When President Barack Obama was inaugurated in January 2009, many Americans thought it would usher in a new era in America’s long and tortuous history of race relations. After all, if a black man could be elected president, went the thinking, perhaps we had entered a “post-racial” period in which race would be a less prominent and divisive issue.
A decade later, those hopes have been dashed. If anything, racial tensions have increased considerably over the last decade. The progress we thought we had made was a mirage.
A number of writers have recently tried to understand the past and present place of racism in America. Some, like Jill Lepore in “These Truths: A History of the United States,” have sought to reconsider American history, highlighting the many ways in which it is both profoundly beautiful and deeply tragic.
Others, like Ibram X. Kendi, an African American scholar at American University, have focused on the origins of American racism and how it became such an entrenched part of our national character. His previous book, “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” which won the National Book Award in 2016, was a sweeping examination of the ways that intellectuals, including some usually thought of as progressives, facilitated the establishment and growth of racism over the last 400 years.
Kendi’s latest book, “How to Be an Antiracist,” continues this theme in a far more personal way. In it, he candidly identifies and confronts racism in America by telling the story of his life from his upbringing in Queens, New York, where he was, at best, an indifferent student, to his time as a PhD student at Temple University in Philadelphia and, later, to some of his experiences as a professor.
Deftly weaving his personal experiences with the history of racism in America and current racial inequalities, he offers assessments of the ways that racism in America is shaped and perpetuated by power structures, ethnicity, culture, behavior, class, color, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity, and the steps he thinks we need to take to address them. It is a wide-ranging and often insightful discussion.
It is also a remarkably candid and deeply self-critical portrait. “How,” he asks, “can antiracists ask racists to open their minds and change when we are closed-minded and unwilling to change? I ignored my own hypocrisy, as people customarily do when it means giving up what they hold dear. Giving up my conception of racism meant giving up my view of the world and myself.”
He repeatedly returns to the theme of his personal racism to underscore his belief that anyone – regardless of their skin color or ethnicity – is a racist if they generalize about entire groups based on negative stereotypes. To Kendi, black people are just as capable of racism as white people. Indeed, he begins the book by recounting a prize-winning high school speech based entirely on racist generalizations that, today, makes him “flush with shame.” Later he admits, “I arrived at Temple as a racist, sexist homophobe.” And he has particularly strong words for African Americans who hold positions of power like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and former Ohio Secretary of State John Kenneth Blackwell, and use that power, he charges, to advance racist policies.
Kendi, like any good academic, is clear about his terms and definitions. He believes that a racist is someone who supports “a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea,” while an antiracist is one who supports “an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.” Most of us, he concludes, hold both racist and antiracist views. But our beliefs are not necessarily fixed and immutable. “‘Racist’ and ‘antiracist’ are like peelable name tags that are placed and replaced based on what someone is doing ... in each moment. These are not permanent tattoos.” In other words, our views and positions can change – as the evolution of his own thinking demonstrates.
He calls policies that increase racial disparities “racist” while policies that reduce such disparities are “antiracist.” So affirmative action policies in college admissions designed to increase the enrollment of students of color are antiracist. (Presumably this means that legacy preferences in admissions, which do not reduce racial disparities and indeed may reinforce them, are racist.) Working to repeal the Affordable Care Act is racist because doing so would increase racial disparities in health care. “Do-nothing climate policy is racist policy, since the predominately non-White global south is being victimized by climate change more than the Whiter global north.”
Intriguingly, Kendi argues that the word “racist” should be seen as descriptive rather than pejorative. If we regard it that way, we might be able to talk far more candidly about racism in all its manifestations. But in 21st century America, the word is a pejorative slur and there is no easy way to make it less emotionally laden.
One of the challenges is that addressing our deeply ingrained tendencies to default to racist ideas requires “persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.” This won’t be easy because many of us would rather avoid these often difficult discussions. Recently The Washington Post wrote that the efforts of tour guides at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s plantation, to introduce descriptions of slavery into their presentations have been dismissed by some visitors. One guide, after describing how slaves at Monticello had tended the garden, was reportedly told, “Why are you talking about that? You should be talking about the plants.” Not much self-examination there.
Sometimes Kendi generalizes to the extent that complex policy issues are overly simplified – such his almost casual description about racial achievement gaps in education. Indeed, he argues that President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and President Obama’s Race to the Top and Common Core policies were racist because they were based on the idea of an achievement gap.
Individual readers are likely to find much in “How to Be an Antiracist” that they agree with. Most will also find points or ideas that they disagree with. Regardless, this is a thought-provoking and insightful book even if it makes some readers uncomfortable. As such, it represents an important and necessary contribution to our understanding of racism in America.