An Overdue Lesson on Antiracism

The recent turmoil at Ibram X. Kendi’s Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, with more than half its staff laid off and half its budget cut amid questions of what it did with the nearly $55 million it raised, led to whoops of schadenfreude from Kendi’s critics and hand wringing from his loyal fans.

Kendi had become a symbol of what was right or wrong with America’s racial reckoning since the police murder of George Floyd. To some, he was a race-baiting grifter; to others, he was a social justice hero speaking harsh truths.

With little administrative experience, Kendi may simply have been ill equipped to deal with a program of that magnitude. He may have been distracted by a nonstop book tour and speaking engagements. Or maybe he just screwed up.

More interesting is that many major universities, corporations, nonprofit groups and influential donors thought buying into Kendi’s strident, simplistic formula — that racism is the cause of all racial disparities and that anyone who disagrees is a racist — could eradicate racial strife and absolve them of any role they may have played in it.

After all, this reductionist line of thinking runs squarely against the enlightened principles on which many of those institutions were founded — free inquiry, freedom of speech, a diversity of perspectives. As one Boston University professor wrote last week in The Wall Street Journal, that academia backs Kendi’s mission amounts to a “violation of scholarly ideals and liberal principles,” ones that betray “the norms necessary for intellectual life and human flourishing.”

Yet Kendi’s ideas gained prominence, often to the exclusion of all other perspectives. Kendi was a relatively unknown academic when his second book, “Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” was a surprise winner of a National Book Award in 2016. It helped catapult him from assistant professorships at State University of New York campuses, and the University of Florida, to a full professorship at American University, where he founded the Antiracist Research and Policy Center.

In 2017, The New York Times Book Review, which I was then editing, asked Kendi to create a reading list, “A History of Race and Racism, in 24 Chapters,” for our pages. I interviewed Kendi, who is a very charismatic speaker, about the essay on the Book Review’s podcast and again, about his reading life, on a panel, in 2019.

In “Stamped From the Beginning,” Kendi asserted that racist ideas are used to obscure the fact that racist policies create racial disparities, and that to find fault with Black people in any way for those disparities is racist. People who “subscribed to assimilationist thinking that has also served up racist beliefs about Black inferiority,” no matter how well-meaning and progressive, were themselves racist. In Kendi’s revisionist history, figures who had been previously hailed for their contribution to civil rights were repainted as racist if they did not attribute Black inequality solely to racism. Kendi accused W.E.B. Du Bois and Barack Obama of racism for entertaining the idea that Black behavior and attitudes could sometimes cause or exacerbate certain disparities, although he notes that Du Bois went on to take a what he considered a more antiracist position.

In 2019, Kendi took the ideas further, pivoting to contemporary policy with “How to Be an Antiracist.” In this book, Kendi made clear that to explore reasons other than racism for racial inequities, whether economic, social or cultural, is to promote anti-black policies.

“The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination,” Kendi wrote, in words that would be softened in a future edition after they became the subject of criticism. “The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.” In other words, two wrongs do make a right. As practiced, that meant curriculums that favor works by Black people over white people is one way to achieve that goal; hiring quotas are another.

Among the book’s central tenets is that everyone must choose between his approach, which he calls “antiracism,” and racism itself. It would no longer be enough for an individual or organization to simply be “not racist,” which Kendi calls a “mask for racism” — they must instead be actively “antiracist,” applying a strict lens of racism to their every thought and action, and in fields wholly unrelated to race, in order to escape deliberate or inadvertent racist thinking and behavior. “What we say about race, what we do about race, in each moment, determines what — not who — we are,” Kendi writes.

Kendi’s antiracism prescription meant that universities, corporations and nonprofits would need to remove all policies that weren’t overtly antiracist. In the Boston University English department’s playwriting M.F.A. program, for example, reading assignments had to come from “50 percent diverse-identifying and marginalized writers” and writers of “white or Eurocentric lineage” be taught through “an actively antiracist lens.” Antiracism also requires a commitment to other positions, including active opposition to sexism, homophobia, colorism, ethnocentrism, nativism, cultural prejudice and any class biases that supposedly harm Black lives. To deviate from any of this is to be racist. You’re either with us or you’re against us.

Yet, as the psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt points out, Kendi’s dichotomy is “incorrect from a social-science perspective because there are obviously many other remedies,” including ones that address social, economic and cultural disparities through a more fair distribution of resources.

When a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd in May 2020, Kendi’s book, with its propitious, here-is-what-you-must-do-now title, became the bible for anyone newly committed to the cause of racial justice. Schools and companies made it required reading. So many campuses made it their “class read” “all-school read” or “community read” that the publisher created a full set of reading and teaching guides to help foster them. (Employees at the publishing house, Penguin Random House, were told to read it as the first “true companywide read” to begin “antiracism training mandatory for all employees.”) Universities used Kendi’s antiracist framework as the basis by which applicants’ required “diversity statements” would be judged.

Kendi’s vision of antiracism had considerable influence in shaping the national conversation around race. As Tyler Austin Harper wrote in The Washington Post last week, “No longer a mere ambassador for academic antiracism, Kendi became a brand.”

Yet the same year “How to Be an Antiracist” was published, Henry Louis Gates’s “Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow,” presented a more nuanced assessment of the relationship between past and present. With its vivid examples of crude prejudice (the photos are not for the fainthearted), Gates’s historical excavation allows the reader to see a clear line between the pervasive bigotry of the past and the kind of ugly but marginal brand of white supremacy on display in 2017 Charlottesville. In contrast to Kendi’s contention that racial progress is consistently accompanied by racist progress, numerous memoirs, firsthand accounts, biographies and histories of the civil rights movement also document clear progress on race.

Contra Kendi, there are conscientious people who advocate racial neutrality over racial discrimination. It isn’t necessarily naïve or wrong to believe that most Americans aren’t racist. To believe that white supremacists exist in this country but that white supremacy is not the dominant characteristic of America in 2023 is also an acceptable position.

And while a cartoon version of colorblindness isn’t desirable or even possible, it is possible to recognize skin color but not form judgments on that basis. A person can worry that an emphasis on racial group identity can misleadingly homogenize diverse groups of people, at once underestimating intra-racial differences and overemphasizing interracial ones. The Black left-wing scholar Adolph Reed, for example, decries the emphasis on race-based policies. “An obsession with disparities of race has colonized the thinking of left and liberal types,” Professor Reed said in an interview with The New York Times. “There’s this insistence that race and racism are fundamental determinants of all Black people’s existence.”

In short, a person can oppose racism on firm ethical or philosophical or pragmatic grounds without embracing Kendi’s conception of “antiracism.” No organization can expect all employees or students to adhere to a single view on how to combat racism.

Kendi asserts that whether a policy is racist or antiracist is determined not by intent, but by outcome. But the fruits of any efforts toward addressing racial inequality may take years to materialize and assess.

In the meantime, the best that could come out of this particular reckoning would be a more nuanced and open-minded conversation around racism and a commitment to more diverse visions of how to address it.

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