I went into Dr. Ibram X. Kendi's New York Times bestseller How to Be An Antiracist not sure what to expect. Supporters seem to think Kendi is the next thing to the second coming, and detractors consider him a con artist and a racial exploiter.
What I found was more complicated than either.
As I read the book, I found myself admiring Kendi's personal journey at several moments, and resonating with a lot of what he said. He's willing to ruthlessly call out what he sees as his past sins. For example, the book opens with a brutal critique of a speech he gave in high school. He castigates his college self for dumping a woman just because she was light-skinned. He acknowledges his former homophobia, and doesn't pull punches about his past or try to whitewash what he used to believe.
It takes humility to tell hundreds of thousands of readers how bad you used to be, and intellectual honesty to change your mind so often about important matters.
I loved his embrace of Extreme Ownership, which he spells out in a great passage where he condemns his former self for believing his message was perfect and the audience was the problem. As Kendi says, "When people fail to consume our convoluted antiracist ideas, we blame their stupidity rather than our stupid lack of clarity."
He's even willing to criticize inflammatory rhetoric; as ever, by calling it out in his past self. As Kendi laments, "...who cared about context when the shock and awe sounded so radical to my self-identified radical ears? When I lashed out at well-meaning people who showed the normal impulse of fear, who used the incorrect racial terminology, who asked the incorrect question–oh, did I think I was so radical."
But when it came to the National Book Award-winning author's ideas, I found more of a grab bag. Some were brilliant and well-articulated. Some were a mix. Some were self-evidently ridiculous.
Kendi has some genuinely good things to say about the problem of race in the Western world. He points out that black Americans are often held up by both white folks and black folks as standard-bearers of their race. That's a hell of a burden to put on anybody, and a burden lots of white people might not know about since we're rarely held to that same collectivist standard. In one of his best sections, he completely rejects this standard. He states, "I no longer care about how the actions of other Black individuals reflect on me, since none of us are race representatives…."
Kendi also points out how black Americans suffer more than white Americans: at the hands of police, in terms of having less median wealth, in terms of historically black universities having generally fewer resources than historically white universities, etc. In many ways, the achievement gap is real for African Americans, both in high school and in the wider world.
His analysis of why is too simplistic (for Kendi, it's all about racism; in real life, multiple causes intertwine to produce sometimes unintended results), but some of these racial inequities will be eye-opening to his audience. Anything that convinces folks to fight for a freer and more equitable society is good, and a big part of convincing people is showing them there's a problem. Kendi's good at creating an awareness of racism.
The biggest idea of Kendi's that I take issue with is the idea that we should never criticize a culture. He claims that no culture is any better or worse than any other. For Kendi, "cultural relativity" is "the essence of cultural antiracism. To be antiracist is to see all cultures in all their differences as on the same level, as equals."
According to Kendi, then, cultures only succeed or fail due to racist policies; if a culture isn't working, we should look for the policy that's keeping it down.
I want to be careful here, because in the middle of this argument Kendi does make a great point. We should never criticize races, and no group of people is better or worse than any other based on their skin color. That is, arguments that black people are inferior to white people (or Hispanics to Asians, or any other combination) are intellectually bankrupt and morally repugnant.
Also, public policy can have a huge impact on whether or not a given group succeeds (for instance, The Century Foundation explores the idea that the relative absence of black fathers in black communities could be due to the fact that so many are locked up, often for trivial offenses). Public policy is often worth focusing on.
But different cultures are going to be, by definition, more or less successful. A culture is just a group of humans creating shared informal rules and ideals to live by. These cannot all be equal, because not all rules and ideals are equally effective in creating things like prosperity and safety.
As one example, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and Foundation for Individual Rights in Education president Greg Lukianoff document how Generation Z has struggled with epidemic levels of mental illness. But the pain isn't split equally across races. In 2017, non-Hispanic whites age 15-24 were more than 1.5 times as likely as non-Hispanic blacks of the same age group to commit suicide.
The high suicide rate among white members of generation Z isn't a function of racist policies. It's a function of a lot of factors, primarily cultural, including helicopter parenting and the ability of social media to exacerbate bullying and loneliness among teenagers.
We can and should call out broken cultural elements when we see them (without making the mistake of conflating culture and race) because that's a powerful way to improve culture. Identifying and reversing legislation that might have contributed to Generation Z's issues is important. But as Haidt and Lukianoff point out, so is non-governmental cultural change. If we only look for legislative solutions to cultural issues, as Kendi would have us do, we'll miss a lot of opportunities to help our fellow humans.
A Refusal to Extend Good Faith to Critics
The most concerning part of Kendi's book was his consistent attacks on his critics' motives. People who disagree with Kendi's preferred policy positions are racist, and racist ideas just seem to be those he personally doesn't like. He argues that a key reason "millions of men and women" hated Hillary Clinton in 2016 was "gender racism."
He says of Ben Carson and other conservatives, "These were men who used the power they'd been given…in inarguably racist ways." Approve or disapprove of Carson's job as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, is it really "inarguable" that he used his power to hurt minorities?
Regarding policymakers who do things he disapproves of, Kendi asks rhetorically, "What if racist policymakers have neither morals nor conscience…?"
He dismisses black people who disagree with him as contributing to, "The Black on Black crime of internalized racism."
He rails against modern-day politicians, "crafting these policies designed to shorten their (black) lives." There's no denying that some policies have an adverse effect on marginalized Americans, but does Kendi really think Congress is full of villains twirling their mustaches and plotting up new ways to kill black people?
This is sad to read, because in the autobiographical segments of the book Kendi repeatedly describes how he used to cling to XYZ idea, only to be shown the light and learn better. I had hoped this process of jettisoning once-cherished ideas would give Kendi the ideological humility to see that he might not be the sole arbiter of truth at this point in his life, and that his critics now (just like the critics who changed his mind in graduate school) might have both good intentions and something to teach him. It's a shame he doesn't seem to have internalized the lesson. This would be an infinitely better book if Kendi approached the topic with the humility of a scholar, rather than the hubris of an ideologue.
Kendi's rhetorical style does a double disservice, one that his readers will multiply if they adopt this black-and-white way of thinking (pardon the pun).
First, by maligning his critics he cuts himself off from anything they might be able to teach him. We all need to engage with our critics, because being human means we're not in possession of all the facts. The world is complex, and the only way to get closer to the truth is to truly listen to people who disagree with us.
Second, this way of speaking about his critics makes the state of our political discourse worse. Political tensions are already at boiling point. One poll found that 84 percent of Trump supporters see Democrats as representing a, "clear and present threat to American democracy." 80 percent of Biden supporters said the same thing about Republicans.
To cool an epidemic of hot heads, we need to practice grace for our political opponents. We need to extend them the benefit of the doubt. We need to remember that folks across the aisle also love their country and their community, and most Americans want the best for everyone. Most of us differ in ideas for how we get there, not in the end goal.
And to be clear, I'm not trying to paint an idyllic picture of a post-racist America. There are actual racists in the United States, including the people who turned out for the "Unite the Right" march in 2017. But this just makes it more important to be precise about who we're actually calling racist. If we label everyone who disagrees with us racist, we lose the ability to call out the small number of Americans who truly don't see minorities as fully human and want to keep them down.
An Antiracist Society
The best thing about Kendi's book might be a vision he explores in Chapter 13 ("Space"). In a stirring passage, Kendi describes a truly antiracist society: "The logical conclusion of antiracist strategy is open and equal access to all public accommodations, open access to all integrated White spaces, integrated Middle Eastern spaces, integrated Black spaces, integrated Latinx spaces, integrated Native spaces, and integrated Asian spaces that are as equally resourced as they are culturally different." We can debate who's going to determine that everyone is "equally resourced" of course, but the core vision is worth fighting for: true racial integration, where folks of every skin color are on a level playing field and we preserve and respect cultural differences without obsessing over race.
Will Kendi's inflammatory rhetoric and hodge-podge of ideas get us there? Probably not. But hopefully his book, which is wildly popular especially on college campuses, will inspire some genuine antiracists to keep fighting for a world where skin color matters as little to your chances of success in life as hair or eye color.