I Don't Want to be an Antiracist
Ibram X. Kendi’s book, How to Be an Antiracist, has won many accolades and was described in the New York Times review as the “most courageous book to date on the problem of race in the Western mind.” Ericka Taylor of NPR called the book “clear and compelling.” It has been on the New York Times bestseller list for over 45 weeks and got a huge surge in sales after the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matters protests. The book is a recommended reading for the so-called diversity, equity and inclusion training sessions in vogue across America (and endorsed by the Biden administration) that also feature critical race theory and the 1619 Project.
The book portrays Professor Kendi’s growth and evolution as a black man and as an antiracist starting as a young boy in a poor black neighborhood in Queens, growing into a high school kid in the relatively affluent white town of Manassas, Virginia and on to a college and graduate student at various colleges. Kendi is a good writer, and he tells his story eloquently. But I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. He is obsessed with race and racism. He is consumed by racism. His life, education and profession are dedicated to race and racism. As if the world contained nothing good, beautiful or eternal but only race, racism and racial oppression.
The history of racism in America is dark, very dark. You need to only read the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass to realize the depravity and cruelty of slave ownership. The life of blacks in the South after emancipation was little better. But despite constitutional amendments and civil rights laws that have largely eliminated discrimination against blacks and other minorities, Kendi points to continuing disparities between blacks and whites such as the income gap, the wealth gap, the academic-achievement gap and disparities in health outcomes as proof of persistent racism.
One of the bases for Professor Kendi’s thinking on antiracism is that all humans share about 99.9% of our DNA with other humans no matter the race. Kendi reasons that if groups of humans are so closely related the gaps in income, wealth, academics, et cetera should not exist. But they do exist, and the reason according to his thinking must be racism. Historically, racism was clearly a reason for disparities (such as the treatment of soldiers returning from World War Two – white soldiers got the GI Bill and FHA housing, black soldiers did not). With the civil rights laws and changes in attitudes, relations between blacks and whites should be better but the disparities remain. The reason, Professor Kendi believes, is systemic racism. This means that the Enlightenment philosophy guiding Western civilization and the American principles formulated by the Founders created a system that is advantageous to whites and disadvantageous to non-whites. Civil rights in America have been transformed over the last fifty years but disparities remain so some malevolent force hidden deeply within the system must be the explanation.
He identifies the systems and policies established by the Founders and continuing today as the root causes to the disparate outcomes for people of color. He asserts that the economic liberty unleashed by the free market economic system (or capitalism) originally grew out of the desire to enslave people for profit and he views capitalism and racism as cojoined twins. Professor Kendi asserts that capitalism emerged around the sixteenth century as Portuguese and Spanish colonialists discovered the profitability of transporting African slaves to their newfound colonies in the Western Hemisphere. The book follows the developments of the last five hundred years and reaches the conclusion that “antiracist policies cannot eliminate class racism without anticapitalist policies.” Taking a cue from critical race theory, he believes that capitalism is nothing more than the exploitation and oppression of workers and unprotected consumers as well as the ability of capitalists to value profits over climate change, the freedom to not pay taxes, freedom from competition, and the freedom to keep people poor. This is a very distorted vision of capitalism and how free markets are intended to function. And his proposed solutions are equally distorted.
Jonathan Haidt wrote in his book, The Righteous Mind, Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, that his Moral Foundations Theory defined five moral axes as the basis for a system of moral belief, the axes are: care versus harm, fairness versus cheating, loyalty versus betrayal, authority versus subversion, and sanctity versus degradation. Haidt later added the axis of liberty versus oppression, which is particularly relevant in political discussions. Progressives rated caring and fairness as the most important moral foundations and Haidt discovered that progressives not only placed less importance on the other axes such as loyalty, authority, sanctity and liberty but found that they are essentially blind to these moral precepts and cannot acknowledge the validity of actions based on those precepts. This describes Kendi’s book precisely. He can only see the the grossly unfair outcomes of non-whites and blames it on racism and racist policies. He is blind to all the good that has been done by Western civilization.
Professor Kendi seeks to create a new egalitarian tribalism made up of identity groups that emulates our egalitarian hunter/gatherer ancestors, hoping for some sort of Eden-like existence. In reality, those ancestors lived a precarious and often violent existence where tribes struggled with each other for scarce resources.
Kendi reasons that if identity groups are, in actuality, almost identical genetically, it would be illogical for great disparities in the access to necessary resources to exist, absent a malevolent influence such as racism. But while he laments the inequitable distribution of resources, he does not ponder the factors necessary for the creation of those resources. He ascribes to racial capitalism the fact that the Democratic Republic of the Congo is “one of the richest countries in the world belowground and one of the poorest countries in the world aboveground.” But those underground riches lay dormant and undeveloped for millennia while the primitive people above ground were among the poorest in the world. And many regions of the world combined untapped riches and generalized poverty for centuries until the Enlightenment and capitalism provided the abilities and drive to develop those riches and improve the lives of the people.
Professor Kendi writes, “to be antiracist is to reject cultural standards and level cultural difference.” To him, all cultures are of equal value and no dominant culture should dictate standards to other cultures even when such other cultures live within the same society, rejecting the notion that cultural differences could explain some the disparate outcomes. He also rejects the benefits of assimilation into the dominant culture even though assimilation was what many immigrants to America desired and what ultimately led them to success. Kendi disdainfully states that, “black assimilationists worship their all-powerful white angels, strive to become them, to curry their favor.”
To be antiracist is to reject assimilation into the culture in which you are living and to oppose that culture. Societies cannot survive with multiple cultures seeking multiple goals and opposing the cultural mores of that society. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks convincingly asserted in his book, Morality, Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, that our current divisiveness is “because of the abandonment, in the name of multiculturism, the idea of a national culture into which newcomers…were expected to integrate.” Societies lacking a common national culture are riven with strife, much as our society is today. Look at the strife between Hindus and Muslims in India. Look at the strife in the Middle East between Sunnis and Shias. Even the English and French speaking Canadians have difficulty getting along.
Kendi claims that racism in America is increasing not decreasing, despite civil rights progress along with changing attitudes regarding race among all people in the country. The only proof he can offer, however, are the disparate outcomes between racial identities, which he ascribes to racism. Coleman Hughes on his review of Kendi’s book, noted that the book contained many factual errors and that Kendi cherry-picked disparities to make his case. Kendi was astute at discovering other causes to explain black on black violence or the prevalence of fatherless children in the black community but only sees racism as a reason for disparate outcomes in wealth, income, education and other factors. He rejects cultural differences as a possible cause. He rejoices in the vocabulary and “poetic text” of hip-hop music even as Grammy award winner Cardi B raps, “Yeah, you fucking with some wet-ass pussy/Bring a bucket and a mop for this wet-ass pussy.” There are differences in cultures and some cultures are better at providing the people within them the ability to live a good life. Slavery existed long before Western civilization, but it was the Enlightenment values of Western civilization that ended slavery.
Kendi’s book may be out of touch with reality as well as history. The history of Western civilization is clear, that while in the past racism existed and treated black people very badly, America has been making slow but steady progress. Not just in order to help black people and to lift them up, but also because racism is not consistent with our ideals and principles. All men (and women, indeed all people), are created equal. Races arose because people were geographically isolated and their bodies adapted to the climatic conditions where they lived. But people are no longer isolated from one another. The ex-director of the U. S. Census Bureau and now professor of public affairs at Columbia University, Kenneth Prewitt said, “the race question is incoherent because race is incoherent.” The Wall Street Journal has reported, “Racial or ethnic labels are also falling behind the growing diversity within each racial and ethnic group and failing to capture mixed-race people.” Kendi’s identity groups are getting so intersectional that identity and intersectionality have lost meaning.
Professor Kendi closes his book by relating the battles that his wife, his mother and he, himself, had had with cancer and how treatments and chemotherapy, although painful, had eradicated the cancer from their bodies. He compared antiracism and the policies it entails as the therapy necessary to eradicate the scourge of racism from the human race. But it is ironic. The medicines and therapies needed for the survival of his family were developed by institutions of the Western civilization that he abhors. It was the Western scientific method that discovered the medical knowledge needed to create those medicines and the capitalist economic system that financed their development that saved their lives. In the new egalitarian tribalism he seeks, the resources necessary for his survival and that of his family would not exist.
I don’t want to be an antiracist. And you shouldn’t want to be one either. Antiracism will not bring about a blissful post-racial future full of happy human beings of all races, creeds, cultures, ethnicities and all other forms of identities. In a recent post on the left-leaning Politico website, Professor Kendi stated that “ racial inequity is proof of racial policy” and he proposes the creation of a Department of Anti-racism that would be responsible for preclearing all laws and government policies and would be empowered to discipline people that do not change their racist policies and ideas.
An antiracist future will be an egalitarian socialist nightmare where a dictatorial government has the power to allocate society’s resources on the basis of those identities. Generation of resources necessary for such distribution will stagnate because there is no motivation to create such resources. It will be a very equitable but impoverished existence.
This is the world that your children and grandchildren will inherit, if you stand by idly while the progressive left pushes critical race theory, antiracism and the 1619 Project into our public school system. President Trump banned diversity, equity and inclusion training (which incorporates antiracism and critical race theory) from the agencies of the US government, but President Biden reinstated the training on the first day of his presidency. And the adoption of these theories into the curriculum of public schools is advancing even as some states (those with Republican governors) move to ban such teaching. Citizens in Southlake, Texas recently voted out school board members supporting these policies and other cities and school districts are moving in this direction.
Banning the teaching of any subject goes against our American principles, but it is inappropriate to force these unproven and un-American theories onto young children. Antiracism and critical race theory should only be an elective subject for older students and should be taught in context, explaining that antiracism and critical race theory are based on Marxist ideas and adoption of such ideas would mean the end of America and the obliteration of all the good it has done.
The reason that the progressive left has promoted antiracism and critical race theory has little to do with solving the problems faced by black people. It has a lot to do with converting America into an egalitarian socialist state. To that extent, the progressives and the antiracists are allies. But the long-term future of such an alliance may be in doubt as one observes what socialist states do with non-conforming identities such as the Kulaks, Uighurs or Tibetans.
Using government power to enforce racial equity ignores many of the causes of unequal outcomes. One of these causes may be residual racism, but there are other reasons as well. Ultimately, empowering black people to strive to achieve their own American Dream will lift them up without having to bring anybody else down. The American Dream is not a zero-sum game. The equity being proposed by Professor Kendi (which can be paraphrased “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”) is a zero-sum game.