“Generally, we have defined racist policies by the perpetrator and intent, rather than the victim and the outcome.” Thus Ibram X. Kendi opens his interview with Ezra Klein on his new book, “How to Be an Antiracist,” revealing the essential problem of his argument.
There can be no coherent notion of justice without the concepts of “personal intent” and “personal responsibility” for the reasonably inferable consequences of one’s actions. This is true for both accused and accuser, or what Kendi terms “perpetrator” and “victim.” This also reverses a traditional notion of American justice, as the accused is assumed guilty without a trial.
Maybe a better title for the book would be: “How to Be a Racist without Really Trying.” Kendi’s book never makes a sincere attempt to adequately demonstrate cause and effect with respect to its principal contentions by any discernible method, empirical or otherwise.
What Is an ‘Antiracist’?
Kendi defines his terms in his National Book Award-winning “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas.” Whether one is an “antiracist” is strictly a function of one’s interpretation of racial disparities between blacks and whites: income, education, crime rates, single parent families, and so on. According to Kendi, an antiracist is someone who attributes all racial disparities to “racist policies.”
So what is a racist? Kendi defines a “racist” as someone who believes some or all racial disparities are black people’s fault.
Klein observes, “Why can’t it be both?” noting that Kendi’s definition requires greatly expanding the notion of “racism” and “racist.” While many Americans, including me, believe words indicating some form of bigotry, such as “racist,” “sexist,” and “homophobe,” are thrown around too loosely in public, especially on social media, Kendi thinks vastly expanding their usage would be great for American society.
His approach seems counterintuitive, given we live in a society being ripped apart by ethnic, cultural, and political divisions. So why does Kendi think calling more people racist would be a good idea?
Because what he calls “racist ideas” have historically been used to justify “racist policies.” Here I agree with Kendi. No doubt, deeply racially bigoted theological justifications were given for American slavery. Moreover, racially bigoted justifications were also used to justify Jim Crow. I would even grant Kendi that racially bigoted ideas are used to justify some policies today.
But this still doesn’t clarify why it would be a positive good to call more people racists, given the deep fracturing that already exists in our society. Does not a time of increasing civil strife call for a more diplomatic approach? Calling more white people racists publicly is not going to heal what ails us.
Is the Problem with the ‘People or the Policy’?
Kendi’s reasoning is that since people used racist ideas to justify slavery and Jim Crow, others are likely still using the same racist ideas today, and consequently all racial inequalities are a result of racist policies. Slavery is the original racist policy that created “racial inequities,” and this policy gave rise to a “racist ideology” to justify it. Jim Crow was a racist policy that created racial inequities, giving rise to a racist ideology to justify it.
Today we have racist policy giving rise to racial inequities. So if you believe any differences between black and white outcomes are not wholly a result of racist policies, you have been infected by racist ideology. This is how Kendi’s logic works.
Kendi offers us a dichotomy: “The problem is with the people or the policy.” If you think the problem is with the policy alone, you’re an “antiracist.” If you think the problem is with both or just the people, you’re a “racist.”
Why? Because the system is to blame for all black people’s problems, or so Kendi would like us to think. Even ultra-liberal Klein had a tough time swallowing the hogwash Kendi peddled. For example, Kendi recounts a speech he gave as a teenager chastising black youth for engaging in too much irresponsible behavior, such as criminality and teenage pregnancy. Today, Kendi considers that speech racist.
It’s a podcast, so there’s no visual, but you can hear Ezra Klein do a verbal double-take: “Huh? What? The teens were getting pregnant. They were committing crimes.”
Kendi Ignores the ‘Slave Mentality’
Having taught in the ghettos of Philadelphia, I can tell you the biggest problem is what these kids bring into the classroom, whether from home or off the streets. But it really all starts at home. In this environment, people are poor and single-motherhood is the norm, often young mothers. Children receive little or no academic preparation at home. Since there is a lack of fathers, they are more likely to be influenced by negative peer pressure, by the vice that inhabits any urban ghetto. This applies especially to boys, but also to girls.
Of course, it is not the children’s fault they were born in difficult circumstances. And we can trace some of these problems directly to slavery. This is the crucial point, that while there do exist racially bigoted policies and practices today, some of the difference in outcomes between blacks and whites also arise from a kind of black intergenerational PTSD — what Malcolm X called a “slave mentality” and what James Baldwin called a “ghetto mentality.” Same difference.
This is where Kendi and I really differ. In truth, Kendi knows that part of the reason for racial inequality is the proliferation among too many African Americans of a modern-day slave mentality or ghetto mentality. All black people know this, and frankly, you can’t hide this fact from white people.
So why is Kendi playing this game? Because he appears really to believe that racist policies are the main obstacle to black progress. This is probably a result of his concept of black progress. For Kendi, all black progress, more or less, has been the result of “antiblack” political activism. Economics and hard work don’t seem to play into it — nor education, nor family, nor moral discipline, nor institution-building, nor church. Black people owe everything they have to political activists such as Black Lives Matter and Colin Kaepernick.
This is a very narrow and misleading view of black progress, to say the least. I take the more traditional view — that of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Carter G. Woodson, Baldwin, and even Malcolm X — that the main obstacle to black progress is the historical remnants of the slave mind.
Kendi Advocates for Moral and Cultural Relativism
This is also most peculiar about Kendi’s work: Through some kind of intellectual hocus-pocus, he imposes his view on the great black leaders and intellectuals of the past, using them to justify his position. He tortures their views and tries to make it look like they agree with him. For example, he lists “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and “The Fire Next Time” as antiracist books, when these men clearly argue that the most important obstacle to black progress is the modern-day slave mind. It’s practically the theme of Malcolm X’s autobiography.
Honestly, Kendi’s book is trivial and highly misleading. Goethe once said that when he first read the work of Immanuel Kant, “It was like a light came into the room.” In contrast, reading Kendi feels like putting shackles on your brain.
Underlying this all is a doctrine of moral and cultural relativism, the idea that one set of cultural practices or moral norms is not better than another; they are only different. This raises the question: How can we know racism or being a racist is wrong if all cultural practices are just different, none being better than another. How can we know slavery itself is wrong? What about the antebellum, Anglo-Southern culture that practiced slavery and generally believed God sanctified it? Is that also just different?
Kendi’s model makes moral reasoning impossible, such that one cannot even argue whether racism is a good thing or a bad thing. His work exemplifies why I do my best not to use the word “racism.”
When I was a boy, my parents would repeatedly tell me not to use the word “like” because it turned into a verbal crutch, a substitute for thinking. They told me the same for using curse words. For black intellectuals today, the word “racism” has become a verbal and intellectual crutch — a substitute for truly investigating cause and effect, the basic principle of scientific inquiry. Kendi’s work exemplifies this dynamic.