Antiracism Defined: A Response to David Justice
One of my favorite things about being part of the Conciliar Post community is getting to read about (and discuss) what other writers are reading. Although Joshua Schendel and a few others write more or less from the perspective of my own theological tradition, most do not. That’s the best part.
David Justice’s recent review of Irbam X. Kendi’s big hit How To Be An Antiracist is no exception. David’s review comes at an opportune time. Kendi’s bestseller was published last year, but he’s been something of a household name for some time, and antiracism is all the rage right now. His book currently sits at the top of the Amazon lists and his central idea is becoming a staple of public vocabulary, a feat accomplished in relatively short order. Kendi’s breakout 2016 book, Stamped from the Beginning, didn’t do too shabby either.
As a student of liberation theology and gender and women’s studies, David is probably the most qualified person on paper currently writing for CP to evaluate and relay Kendi’s ideas to CP readers. His insight into the influence of liberation theology on Kendi evidences this. That said, I have my qualms with both David’s presentation of Kendi and his conclusions derived therefrom.
This is part critique of the reviewer and, considering David’s desire for Christians to embrace Kendi’s program, part critique of the author himself. David summarizes some of How To Be An Antiracist as well as the career of the author. David’s basic thesis is that “Kendi’s work can contribute to faithful [Christian] discipleship.”
At the outset I disagree with David that Kendi’s book represents good scholarship. Coleman Hughes has, in my mind, sufficiently argued this in an article for City Journal last year. However, from the position of a critical race theorist, Kendi’s work is intellectually consistent. Indeed, his antiracist manual has only made waves because it has reached a broader audience. Along with Robin DiAngelo and Kimberlé Crenshaw, he is without a doubt one of the most popular practitioners of critical race theory (CRT)— what I refer to as a “public theorist” (like a public historian or public theologian)— in America today.
The style of How To Be An Antiracist, as David mentions, is something of a blend of memoir and political manifesto (Kendi is constantly talking about “policy”), The Guardian even described it this way. This unique style is consistent with DiAngelo’s bestselling and seemingly ubiquitous White Fragility, as well as that of other recent big hits that conform to the public theorist style: Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race and Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race?
The accessibility of books like Kendi’s diminishes the very real knowledge gap between academics of Kendi’s ilk and lay readers. My primary critique of David’s review is that he does little to narrow said gap.
The major problem with David’s review is definitional neglect. He fails to bring the reader up to speed with the latest nomenclature of Kendi’s field, nomenclature that is essential to understanding Kendi’s theoretical position and end goal.
Whether the uninitiated reader is engaging with Kendi, DiAngelo, or the father of Critical Race Theory, Derrick Bell, they will in short order suspect a disconnect between themselves and the author. Most evidently, they may, or should, sense a more expansive conception of the central subject matter: racism. Yet, this is not immediately clear and (anecdotally) I find that Christian readers of Kendi et al. tend to view his ideas in the most favorable light. They are inclined to assume no slight of hand—this is not meant as an accusation of intellectual fowl play but rather an emphasis on underlying theory that laypeople are not privy to—when encountering Kendi’s key concepts.
What many readers will fail to discern is that the definition of “racism” from which Kendi or any of aforementioned authors is operating is the definition of CRT: prejudice plus systemic power. That is, cultural and institutional power. It is the conviction of critical race theorists that racism is perpetuated in society by control of cultural mechanisms (i.e. cultural hegemony) which are formed according to the preferences (i.e. the maintenance of power) of the dominant class.
Put tersely, whiteness—the socially constructed system of power which maintains, self-consciously or otherwise, white dominance— is the norm; it is presented positively by every cultural institution and thereby serves as the status quo, the measuring stick for everyone and everything. Whiteness manifests on the ground level in seemingly innumerable ways: white comfort, white (willful, active, or pernicious) ignorance, white fragility, white tears, anti-blackness, aversive racism, epistemic racism, and so on.
White people are presumed complicit in all of this, but since whiteness is a system, skin pigmentation is not ultimately controlling. People of color may also prop up whiteness by conforming to their perceived role within the status quo or failing to adequately criticize it.
The only way to confront whiteness—under a social constructivist view of race, whiteness is the source of “racism” because whites created the concept of race to distinguish themselves and thereby acquire more power— given its systemic and social nature, is to problematize and dismantle the norms and (especially historical) narratives it asserts; to rip it out root and all from the soil of society. Critical race theorists are decidedly activist because their theory demands it. The raison d’etre of their theory is to deconstruct the hegemonic force that is whiteness; the theory would have little purpose without this perfect enemy. Kendi is no exception in this regard, as we will see.
More could be said, but that’s the gist. (I have treated the topic more thoroughly elsewhere). The basic origin story of this new conception of racism is that even as older forms of racism (think Jim Crow) deteriorated or lost public support, racism did not disappear but merely transformed, arguably becoming more powerful, more ingrained in the fabric of society. Racism survived by transitioning more acutely into cultural aspects (e.g. “cultural” or “neo” racism).
In Kendi’s words:
When the reaction to the Nazi Holocaust marginalized biological racism, cultural racism stepped into its place… Whoever makes the cultural standard makes the cultural hierarchy. The act of making a cultural standard and hierarchy is what creates cultural racism.
The cultural hegemony is developed and perpetuated at every level of society, especially media, education, and law—CRT has been historically most concerned with the latter, whereas critical pedagogy focuses on education, and cultural studies on media, but there is significant overlap—all of which allegedly reflect dominant cultural norms which privilege whites. Due to the systemic character of the new definition, it is the contention of critical race theorists that racism is both ordinary and ubiquitous. It is a feature of society, not a bug, one that defines the western ethos, as Nikole Hannah-Jones has famously purported to demonstrate. Those who do not see this are not critically conscious, they are not woke. The same goes for those who insist upon a now outdated understanding of racism.
The old definition or racism was something like, “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief of the discriminator that his own race is superior.” Today, “racism” stands for everything encompassed by the old definition but coupled with power derived from dominant culture status, crudely outlined above. Prejudice or bias is assumed of all people, but only whites possess the requisite systemic power to actualize and mobilize their prejudice in a way that produces real systemic impact. (You have doubtless heard that intent is irrelevant, impact is all).
To be fair, as I have pointed out before, and David rightly does in his review, it is commendable that Kendi resists the suggestions of some that blacks are incapable of racial prejudice and, because every person cannot be totally stripped of power, racism. David’s mention of this hints at the working definition of racism employed by Kendi and other critical race theorists but fails to fully draw it out. Racism to the critical race theorist is about power.
Under the new prejudice plus power definition what makes one a “racist” is their social location. As Reni Eddo-Lodge puts it,
Those disadvantaged by racism can certainly be cruel, vindictive and prejudiced. Everyone has the capacity to be nasty to other people, to judge them before they get to know them. But there simply aren’t enough black people in positions of power to enact racism against white people on the kind of grand scale it currently operates at against black people.
David correctly points out that for Kendi, racism is attached more to racist action (or policy) than any individual internal hatred. Racism is racist power. Yet, David does not, as it were, show Kendi’s math and thereby does not sufficiently communicate to the reader the full import of Kendi’s proposals. This is partially not David’s fault. Kendi, like DiAngelo, often does not show his own math; he does not explicitly display many of the background, working assumptions imbedded in his discipline.
Being hyper-focused on policy, at least in the abstract, Kendi defines a “racist” as “[o]ne who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.” “Racist policy” is defined as “any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity.”
But “inequity” too has been redefined. It is not synonymous with “equality.” Instead, equity is the reallocation of resources (cultural and systemic), or power, with the express purpose of correcting current or historical injustices as identified and interpreted by the array of critical theories now in play, e.g., fat studies, gender studies, postcolonial theory, queer theory, and etc. (It should be noted that in most of sub-disciplines, but especially in postcolonial theory and critical pedagogy, western Christianity is a chief offender, the cause of myriad systemic injustices, including epistemic violence, especially against children and people of color).
Equity means privileging the marginalized in pursuit of some unquantifiable, ill-defined equilibrium. In short, equity is absolute equality of outcome. Equality of opportunity is a “tool of oppression” and white supremacy as Tehama Bunyasi and Candis Smith phrase it in Stay Woke: A People’s Guide to Making All Black Lives Matter. Hence, the insistence of some disability studies practitioners that autism and other such diagnoses is an ableist construct, a source of oppression. So too is the use of the body mass index as an indicator of health; it discriminates against obese people.
All this to say, a “racist policy” is one that produces inequitable outcomes. Inequity is racism. And as Kendi makes clear, inequity is evidenced by disparities. Kendi once told the New York Times, “As an anti-racist, when I see racial disparities, I see racism.” David never tells us any of this in his favorable review of Kendi’s ideas. Because of this the essence of the namesake of the book remains obscure.
I have heard evangelical pastors refer to “antiracism” simply as “anti-sin.” Since we would all agree that racism is a sin—the above redefinition of “racism” foisted upon us notwithstanding—this explanation carries with it some intuitive sense. But not so fast. The redefinition of “racism” and “inequity” dictate a non-intuitive meaning for “antiracism.” It should not be so thoughtlessly adopted as some “thought leaders” have implied.
The revised definition of “racism” feeds into Kendi’s definition of the project— or maybe “lifestyle” is a better word— he promotes. Again, the term “antiracism”, even when rightly understood in light of the CRT conception of “racism” is more than meets the eye. Its scope exceeds what is implied on its face. On this, per usual, Kendi is explicit.
First, one cannot acceptably be simply non-racist or neutral, and especially not colorblind (i.e. colorblind racism). “[T]here is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘anti-racist’… 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.’” says Kendi. The claim of non-racism or of neutrality is a “mask for racism,” as is the claim of colorblindness.
The issue is not whether one actively discriminates against people based on their skin color of ethnicity. What matters is whether they are pursuing equity (see above) on every level of social life. “There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy,” Kendi writes. “If discrimination is creating equity, then it is antiracist. If discrimination is creating inequity, then it is racist.”
The lukewarm, the people who insist on colorblind neutrality are the most dangerous of all, by Kendi’s estimation. “[T]he most threatening racist movement is not the alt-right’s unlikely drive for a White ethno-state, but the regular American’s drive for a ‘race-neutral’ one.” CNN’s Van Jones parroted this very idea on live television only a week ago.
Neither is persuasion pursued in good faith on the table. Power dynamics comprise all reality. Accordingly, “An activist produces power and policy change, not mental change.” Kendi’s politics is not one of deliberation and compromise. In Kendi’s world, man is a power animal, not an intellectual, volitional, sociable one. And it is ironically binary, zero-sum game he sets up.
This gets at the character of Kendi’s antiracism but not its scope and application. Contrary to popular usage of Kendi’s term, the author intends a comprehensive theory. “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.”
Two things to notice: 1) antiracism is activism; there are no armchair antiracists; and 2) antiracism is expansive in scope, i.e., its not simply about race but rather the whole litany of oppressions. An antiracist must interrogate, problematize, and deconstruct not only racist power structures, but also those perceived to center or normalize cisgender heteronormativity, for instance. To not do so is to be racist. Kendi’s conclusion exposes the theory of intersectionality at operation in the background (which I have written on before). Because, in the matrix of domination, all oppressions are interlocking, mutually reinforcing, oppression of one subaltern or dominated group strengthens the hegemony and thereby increases oppression in the aggregate. Hence, homophobia or sexism is just as dangerous to blacks (even if they are straight males) because oppressions are intertwined even if not universally applicable.
As I said before, Kendi is obsessed with “policy” throughout his book. Helpfully, unlike many other CRT writers which tend to singularly focus on problems rather than proposed solutions, Kendi does not skimp on providing a way forward—at least his vision of such.
Kendi proposes a constitutional amendment which would stablish an omnipotent administrative agency tasked with ensuring antiracist policy at both the state and federal level, from both legislative and executive branches. This new body would be comprised of antiracist experts with universal veto power and carte blanche to social engineer in their own image. The agency would predictably be called, The Department of Antiracism (DOA). Upon reviewing Kendi’s book and DOA proposal, Andrew Sullivan rightly remarked, “There is a word for this kind of politics and this kind of theory when it is fully and completely realized, and it is totalitarian.”
Antiracism is a euphemism which, like intersectionality, encompasses advocacy (discrimination unto equity) for the entire gambit of oppressed identities discerned by CT. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and others mentioned above, per intersectionality, are interlocking systems of oppression. Antiracist activism, if it is to maintain its coherence and shape, is necessarily inseparable from feminist activism, LGBTQ+ activism, and the like. It is all or nothing. Its endgame is a radical reorientation of not only political content but political process and social dynamics, all built upon a theoretical basis and certain assumptions that have yet to be sufficiently publicly litigated by the rest of us. We should, therefore, be leery of uncritical, swift adoption of its terms.
David links Kendi with the heritage of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. This is not an uncommon, or unreasonable, way to view Kendi’s scholarship and activism, but one that I nevertheless reject for reasons expertly outlined by James Lindsay over at New Discourses.
To engage in the discussion that David has helpfully launched, we must properly grasp the ideas in play. I hope this discussion will continue. Its an important one. Christians, and specifically those of the CP community, should not be afraid or unwilling to discuss race relations in America (especially within the church), nor critique proposed solutions to racial strife. The recent events pointed out by David insist that we do, lest we go the way of the ostrich. My contention is simply that Kendi’s guide to doing so is problematic, especially for Christians. Though it is intellectually consistent within the confines of CRT (and all its specialized jargon), Kendi, in fact, constructs a hopeless, unwinnable game for the rest of us to play. And his endgame is decidedly totalitarian, checked only by the singular value of “equity.”
I have argued in longform that critical theories generally are fundamentally incompatible with historic, orthodox Christianity in terms of, inter alia, anthropology, and furthermore that they are a toxic presence in American public discourse.
I am also not the only one who recognizes what Lindsay calls “Critical Social Justice” as, at root, a religion. John McWhorter framed antiracism in particular this way back in 2015 and Rod Dreher recently reiterated, and expanded on some of McWhorter’s thoughts in light of the present goings on. But, maybe, no one has expressed the religiousness of contemporary critical theory and social justice like Lindsay in a very long but very readable piece for Areo a couple of years ago. Its insights and predictions have held true since.
Naturally, then, I would push back against David’s argument that Kendi’s book is “a faithful call to discipleship, a call to do the work required” to fulfill the call of the Lord’s Prayer. Of course, I would wholeheartedly agree with David and the apostle James that faith without works is dead and that our spiritual life should not be detached from the real world. I simply concur with Al Mohler that we needn’t have critical race theory (nor Kendi’s antiracism) to acknowledge and combat real racism in the world and understand the potential for said sin to manifest systemically. Kendi’s antiracism (and CRT generally) has far more potential to divide—indeed, disruption and social fissure is a necessary stage in the march toward progress from the CRT perspective—than to encourage order, tranquility, and healing, much less faithful Christian discipleship.
Nevertheless, it is here to stay, and we should talk about it. Thanks, David, for getting us started. The goal here has been to simply insert further definitional clarity into the discussion.