By Ed Meek
A more accurate title for Ibram X Kendi’s engaging and compelling book might be “How I learned to think like an antiracist and how you can too.”
How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. Random House, 238 pages. $15.
Following the tragic death of George Floyd, Americans have been searching for an explanation for how we got to the point where a police officer feels he has the right to kneel on someone’s neck until his life ends — a white police officer with his knee on the neck of a Black man in handcuffs — while he is being videotaped with three other police officers looking on. The image of Officer Chauvin, his knee on George Floyd’s neck, has accrued so much power because it makes the case that this Black life simply did not matter to Chauvin. Hence, it embodies the need for a Black Lives Matter movement. In addition, the visual functions as a potent racist symbol of the relationship of white America to Black Americans. In addition to dealing with how we got here, Americans are asking themselves what they can do now that their eyes have been opened. Ibram X. Kendi attempts to provide us with a way to move forward in his engaging and compelling new book, How to Be an Antiracist.
A more accurate title of Kendi’s book might be “How I learned to think like an antiracist and how you can too.” The narrative traces the author’s development from high school and college to graduate school and up to the present (he’ll be joining the faculty at Boston University this fall). As he tells his own story he draws on years of research.
One of the refreshing aspects of the book is that Kendi clearly defines his terms. A racist is “One who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.” An antiracist, on the other hand, is “One who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.” The key word is policy. A racist policy would be any policy that helps one race and hurts another. Practices like “stop and frisk” and racial profiling unfairly target African Americans. Our justice system unjustly incarcerates too many Black males. Kendi is against any policy that maintains “racial inequities.” Legacy admissions and merit scholarships, for instance, favor whites who go to the best schools, and then graduate to the best jobs, which have been reserved for them.
Overt acts of racism, like a white person using the “N” word to insult a Black person, or joining a white supremacist group, or violently attacking someone based on race, are the kinds of things we usually think of when we talk about racism. That broad brush makes it easy for many people to deny that they are racists. Kendi argues that it is the unseen policies in housing, education, justice, and the distribution of wealth that hurt Blacks and help whites that are the real problems we must address. In addition, he has faith that once we transform the policies, people will adapt to the changes.
Kendi begins his book by examining a speech he gave in high school in which he blames Black youth for their predicament: “They think it’s ok not to think! They focus too much on sports. Too many get pregnant.” Sound familiar? This is a stance taken by Paul Ryan, Bill Cosby, and Barack Obama. Kendi realizes later that he is blaming Black people for problems that are not their own fault. The pandemic has exposed many of the debilitating conditions Black Americans are faced with, from low-paying jobs and inadequate healthcare to underfunded education and low rates of home ownership.
Kendi reviews the history of “whiteness,” which is contradicted in our Declaration of Independence: “all men are created equal.” A more accurate statement in 1776 might have been “all white men are created equal.” Two hundred and fifty years later, we still have what Isabel Wilkerson, in a recent article in The New York Times, calls “America’s Enduring Caste System.” Kendi does not let himself or other African Americans completely off the hook. He claims that any of us can be racist. Clarence Thomas, Kendi points out, in his treatment of Anita Hill, was both sexist and racist. Moreover, Kendi does not think it is useful to accuse one another of being racist (as the Left is fond of doing). Instead, we need to change policies that generate racial inequities.
There are two criticisms I have of Kendi’s book. First, although he points out the tragic inequities between Blacks and whites, he doesn’t propose how we go about closing those gaps. Neither does he acknowledge the bigger problem; as political scientist Adolph Reed would assert, there’s a growing disparity of income and wealth between the wealthy and the rest of us. Also, because this is a book about how we think about race, it is easy enough as a reader to agree with Kendi and identify as an antiracist — without actually doing anything to change the problems facing Black Americans. Where is the action plan?
The idea driving Kendi is, as Elizabeth Warren would say, to “level the playing field” and “provide opportunities” for everyone. But to make up for past malfeasances, don’t we have to provide some type of reparations? Affirmative Action was an attempt to legislate fairness, and it was successful. But its primary beneficiaries were white women; other groups objected when jobs and admissions slots were given to African American candidates. Lawsuits were filed. Ta-Nahesi Coates in the Atlantic and Nikole Hannah-Jones in the the New York Times argue effectively for reparations (MA Senator Ed Markey is part of a group of Democrats studying the issue), but most Americans are not there yet. We’ll see what happens to that issue, and other suggestions for structural changes, over the next few years. Meanwhile, How to Be an Antiracist is a helpful step on America’s newly energized journey to overcome its racial divide.
Ed Meek is the author of Spy Pond and What We Love. A collection of his short stories, Luck, came out in May. WBUR’s Cognoscenti featured his poems during National Poetry Month in 2019