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Book Review: How to Be an Antiracist - Part 2
Where Kendi argues that you should give him the power of the gods so he can enact antiracist policies.
In part 1 of this review, I covered the book’s clumsy handling of definitions, and its intent to preach only to a choir that isn’t interested in singing. In the final half, we’ll go over the book’s lack of consistency, its hatred of individuals disguised as enlightenment, and its lame, predictable policy proposals (or lack thereof).
In chapter 4, Kendi writes that “An antiracist treats and remembers individuals as individuals.” Later, in talking about skin color, he will say that “these differences were meaningless to our underlying humanity.” This sounds good. But Kendi doesn’t want to treat anyone as an individual. Everything must be aggregated into a number and then we must stare at that number as if we were reading its entrails to divine some truth.
When anyone tries to bring in the roles of individual choice, to suggest that, perhaps, Black Americans are more than passive victims, Kendi is quick to call that person racist and then pull another relative number out of his coat sleeve. To ask these questions is to promote what Kendi calls a “racist idea” as defined above. For example, he addresses the fact that Black immigrants do better than African Americans. The Economist in 1996 concluded that “racism does not account for all, or even most, of the difficulties encountered by native-born blacks.” It was an attempt to bring individual effort and agency into the conversation. Kendi accuses the authors, and anyone who would dare to ask these questions, of “ethnic racism.”
An ethnic racist asks, Why are Black immigrants doing better than African Americans? And ethnic antiracist ask, Why are Black immigrants not doing as well as other immigrant groups? (67)
He then claims that people comparing Black immigrants to African Americans are trying to say that “transnational ethnicities are superior.” Kendi can’t seem to conceive of an opponent who wants to get closer to the individual level. Then, with amazing mental gymnastics that would get perfect scores at the Summer Olympics, he makes the very case The Economist was hinting at.
The reason Black immigrants generally have higher educational levels and economic pictures than African Americans…resides in the circumstances of human migration. Not all individuals migrate, but those who do, in what’s called “immigrant self-selection,” are typically individuals with an exceptional internal drive for material success and/or they possess exceptional external resources. (67)
He doesn’t have the self-awareness to realize he has just admitted that, yes, individual effort makes the difference, regardless of skin color. He does use it as an excuse to moan about the immigration policies of Calvin Coolidge and Donald Trump, however. This is how he treats any attempt to address possible behavioral flaws in individuals. To ask any questions about those details is another form of racism.
Of course, he is not above bringing in individual exceptions when it is convenient. For example, when complaining about the fact that millions of people were aghast at the growing percentage of of Black children being born into single-parent households, he shrugs off their concern, saying “even though my dad turned out just fine.” But the main crime Kendi commits is, in the end, refusing to believe that helping the individual is in any way helping the problem he has constructed. He forgets that individuals make up the groups he is talking about. It is the biggest contradiction in a book full of contradictions.
To be antiracist is to say the political and economic conditions, not the people, in poor Black neighborhoods are pathological. Pathological conditions are making the residents sicker and poorer while they strive to survive and thrive, while they invent and reinvent cultures and behaviors that may be different but never inferior to those of residents in richer neighborhoods. (153, emphasis mine)
Individual behaviors can shape the success of individuals. But policies determine the success of groups. And it is racist power that creates the policies that cause racial inequities. (94)
He admits certain programs can help individuals, yet still calls those programs a failure.
Behavioral-enrichment programs, like mentoring and educational programs, can help individuals but are bound to fail racial groups, which are held back by bad policies, not bad behavior. (202, emphasis mine)
We formulate and populate and donate to cultural and behavioral and educational enrichment programs to make ourselves feel better, feeling they are helping racial groups, when they are only helping (or hurting) individuals, when only policy change helps groups. (209-210, emphasis mine)
When discussing failure, he refuses to place any responsibility on the individual.
When our policy does not produce racial equity, we blame the people for not taking advantage of the new opportunity, not our flawed policy solution. (214)
To promote antiracist ideas, you must argue that racist policies are the cause of racial inequities and never suggest that individual agency might be involved. To be antiracist is to assert that any racial inequity is caused by nothing but racist policies.
Either racist policies or Black inferiority explains why White people are wealthier, healthier, and more powerful than Black people today. (117)
Kendi has created such a rigid dichotomy that to give even a fraction of an inch to the idea of individual responsibility would be to admit full-scale Black inferiority. In his own words. That is not an enviable trap to be in, but he set the snare himself.
Only the group an individual belongs to matters. It is an infantilization, or worse, an erasure of human beings. To be an antiracist is to make all individual Black Americans invisible. Kendi is yet another in a long line of political activists who have sought to use Black Americans to achieve political goals, and just like them, he cares only for the aggregate numbers they can provide. As Ellison’s protagonist in Invisible Man put it:
Here I thought they accepted me because they felt that color made no difference, when in reality it made no difference because they didn’t see color or men…For all they were concerned, we were so many names scribbled on fake ballots, to be used at their convenience and when not needed to be filed away…I was simply material, a natural resource to be used.
Kendi’s picture of reality requires unlimited power and omnicompetence to override the individual. Antiracist policies should be so powerful that they accomplish their purpose of shifting aggregated racial inequity numbers, whether the individuals involved want to get along with the program or not. And it is indeed power that Kendi actually cares about. It is power that will correct what he sees are the ills of society.
Changing minds is not a movement. Critiquing racism is not activism. Changing minds is not activism. An activist produces power and policy change, not mental change. If a person has no record of power or policy change, then that person is not an activist. (209)
Antiracist power must be flexible to match the flexibility of racist power, propelled only by the craving for power to shape policy in their inequitable interests…What if antiracists were propelled only by the craving for power to shape policy in their equitable interests? (214, emphasis mine)
Success. The dark road we fear. Where antiracist power and policy predominate. Where equal opportunities and thus outcomes exist between the equal groups. (218, emphasis mine)
People are nothing but cogs to plug into some grand machine, and Kendi wants to be the god of that machine. If they don’t quite fit a particular spot, they will be ground down or stretched out or lubed up until they do. A Procrustean bed writ-large. Only the group matters and Kendi seems to have some Platonic form of “racial groups” in mind that exists somewhere and isn’t made up of individuals. This is not a coherent stance, but he leans into it like a deer staring at the headlights of an oncoming truck. Neither the deer nor the truck wins in this encounter.
He will even admit that racial groups like “Black” and “Asian” are mirages.
Race is a mirage but one that humanity has organized itself around in very real ways. (54)
But he will then criticize Thomas Jefferson in the very same breath he (mildly) praises him with. He says Jefferson, with his “all men are created equal” is better than David Hume’s obvious racism.
But Thomas Jefferson never made the antiracist declaration: All racial groups are equals. (32)
The admitted mirage is all that matters. Kendi desires to make the mirage so incarnate, so opaque, that people have no choice but to organize their lives around it, whether they want to or not. This would be bad enough, but it gets worse: Kendi wants to improve society while having no true objective standards of measurement. Whatever antiracist future Kendi envisions, it will be a future where people are endlessly circling the drain, always scared of finally plunging into the abyss while having no hope of ever being rescued out of the sink.
To be an antiracist is to be a relativist, and to be one in nearly everything. This is funny, given that Kendi wants to erase the agency of the individual because this entails a hyper-individuality where everyone is sovereign over the judgments of the universe. This starts as early as the prologue.
Of course, intelligence is as subjective as beauty. (4)
Of course. He dedicates almost an entire chapter to these shifting sands of reality and so-called objectivity. In the beginning, he approvingly quotes one of his professors saying that “It is impossible to be objective.” Later, he stacks another misshapen brick on top of his wobbling construction:
To be antiracist is to recognize there is no such thing as the “real world,” only real worlds, multiple worldviews. (171)
But which one is true? When his professor said objectivity is impossible, Kendi asks what they should strive to do? The answer:
Just tell the truth. That’s what we should strive to do. Tell the truth. (168)
Unfortunately, “truth” is another one of those words that Kendi fails to define. He assumes he is making true statements all throughout his book, but given his own arguments, we can dismiss them as simply another “real world.” No better than any of these other “real worlds,” including the White supremacist worlds. Just another worldview tossing in the churn of worldviews we call life. There are no objective measurements we could use to discern this, except the measurements Kendi himself finds convenient to his own worldview.
To be antiracist is to reject cultural standards and level cultural difference. (84)
Cultural relativity is part of the essence of Kendi’s project.
All cultures must be judged in relation to their own history, and all individuals and groups in relation to their cultural history, and definitely not by the arbitrary standard of any single culture…To be antiracist is to see all cultures in all their differences as on the same level, as equals. When we see cultural difference, we are seeing cultural difference — nothing more, nothing less. (91)
When the Aztecs sacrificed their human captives and built temples with their victim’s skulls, we are just seeing cultural difference. Nothing more, nothing less. Any standard we wish to use is arbitrary. We know what Kendi’s answer to this incoherence would be. He has already told us. Power. Whoever has the power can impose the “truth” as he sees fit. Power sets the standards and power distributes the treasure based on those standards.
In some cases, his hyper-individualist approach has an almost Gnostic conception of an individual that is not affected by their body or their environment.
As long as the mind oppresses the oppressed by thinking their oppressive environment has retarded their behavior, the mind can never be antiracist. (104)
Sure, we shouldn’t wallow in excuses, but we aren’t disembodied spirits. It is no shame to recognize that it’s harder to walk because you are hip-deep in mud. If an individual can’t be affected by their environment in this way, by the surrounding culture and attitudes of their neighbors, why should we think they can be affected by an antiracist policy?
Perhaps if we had some examples of the policies Kendi has in mind, we might better judge his thesis. What would be a good antiracist policy for one of the specific racial inequities he highlights? But again, the book fails.
Different, but Exactly the Same
For a book that elevates the importance of policy to an almost god-like level, it fails to present any ideas beyond slogans. He gives a lot of examples of what he calls “racist” policies. Many were certainly racist without having to use Kendi’s contorted definition of racist. These policies directly targeted people based on the color of their skin. But then he will also cite policies like Reagan’s War on Drugs. While we can agree that it might have been a boneheaded series of policies, it takes a quantum leap of imagination, and lots of consulting with tarot cards, to say that these were deliberately targeting minorities. Attempts to establish voter IDs also get lumped into “racist” policies. He mentions “Donald Trump’s economic policies” in passing but doesn’t offer any details. At one point, he protests people who
…flatly deny that racial inequity is the signpost of racist policy. (234)
But he has done nothing to prove this assertion. He has only waved vaguely at the columns of spreadsheets.
The policies Kendi cites as antiracist examples feel like they were copied from a pamphlet of the Democratic Party of America. It’s all there. Universal healthcare and the Affordable Care Act. Climate change. Strong unions. Intensification of the War on Poverty and a reliable safety net. Tax the rich. More funding for public education. Public housing. Transgender rights and affirmation. When he points to these policies, he doesn’t attempt to prove that the policy did what he is claiming. He just assumes. You get the feeling that antiracism is really just slapping a different label on the same old can of snake oil.
Kendi finishes the book with the religious fervor of a doomsday prophet. He has undercut his arguments with his relativism, but he still wishes to judge his own culture. And he brings the judgment like a surgeon who enjoys the sight of blood a little too much. He compares our society’s racism to cancer, tying things back to his own struggle with cancer.
My society has racism. The most serious stage. Racism is likely to kill my society. (235, emphasis mine)
According to Kendi, we have the most serious stage of racism. Worse than the slave trade. Worse than Jim Crow. Worse than the forced sterilization of hundreds of thousands of Black women. The tumor has never been larger. And we need salvation. He closes by saying
…if we ignore the odds and fight to create an antiracist world, then we give humanity a chance to one day survive, a chance to live in communion, a chance to be forever free. (238)
And the instrument of this communion and freedom is antiracist power implementing antiracist policy. This is another lie blasted forth from the Tower of Babel. It is another gospel, one that demands confession but offers no forgiveness. It recognizes no god but government action. It erases the importance of individual responsibility but still demands individual submission. It is a gospel that demands you bring all of your other ideological commitments under its banner. It doesn’t want you looking at how you treat your immediate neighbor but only at how “society” treats aggregated impersonal groups. It is a gospel that promises all the joys of an IRS audit. It is a gospel of never-ending accusations and condemnations and it demands you make restitution for sins that are not your own. It is a gospel that is content to leave people wallowing in their actual sins.
To be queer antiracist is to serve as an ally to transgender people, to intersex people, to women, to the non-gender-conforming, to homosexuals, to their intersections…being led by their equalizing ideas, by their equalizing policy campaigns, by their power struggle for equal opportunity. (197, emphasis mine)
To truly be antiracist is to be feminist. To truly be feminist is to be antiracist. (189)
The Bible demands we show no partiality based purely on externals, like skin color. This is the common sense definition of racism that most people would recognize. Antiracism requires the institutionalization of partiality. It demands the enshrinement of unequal weights and measures based on the color of one’s skin. As Kendi says, "The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination.” To justify its entire purpose for being, antiracism must attack the very idea of objective truth.
So make no mistake: to accept Kendi’s definitions and framing means that to be an antiracist is to be anti-Christian. Like the apostle Paul, we should take one look at this claptrap abomination and say: “Let it be accursed.”
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