“How to Be an Antiracist” – A Review and Reflection
Though How to Be an Antiracist is accessible to a general audience, it is rigorous scholarship by Ibram X. Kendi, professor at American University and director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center. In this book, Kendi applies the important historical work of his first major publication Stamped from the Beginning (Nation Books, 2016) to practical antiracist endeavors. In this review I examine the contours of his argument and investigate his controversial claim that it is in fact racist to argue that Blacks cannot be racist. Finally, I conclude with a reflection on how Kendi’s work can contribute to faithful discipleship.
It should be noted from the outset that in this work Kendi is not engaged in self-righteous sermonizing. Indeed, his autobiographical style leads to an enjoyable read and one where he is exceedingly open about his own failures to be antiracist. For Kendi, “antiracist” is a verb rather than a stable identifier. Actions rather than people are antiracist, and one antiracist action, even habitual antiracist actions, does not put one above reproach. Rather, Kendi’s conception of antiracism is a goal for which one must always strive. The fact that this sounds similar to the Christian notion that we must always strive for perfection while knowing we cannot attain it (Matthew 5:48) may not be a coincidence. Though Kendi is not himself religious he admits that his inspiration was the Black Liberation Theology of his parents (for which he still has respect).
Perhaps the most important idea for Kendi, the idea from which the rest of his antiracist philosophy flows, is that racial inequities are a result of racist policy, not differences between the races. For Kendi there are two kinds of racist power, which are propped up by people committing racist actions: assimilationist racism and segregationist racism—concepts that he defends historically in Stamped. Assimilationist racism assumes that there is something extrinsically wrong with Blacks, or any other non-white people group, and that this explains racial disparity. An example would be the notion that Black culture is deficient, which explains Black’s failure to succeed. Segregationist racism, alternatively argues that there is something inherently deficient in non-whites, such as the notion that Blacks are genetically inferior to whites. Both approaches fail to hold racist policy and racist policymakers, i.e. racist power, accountable and therefore are equally racist even if the former may be more well intentioned.
Another important notion that causes this work to stand out is Kendi’s cogent articulation of the argument that it is not race that creates racism, but instead the inverse. He argues—again, using reasoning that is historically fleshed out in Stamped—that racism was created by elites to justify the status quo that oppresses all but the powerful few. “This cause and effect—a racist power creates racist policies out of raw self-interest,” Kendi states, “[recognizes that] racist policies necessitate racist ideas to justify them.” (42) For Kendi, it is exceptionally clear that ending racism is in the interest of all but the ruling white elite. However, the fact that racism is constructed and therefore unnatural does not lessen the effects it has on the world. Neither is Kendi naive enough to think that ignoring race will have any effect on stemming the deleterious effects of racist power. Rather, the only way forward is to clearly define and name racist power and take action in order to bring it to an end.
Much of the rest of the book is a near exhaustive accounting of ways racism can manifest, whether in conjunction with biology, ethnicity, skin tone, behavior, class, gender, space, sex, and more. It seems that Kendi intends for his reader to engage with his work as a kind of self-chemotherapy, identifying and working to eradicate racist ideas that lead to racist action in our lives—ideas and actions that must be replaced by their antiracist counterparts. Cancer is a guiding metaphor in the book both because racism, on both cultural and individual levels, is deeply destructive, but also because Kendi details his own fight with cancer throughout the text.
We have now arrived at Kendi’s controversial claim that it is racist to argue that Blacks cannot be racist. If one is to meaningfully critique this book, i.e. critique it in a way that does not deny the power of racism, then it is likely to be on this point. So, what brings Kendi to this conclusion? As stated previously, Kendi argues that racism—racist power—is based fundamentally on racist policy and people doing racist actions to support said racist policy. Given this definition, he argues that Blacks can be racist because Blacks do have access to some power, albeit significantly less power than whites. He states, “Every single person actually has the power to protest racist and antiracist policies, to advance them, or, in some small way, to stall them… The powerless defense strips Black policymakers and managers of all their power.” (140-141) Thus, on Kendi’s formulation, to argue that Blacks cannot be racist is to argue that Blacks have no power, which ultimately disempowers Blacks and disallows them from participating in meaningful antiracist change.
Whether one accepts Kendi’s most controversial points or not, his arguments are worth wrestling with, most basically because—if read carefully—you will come away knowing more about yourself and how you can contribute to the creation of an antiracist world. Though Kendi is not overly optimistic, unlike Afro-pessimists and others who have given in to despair, he holds on to a glimmer of hope. And that glimmer is, if we refuse to lose hope, there remains a chance that one day “antiracist ideas [will be] our common sense, like racist ideas are today.” (218)
Though Kendi is not writing to the church specifically, the white American church in particular must pay attention to calls like his for concrete antiracist action. More than 50 years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” that:
We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God.
Here King is critiquing a white Christian who wrote to King telling him to be patient, that positive change will come about if Blacks are willing to wait. King’s response is that not only must Christians not be silent, but indeed it is their duty to take concrete steps to rid America of its systems of racist oppression, because time itself does nothing to rid the world of injustice.
If anyone still needs to be convinced of this fact, the horrific revelations of the past few weeks should provide ample evidence. We have witnessed video of the modern day lynching of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd and learned that Breonna Taylor was murdered in her home when police mistakenly came in shooting. Their names are added to a long list of Black people who violently had their lives taken from them by police (or in Arbery’s case, white people acting in lieu of the police)—so many that the United Nations has recently condemned America for failing to halt the police killings of unarmed Blacks. And, police violence only scratches the surface of the racialized violence and oppression faced by Black Americans (good resources to learn more are: The Color of Law, The New Jim Crow, and The Cross and the Lynching Tree). The truth is, there has been violence against Blacks since the inception of America. Indeed, this violence was intentionally built into the American system (see, for example, Eddie Glaude’s Democracy in Black).
Thus, in closing, I argue that white American Christians such as myself should see Kendi’s book as a call to faithful discipleship, a call to do the work required to make “God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We must pray, study the Scriptures, and work to be spiritually faithful—but this spiritual work is not disconnected from action taken to address injustice in our world. Indeed, James tells us that “faith without works is dead.” Work for justice is integral to our personal and communal spiritual health, and Kendi helpfully shows many ways that this antiracist work for justice can be done.
List of additional resources specifically for white Americans: Antiracism Resources