madness and excess” of black people, the speculations in a New York City prison doctor’s report in 1894 about whether lesbians are physically different from other women. He tends to imagine his interlocutors as eccentric and simple-minded, holding opinions that hardly anyone would dream up, let alone defend: “Black neighborhoods do not all have similar levels of violent crime,” he insists. “If the cause of the violent crime is the Black body, if Black people are violent demons, then the violent-crime levels would be relatively the same no matter where Black people live.” Who needed to be convinced of that? What is this “Black body” that Kendi and other ethnic-studies authors constantly allude to? Kendi leaves the impression he has had few conversations with people he really disagrees with. The distinction between mainstream Republicans and night-riding bigots does not appear to be an important one to him, given his references to what “white supremacists” think of climate change and Obamacare.

In African-American studies departments you can address racial problems in an atmosphere of esprit de corps and ideological unanimity. Because they traditionally had a different academic culture than other university departments, it long seemed natural to ignore them. But their very isolation has turned them into mighty bases for consciousness-raising, dogma construction, and political organizing. They are Internet Age equivalents of 19th-century Fenian Brotherhood lodges. It is from these hives of like-minded activists that the country’s human-resources departments have been staffed. That helps explain how, within hours of the first urban protests in June, hundreds of far-flung corporations had spontaneously and independently produced identical press releases and Facebook posts, identical right down to the catchphrases. 

Americans were doubly stunned: First, that these intra-corporate cliques could compel one celebrity after another, starting with New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy, to endorse Black Lives Matter, which most Americans had considered a radical movement just days before. Second, that they had been asked to surrender so much that they once considered part of their constitutional heritage, starting with rights of association and speech. These limitations seem to be restricted to the relations between companies and their employees, and thus of no concern to the Constitution at all. But the ultimate cause of the restrictions is the pressure brought to bear on corporations by regulators and litigators in the name of civil rights.

Those who are confident that Kendi’s argument is something they can take or leave probably do not understand what civil-rights law has become. The word “racist” is a powerful disciplinary tool; whoever controls its deployment can bend others to his will. In the recent wave of cancellations, silencings, forced recantations, and self-denunciations, it has become clear that corporations fear the word “racism” so much that they will betray their employees and permit their lives to be destroyed rather than risk being accused of it. Kendi’s aim is to broaden the privileges of those entitled to fling the word “racist” around, and to extend its power to ever more marginal misdeeds.

All this requires is a few redefinitions, and here the law appears to be on Kendi’s side. With its Bostock decision this spring, the Supreme Court went into the business of policing transphobia, a word that was not even in the dictionary when Barack Obama arrived in the White House. Most Americans can’t yet spell it, but anyone can be haled into a courtroom for it. In late June, when YouTube removed several videos it described as white-supremacist from its site, everyone cheered. The Financial Times even called the move “inexplicably delayed.” But “white supremacism” is in the eyes of the beholder. In Kendi’s book — which, it bears repeating, has been for much of this summer the best-selling nonfiction book in the United States — the line between white supremacists and climate-change deniers, between white supremacists and opponents of Obamacare, is hard to draw or discern, and a harried schoolteacher who doesn’t call on enough black students is a racist abuser deserving “zero tolerance” from the law.

Things are in flux. Since the killing of George Floyd, a lot of anti-racist political reforms have been suggested and even carried out in the name of progress, but much of this “progress” looks strangely like a segregationist’s dream.

It is difficult to imagine a reform more likely to drive American ethnic (and other) groups apart than the much-discussed project of defunding, or even abolishing, urban police forces. It is a matter of basic anthropology that, in the absence of a neutral arbiter, mutually mistrustful groups will provide for their own security. First they will isolate from the groups they fear most, and then they will build up their defenses. The alternative to the police is not social work — it is the Second Amendment. More than twice as many guns were sold this June as last June.

The same can be said for the wave of iconoclasm. Satisfying though it may be to throw ropes around a monument of Andrew or Stonewall Jackson and pull it down on one wild night, the effect is to add a grievance to American history, not remove one. The principle holds for a statue of Robert E. Lee as surely as it does for a statue of George Washington. Americans’ commitments to liberty and justice for all arise from their history. If human-rights activists do not take seriously many generations’ worth of democratic choices about which parts of their history Americans wish to commemorate (and even celebrate), then Americans will have a reason not to take seriously the commitments of human-rights activists.

In light of these unintended consequences, one assertion of Kendi, mentioned earlier, is particularly troubling, because even a skeptical reader will need to pause over the author’s point. This is Kendi’s dismissal of assimilation — the belief that blacks can “join” American society on equal terms — as racist. “While segregationist ideas suggest a racial group is permanently inferior,” Kendi writes, “assimilationist ideas suggest a racial group is temporarily inferior.” To an American raised in the civil-rights era, or in the shadow of it, this sounds obtuse. Temporary inferiority is not the same as permanent inferiority. Inferiority, in fact, is the wrong word for it.

But for those, like Kendi, who came of age in this century, the whole question looks different than what older Americans, both black and white, are apt to acknowledge. For a couple of decades after the passage of civil-rights legislation, such black socioeconomic inequality as remained could be wished away by well-meaning people of all persuasions, whether quota Democrats or enterprise-zone Republicans. But the persistence of this inequality through two whole generations puts those promises in a different light. The difference between “temporary” and “permanent” disadvantage looks like a rhetorical one. The dream, as Langston Hughes put it, has been deferred. A radical temptation arises.

Kendi, terrible simplificateur that he is, has picked up the gauntlet. As he sees it, there are only two explanations for this delay: Either you believe the problem is with blacks, unable to make it in a system that has been designed fairly for everyone, or you believe the problem is with whites, who have designed an unfair system that keeps blacks down. If you believe the former, you are a racist, and you will find yourself in conflict with both law and custom, conflict that anti-racists such as Kendi will strive to sharpen. If you believe the latter, then the present unrest is only a foretaste of a deeper transformation to come. For now, Americans have been struck dumb by these two unappealing diagnoses. A more considered response is to be expected. And perhaps feared.

This article appears as “The Prophet of Anti-racism” in the August 10, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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Christopher Caldwell — Mr. Caldwell is a contributing editor of the Claremont Review of Books and the author of The Age of Entitlement, a history of America since the Sixties.

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