How Anti-Racist Is Ibram X. Kendi’s Anti-Racism?

The author Ibram X. Kendi.
Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

America’s sitting president is decades older than its democracy. From the time of the Constitution’s founding until Joe Biden’s junior year of college, our federal republic counted authoritarian white ethno-states among its members. Throughout that period, the bulk of America’s Black population was denied opportunities for economic advancement — first by slavers, then domestic terrorists, discriminatory employers, urban planners, homeowners associations, FHA officials, footloose capitalists, and countless other wielders of public and private power.

The U.S. government has officially valorized racial equality for 56 years; it deliberately manufactured the opposite for upwards of 345. By the time America abandoned de jure white supremacy, the de facto kind had already entrenched itself into the nation’s social fabric; dislodging it would have required a level of disruption that its beneficiaries would not abide.

Thus, when Black Americans won formal political equality in 1964, economic redress did not follow. Redlining had limited African Americans’ access to federally subsidized home loans. Racist employment practices — and, in some cases, trade unions — had relegated Black workers to the lowest-paid, highest-risk blue-collar jobs. Many Southern-born African Americans migrated to the North’s industrial cities just in time for capital to flee them. Shunted into segregated neighborhoods where jobs and public investment were scarce, much of Black America descended into chronic poverty. Federal efforts to combat urban disinvestment, residential segregation, and the subsequent disadvantages facing Black children were inadequate, even in their heyday.

Affluent white Americans did not want to share their neighborhoods, schools, or municipal tax bases with poor Black families (let alone pay them reparations). They also, generally, did not want to believe that they lived in an unjust society, or that they were in any way implicated in the deprivations they sped past on their daily commutes. So, they buried such intrusive thoughts beneath stories of Black cultural pathology and/or a “post-racial” America.

Ibram X. Kendi’s work takes dead aim at those convenient fictions. The historian and pop-theoretician of “antiracism” seeks to disrupt white America’s complacency about racial progress by spotlighting Black-white disparities in incarceration, wealth, and other social ills. And he seeks to stigmatize victim-blaming accounts of Black social disadvantage by insisting that all racial disparities derive from a history of white supremacy (not a “culture of poverty”). Kendi is especially concerned with the way superficially non-racist ideas and policies can serve the function of fortifying racial hierarchy. His solution is to adopt a consequentialist definition of racism: A policy or idea is racist to the extent that it “produces or sustains racial inequity,” and antiracist to the extent that it reduces the same.

Kendi’s ideas have both influenced and internalized broader intellectual currents on the social-justice left. And, collectively, antiracist thinkers and activists have had great success in reshaping mainstream discourse. Today, statistical testaments to racial inequity are a staple of Democratic oratory, while pathologizing calls for Black men to “pull up their pants” and raise their children are largely absent. Mainstream news outlets, meanwhile, rarely report on social problems without conveying pertinent racial disparities. And much of corporate America has invested resources into monitoring and mitigating racial gaps in pay, hiring, and promotions.

All of which is to the good. Today’s discourse about race is surely more conducive to egalitarian reform than yesterday’s (better for the liberal media to fixate on racial disparities than “welfare queens”). Given that anti-Black discrimination in hiring remains prevalent in the U.S., corporations that feel compelled to diversify their workforces for brand reputation’s sake are preferable to ones that don’t. Further, one could reasonably argue that Kendi-esque antiracist advocacy has already facilitated meliorative changes in public policy. Had such advocates not heightened the salience of racial inequity among white liberals, debt relief for disadvantaged Black farmers might not have made it into The American Recovery Act. And it’s also plausible that antiracists’ stigmatization of “welfare queen” narratives enabled the Democratic Party’s recent embrace of unconditional cash assistance to low-income families; until this year’s CTC expansion, Democrats had designed their anti-poverty programs to leave out America’s poorest children so as to punish their parents for being unemployed, a convention that disproportionately harmed Black families.

This said, the scale of reform necessary for eradicating Black disadvantage remains far beyond the bounds of political possibility. Enact Joe Biden’s entire agenda, and millions of African Americans will still lack affordable housing, remunerative employment, and health insurance. Meanwhile, an increasingly authoritarian far-right party controls a majority of U.S. states, and is well-positioned to retake Congress, if not full control of the federal government, within the next four years. Building the America that the Civil Rights Movement demanded — one that would guarantee economic security to all of its citizens — will require transforming our nation’s politics.

Within blue America, there is much debate about whether the discourse of antiracism is conducive to such a transformation. Some on the center-left detect an illiberal tribalism in anti-racist thought. In their view, the ideology’s penchant for stigmatizing ideas instead of refuting them, and concern for equity between groups instead of between individuals, “makes true equality, based on common humanity, impossible,” as The Atlantic’s George Packer has put it. Some socialists, meanwhile, contend that the discourse miscasts inequalities rooted in class domination as ones born of racial hatred and therefore “functions more as a misdirection that justifies inequality than a strategy for eliminating it,” in the words of Adolph Reed.

My own feelings are more ambivalent. As already suggested, I think Kendi and his ideological kin are combating some genuinely malign narratives about both the scale and nature of racial inequality in the U.S. And their success in marginalizing those narratives within the mainstream media and liberal institutions is impressive and salutary.

That said, I do think that liberal and socialist critics of antiracism identify some real hazards of the discourse in general, and Kendi’s iteration of it in particular. My own concerns about antiracism are (at least) threefold:

• In insisting upon the ongoing relevance of racial hierarchy to social life, antiracism can sometimes stray into reinforcing the very invidious, fictional group identities that undergird such hierarchy.

• While valuable for illuminating the scale of Black disadvantage, racial-disparity statistics can promote misunderstandings of social problems by eliding class distinctions within racial groups. Thus, when such stats are presented in the absence of an intersectional class analysis (as is generally the case in mainstream media), they may foreclose potential openings for interracial solidarity.

• In Kendi’s formulation, antiracist theory suffers from some glaring internal contradictions.

All of these liabilities can be found in Kendi’s recent interview with Ezra Klein.

In his conversation with the New York Times columnist, Kendi reiterated his call for a public institution tasked with analyzing whether legislative proposals would increase or reduce racial inequity (and thus whether they are racist or antiracist) before they are enacted. As a general matter, analyzing the racial implications of pending legislation — so as to ensure that it does not disfavor minority groups by some covert or unconscious means — seems like a worthy endeavor.

But in making the case for such an institution, Kendi emphasized that the Department of Antiracism’s legislative analyses would benefit the “white community,” as well as the Black one:

KENDI: So if, for instance, if we know that one aspect of the bill is going to cut childhood poverty in half. OK, that’s all children of all racial groups. OK, what type of impact will it have on child poverty within the Black community, within the Native community, within the white community? I mention the white community because there are certain segments of our society that tries to promote that bills like that aren’t going to be helpful for white people…We somehow imagine that that form of analysis is divisive, even though, to me, it will actually bring us together because different communities will be able to see that it is additive for their communities.

It’s now common practice to use “community” to describe heterogenous demographic groups whose members do not necessarily consider themselves kin. But the artifice of the construction strikes me as especially conspicuous, even dangerous, when applied to America’s white population. Do the grandsons of coal miners in deindustrialized Appalachia, first-generation Russian Jewish immigrants in Brighton Beach, and tech bros in Palo Alto all consider themselves part of the same white community? Do they judge legislation on the basis of how it would impact whites, specifically? And would American politics be less “divisive” if they did?

Encouraging light-skinned Americans to be more conscious of their white identity as a source of unearned advantage may redound to progressive ends (although this is far from clear). Encouraging them to see white identity as a source of communal belonging and solidarity, however, seems antithetical to antiracism. The various ethnic groups that comprise the white population are bound by distinct cultural traditions. But “white people” are bound by nothing save their mutual exemption from the lower rungs of a decaying caste system. There is no inherent reason why light-skinned Hispanic Americans should feel a special communal tie to Polish American immigrants, rather than Haitian American ones. And there is no good reason for anti-racists to normalize skin-color solidarity in a majority-white country where fellow-feeling among a perennially redefined “white community” has undergirded Black oppression for centuries. (Not to mention that the invocation of clearcut “white,” “Latinx,” and “Black” communities is anachronistic in an America where upwards of 15 percent of all new marriages are between individuals of mixed race or ethnicity.)

Separately, as a normative matter, it seems to me that an end goal of egalitarian politics should be to subordinate all ethnic attachments to a broader solidarity. Ethnicity and nationality are social fictions that define human communities in opposition to others. Trace the ancestral lines back, however, and these identities are revealed to be artifacts of a brief episode in the grand sweep of our species’ existence. We were human before we were white, Black, Latino, etc. And we want people to be human before they are any of those things again in the future, in terms of their political commitments. Put differently: Progressives should be fighting for a world in which the precise racial composition of a universal child allowance’s beneficiary pool is not a subject of public concern.

To be sure, Kendi’s take on the “white community” isn’t a signature tenet of his thought. And I doubt the sentiment is widespread among those who identify with his broader politics. Nevertheless, if viewing every social problem and public policy through the lens of racial disparity can lead antiracism’s most prominent proponent to affirm white solidarity, it seems reasonable to fear that the discourse might lead a non-negligible number of white Americans to do the same.

A distinct (if related) pitfall of Kendi’s mode of rhetoric and analysis is its tendency to mask intraracial inequality. One focal point of antiracist discourse is the racial wealth gap. And for good reason. The disparity between the median white family’s net worth and that of the median Black family gives quantitative testament to myriad historical crimes. Had enslaved African Americans been compensated for their labors; had freed men and women been given their due “40 acres and a mule”; had Black workers been afforded equal opportunity in the factories of the North; had Black homeowners been eligible for subsidized federal loans, or welcomed into predominantly white communities, then the typical white household would not have owned nearly ten times as much wealth as the median Black one in 2016.

Yet the racial wealth gap conceals as much as it reveals. In the United States, the rich and upper-middle class own the overwhelming majority of national wealth. And class inequality is as stark within Black America as it is in the nation writ large. According to the Survey of Consumer finances, the richest 10 percent of African Americans owned 75.3 percent of all Black wealth in 2016. The top decile of white Americans, meanwhile, owned 74.6 percent of all white wealth. As Matt Bruenig has observed, one implication of these intraracial class divides is that, for the bottom half of the Black and white populations, the racial wealth gap scarcely exists: If you erased the wealth gap between the bottom 50 percent of white and Black Americans, 97 percent of the overall wealth gap would remain. If you eliminated it for those in the bottom 90 percent of each racial group, 77.5 percent of the overall racial wealth gap would persist. The racial wealth gap is, in other words, primarily a function of wealth disparities between the Black and white upper classes. Similar patterns prevail when most other prominent racial gaps are scrutinized. For example, while Black Americans are incarcerated at higher rates than white ones, this is primarily a function of the former group’s overrepresentation among the poor and working class.

None of this means that racial disparities in wealth and incarceration are unworthy of concern; both still reveal inequities rooted in anti-Black racism. But the fact that class position is the primary determinant of such deprivations does mean that racial disparity statistics can be misleading, if they are not properly contextualized. The singular “Black community” is scarcely less mythic than a “post-racial America.” If invocations of the latter perpetuate racial inequality by denying its existence, invocations of the former fortify intraracial class gaps by a similar means.

In his interview with Klein, Kendi actually made a similar point about the imprecisions of racial disparities, albeit somewhat accidentally.

Late in their conversation, Klein asked Kendi about a potential problem that crime poses for him, given his simultaneous commitment to police abolition and technocratic disparate-impact analyses. Klein noted that Black Americans are disproportionately likely to be victims of criminal violence, and that the consensus view of criminologists is that slashing police staffing levels would produce an increase in criminal victimization. Thus, if defunding the police “raises racial inequality in crime victims,” would that not make the policy “racist” under Kendi’s outcomes-based definition?

Kendi responded by suggesting that an antiracist worldview would lead one to conclude that the source of concentrated crime in Black communities “is the amount of guns that are circulating throughout this nation,” along with “the lack of resources for local schools since they’re so based on property taxes.” Klein agreed that redlining and disinvestment created “criminogenic conditions in Black communities,” and that if those conditions were addressed directly, the need for policing in such places might be reduced. Kendi then expressed disagreement with the claim that “Black communities have criminogenic conditions.” Which led to the following exchange:

Ezra Klein: I think you do believe, if I’m not wrong, that a community that is pushed into poverty, that is denied health care, that is denied mental-health care, that’s denied good jobs is a community where you’re going to see more crime and more acts of desperation. And that part of how we rectify some of the society’s imbalances is to ease those underlying conditions. Am I wrongly attributing a view to you here?

IBRAM X. KENDI: No, you’re not … It’s a very thin line between saying that there’s no such thing as a dangerous unemployed neighborhood, and there’s a dangerous Black neighborhood because of unemployment. Those are two different things, and I think I wanted to really push to ensure we’re understanding these as dangerous unemployed neighborhoods. That the race of the people really don’t matter in this sense in the way that the poverty does. [my emphasis]

Kendi thinks Klein is right that communities that suffer from disinvestment and concentrated poverty are more likely to experience high rates of crime. And he agrees that, as a result of racist governance, Black Americans are more likely to live in such communities. But in Kendi’s view, to say that there are “criminogenic conditions in Black communities” would be dangerously imprecise: Socioeconomic position is the salient variable, and foregrounding race only serves to muddle the issue, while reinforcing narratives of Black pathology.

Which seems reasonable. Yet it is hard to reconcile this reasoning with Kendi’s broader project of centering policy debates around measures of racial disparity. After all, as we’ve seen, foregrounding race also obscures more salient class divides in the contexts of wealth and incarceration. What’s more, if the Department of Antiracism scored a proposal for cutting Medicaid, it would find that the policy disproportionately harms Black people. Yet there is nothing about Black people — as Black people — that renders them more reliant on public health insurance. Rather, that disproportionate reliance is a function of the population’s aggregate position in the socioeconomic hierarchy (“the race of the people really don’t matter in this sense in the way that the poverty does”). Thus, one could argue that scoring the disparate impact of Medicaid cuts is the policy that muddles the issue, while reinforcing pernicious stereotypes about Black people and reliance on government aid.

I think Kendi’s inconsistency in this regard has an instrumental basis: He is more concerned with countering the racist perception that African Americans are uniquely violent than he is with intellectual coherence.

As The New Yorker’s Kelefa Sanneh observed in a 2019 review of How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi displays a somewhat analogous logical inconsistency when analyzing disparate racial outcomes in education. In that book, Kendi denies the existence of “an achievement gap” between white and Black students (as measured by test scores or graduation rates) because those metrics are themselves racist. To judge Black students’ achievement on the basis of their performance in school is to “degrade” them by ignoring alternative forms of learning; racial testing disparities may testify to “different kinds of achievement rather than different levels of achievement.” And yet, when assessing America’s educational system, Kendi argues that the “chronic underfunding of Black schools” has created “diminished opportunities for learning” — not benignly different ones.

In both these instances, Kendi seems to put preempting racist interpretations of racial disparities above maintaining logical coherence. Which is, in its way, an intellectually faithful application of his ideology’s core premise: Whether an argument is intellectually consistent matters less, from an antiracist perspective, than whether it “produces or sustains racial inequity.”

Reducing such inequity, and neutralizing racist fictions, are both vitally important tasks. That America has condemned so many descendants of people it enslaved to lives of penury and involuntary unemployment is a moral obscenity. It is hard to see how that obscenity can be ended in the absence of interracial class solidarity, and it is even harder to see how such solidarity can be forged at the necessary scale, so long as racial prejudice retains its present currency. To the extent that Kendi’s advocacy lives up to its own consequentialist standard, its legitimation of white solidarity, elision of class inequality, and internal contradictions are all forgivable.

But I’m just not sure how “anti-racist” anti-racism truly is.

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