Book Review: How to Be an Antiracist - Part 1
The only people who take Kendi's screed seriously are those who haven't read it.
How to be an Anti-Racist is an attempt at enlightened schizophrenia. Ibram X. Kendi takes pains to define certain words so everyone knows what he is talking about, and then uses other words as carelessly as a toddler tossing food off of a highchair. He sets up principles only to act against them in the very next chapter. He is careful to provide references to research but then makes sweeping claims with no evidence, claims that only an experienced mind-reader would be able to make with confidence. And last, but not least, his project to fight racism sounds noble and good, but his solutions sound like the screed of a sophomore in college who has just discovered the talking points of the Democratic party of America.
This book is not about fighting racism. It is about fighting racial inequity. And it defines racist in a way that only someone who has swallowed higher education to its dregs could see as reasonable. Even if no single person in the United States ever had a single prejudiced thought ever again, the country could still be a racist country. It is truly a zero-sum game that, along with dogs who love chasing their own tails, only highly credentialed professors could enjoy.
If Kendi wasn’t such a dynamic, engaging writer his book would be lost in the clearance sections of used bookstores across the world. But he is a good writer. He knows how to strum the strings of justice in a way that resonates with any non-sociopathic heart. No matter that the tune depends on playing minor chords in all the wrong places. It almost sounds right.
The longer the book goes on, the less stable it gets. His storytelling assumes that it is helping to shape a wonderful structure. But he has started with a crumbled foundation, built on sand below the tideline, with no surrounding forests to act as windbreakers. He builds higher and higher and the higher he gets, the more his monstrosity sways in the wind, threatening to collapse at any moment. Kendi stands atop his doomed monument that will never be finished until he can touch the sky, a wannabe Ozymandias. Each time it sways, he closes his eyes and pretends he is flying.
He need not close his eyes, however. He is already blind. And he is a blind man pretending to lead the blind. He is constantly shuffling toward warm glows of light that he can barely sense, constantly shifting his direction like a pinball. Little does he know that each glow he tries to follow is a dumpster fire that goes up in brief, rancid glory before dying an ignoble death. Just one dumpster fire after another.
Like all of us, Kendi needs new eyes.
Like all of us, Kendi needs the Gospel.
A Memoir of Confession
How to Be an Anti-Racist is presented as a memoir. Kendi starts with how his parents met and their introduction to liberation theology. He continues with stories from third grade all the way through high school, college, and up to the present day and how he came to write the present book. Weaving in and out of this memoir, we have Kendi laying out his vision of antiracism, pulling from various other writings, including his own monumental Stamped from the Beginning. This is Kendi’s story, and it is the story of his gradual awakening to the truth about racism and his own complicity in it. For as many fingers as he points at others, he never fails to point fingers at himself and this gives the book most of its credibility and power. “I arrived at Temple as a racist, sexist homophobe.” Yes, he throws around accusations like a 5-year-old flower girl walking down the aisle tossing clumps of petals, but he doesn’t hesitate to confess his own sins (as he sees them) and offer a path of repentance. He gives a good appearance as an honest broker. As he says in the epilogue, “…the heartbeat of antiracism is confession” and he almost drowns us in his own confessions.
Every point he makes is bookended by stories of his life that relate somehow to his current argument. It’s a hard feat to pull off while remaining coherent and organized. There are places where the weaving is not as clean as it should be. For example, while explaining how Prince Henry of Portugal was the first character in the history of “racist power,” he inserts a paragraph about how his middle name used to be “Henry,” named after his enslaved great-great-grandfather. He couldn’t bear sharing a name with Prince Henry, so he changed it to Xolani. This had nothing to do with the story he was telling and could have been placed elsewhere, if anywhere at all.
And that is one way Kendi betrays his bitterness, which seeps through the book whenever cracks start to show up in his arguments. He admits that he went through a phase in college of hating White people and it’s hard to believe he has completely gotten over it. Especially given his reasoning that hatred of Whites is wrong because “In the end, hating White people becomes hating Black people.”
Regardless of his stumbling, Kendi presents his life in unsentimental terms and it is easy to like him. The book is dedicated to “Survival,” which seems a bit grandiose until you get to the end of the book and you learn that Kendi’s wife fought breast cancer, and survived. Then his mother fought breast cancer, and survived. Then Kendi himself fought Stage 4 colon cancer, and survived. All of this happened inside of five years. And while his axe grinding is bombastic and tedious, telling us that he waited too long to go to the doctor because “White nationalists were running and terrorizing the United States and their power was spreading across the Western World,” the stories of these cancer fights are understated and human. He is not fishing for sympathy. Even here, where it might even be justified and understandable, he is not trying to wallow in victimhood. He is simply describing the circumstances of his final revelations and how the present book came into existence.
Kendi could write a true memoir about his life and it would be worth reading. It’s a shame he had to pollute it with the ravings of a tent-revival preacher who happened to ride into town on the same cart as the snake-oil salesman.
The Definition of Redefinition
Kendi wants to come across as an academic, writing an academic essay in an academic tone of disinterested boredom. This clashes with the memoir framing he sets up. He starts well, but he is like a kid who forgot to tie his shoes before the big race and trips after taking just a few strides. Chapter 1 is entitled “Definitions” and he tells us how seriously he takes them.
Definitions anchor us in principles. This is not a light point: If we don’t do the basic work of defining the kind of people we want to be in language that is stable and consistent, we can’t work toward stable and consistent goals. (17)
Amen. Language is important. Definitions matter. He starts defining words and then keeps digging and defining so he can clarify previous definitions. Then somewhere along the line, he stops doing this and starts pretending he can read minds. Like someone who is digging a hole, pretends he hits solid rock because he got tired, then sets up a roadside stand offering psychiatric services for 5 cents a pop. But not in an adorable way like Lucy from Peanuts. At one point, he accuses politicians voting against the Affordable Care Act to be “crafting policies designed to shorten [African Americans’] lives.” Designed.
Let’s start going down his list of definitions.
Racism - a marriage of racist policies and racist ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequities.
Racial inequity - when two or more racial groups are not standing on approximately equal footing.
Racist policy - any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups.
Antiracist policy - any measure that produces or sustains or sustains racial equity between racial groups.
Policy - written and unwritten laws, rules, procedures, processes, regulations, and guidelines that govern people.
Racist idea - any idea that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way.
Antiracist idea - any idea that suggests the racial groups are equals in all their apparent differences — that there is nothing right or wrong with any racial group.
He prefers “racist policies” over other terms like “institutional racism,” “structural racism,” and “systemic racism” because those are vaguer terms. But he still wants to use them. At the end of the same paragraph, he says that the terms are redundant because “racism itself is institutional, structural, and systemic.” He fails to define what these terms mean when he uses them.
He also does not want to use the term “racial discrimination” and we soon discover why. Kendi doesn’t believe racial discrimination is wrong. In fact, he says it is required. He doesn’t like the mainstream definition, claiming that it has been commandeered by “racist power,” so he splashes it with new paint.
But if racial discrimination is defined as treating, considering, or making a distinction in favor or against an individual based on that person’s race, then racial discrimination is not inherently racist. The defining question is whether the discrimination is creating equity or inequity. If discrimination is creating equity, then it is antiracist. If discrimination is creating inequity, then it is racist. (19)
All of this is a build-up for the main thrust of the book: an apology for discriminating against the right people.
The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination. (19)
Kendi has set up his definitions in a way so he can justify almost whatever he wants, and it starts to sound like Lamech talking to his wives about seventy-sevenfold vengeance. It all hinges on equity and inequity. And the application of these terms hinges upon selective statistics that are worse than the stats they pull up on Monday Night Football to make a mediocre player sound really good. “This QB has thrown more complete passes in the final 2 minutes of the 3rd quarter, while under a blood moon, than anyone else in the past 3.5 years.” It is a desire to craft all policy based on the whims of esoteric data nerds who are still mad about that time in High School when Jennifer ignored their spreadsheets and charts and went to the prom with the other guy anyway.
His example to explain the concept comes from owner-occupied homes from 2014.
Here’s an example of racial inequity: 71 percent of White families lived in owner-occupied homes in 2014, compared to 45 percent of Latinx families and 41 percent of Black families. (18)
Kendi believes the relative percentages should be equal across all racial groups. A successful antiracist policy would make these values roughly the same. But here, he betrays how terrible his definitions are. Whether the numbers go up or the numbers go down doesn’t matter. If equity in this metric is achieved, we have ourselves an antiracist policy. Burning down the houses of White families until their ownership percentage reaches 45% would be “success.” At that point, the goalpost could be moved to total square footage owned, and if the numbers weren’t equitable, we could start the entire process over again.
He ignores possible cultural differences or values. He ignores individual choices and efforts. Do they even want to own a home? Is home ownership objectively good? He never makes a sustained argument about why we should we care about this number, or why it’s a problem. The only thing that matters are the numbers, and even then, only the numbers passed through the correct filter. We are supposed to glance at the numbers, see that they are unequal, and treat this as a profound insight handed to us from the gods. This flaw is carried throughout the entire book.
As it turns out, this concern over definitions is a quickly crumbling facade, put up to give the appearance of academic argumentation. He goes from taking time to define what he means by “policy” to throwing around terms as carelessly as an architect using a crayon on a final draft. Based on the way he spews out terms and buzzwords, it becomes clear that he is preaching to an established congregation and not trying to persuade the lost. He knows his ideal reader and gives them enough jargon to tickle their ears so they can nod along and thank God they aren’t like those White people over there.
In just two sentences, Kendi tosses out some howlers that he doesn’t care to define:
The most threatening racist movement is not the alt right’s unlikely drive for a White ethnostate but the regular American’s drive for a “race-neutral” one. The construct of race neutrality actually feeds White nationalist victimhood by positing the notion…(20, emphasis mine)
As recent as 2018, when the book was written, there were conflicting definitions about “alt right” even among the self-proclaimed alt-right. Who does Kendi mean when he uses this term? He fails to define it. Same for “White ethnostate” and “White nationalist.” Those are heavy phrases to be swinging around willy-nilly. But to Kendi’s intended audience, these words do the job of invoking the proper Boogeymen so everyone can pretend they are on the “correct side.” He does the same with the words “homophobic” and “transphobic” and “abuser.”
In chapter 2, he will make the assertion that “racial groups are already civilized.” We might agree with him, but we don’t know what he means by “civilized” and he is not interested in providing us with a solid definition. Does he mean the 1850 British Empire’s axiomatic usage of the term? Is he using a modern, academic, anthropological definition? Maybe? His audience is left to project their own meaning onto the word. He does this several times. At one point, echoing Black feminists, he asserts that “when humanity becomes serious about the freedom of Black women, humanity becomes serious the freedom of humanity.” (191) What exactly does he mean by “freedom?” In chapter 15, when he says that gay men can authentically perform masculinity or femininity, he takes the time to define what he means by “authentically” but never explains what he means when he uses “masculinity” or “femininity.”
One more example. In chapter 4, he defines the following:
Biological Racist - one who is expressing the idea that the races are meaningfully different in their biology and that these differences create a hierarchy of value.
Biological Antiracist - one who is expressing the idea that the races are meaningfully the same in their biology and there are no genetic racial differences.
Emphasis is mine. The word meaningfully is doing an awful lot of work in these definitions. Everything depends upon what he means by that word. Yet he never takes the time to define it. Throughout the chapter, he will keep using it. By leaving this word ephemeral and shapeless, he can let it drift and become whatever he wants it to be in the moment. While it can put on quite a show in this state, it can’t hold or point to anything concrete. Does he contradict himself later? We can’t answer that, because we don’t know what he means in the first place.
Compare Kendi’s work defining terms to C.S. Lewis in An Experiment in Criticism. Lewis spends ten chapters defining his terms, how he uses them, and why he uses them in this or that particular way. At the beginning of chapter 11, he says “The apparatus which my experiment required how now been assembled and we can get to work.” There is only one chapter left, with an epilogue, before the end of the book and now he wants to get to work? Lewis is a master essayist and makes it all look easy. We shouldn’t expect Kendi to argue on the same level as Lewis, but we should expect him to put a little more effort into building his own apparatus. Lewis has constructed a mansion and acted as a master tour guide and host. Even if we end up disliking the layout or finding his decoration gaudy, we have been treated as honored guests. Kendi, on the other hand, has thrown a few planks in the backyard and doesn’t seem to care if we follow him out there or not.
Kendi keeps up this facade of caring about definitions not just in this chapter, but also at the beginning of every other chapter. We get definitions of contrasting terms like “assimilationist,” “colorism,” “space antiracism,“ “antiracist anticapitalist,” “gender racism,” and “queer racism.” This is a book that takes pride in defining words in order to frame the terms of the debate. But it never gets around to debating anything. Kendi has prepared the stage, set up the podiums, invited an audience, and then doesn’t even take the trouble of setting up a strawman as his opponent. He stands beside an empty podium, preaching to a choir that doesn’t have any interest in singing, but only in talking about singing.
Kendi writes in Chapter 10 that “Racist ideas love believers, not thinkers.” Yet he has written the perfect book for believers. Thinkers will find themselves getting headaches.
In part 2 of this review, we’ll cover Kendi’s attempt to both believe and disbelieve in the individual, his moral relativism, and his failure to present any ideas that aren’t prepackaged slogans.
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