How To Be An Antiracist
By Ibram X. Kendi
One World, New York, 2019
Donald Trump says he’s not racist. In fact, he claims to be the “least racist person that you have ever met.”
“The opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘antiracist.’ What’s the difference? One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an antiracist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an antiracist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist. There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.’ The claim of ‘not racist’ neutrality is a mask for racism.“ [p. 9]
Kendi is a historian, best-selling author, journalist and speaker. He is the founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University in Washington, DC.
How To Be An Antiracist examines the history of racism, the ideas and policies that support it, and the often flawed approaches to opposing it. Kendi’s goal is to get us to clearly recognize racism in society and in ourselves so that we can fight it more successfully. The book is also partly autobiographical. He uses stories from his life to illustrate how his own understanding of racism has evolved, and how he too has had to learn how to become antiracist.
The book is built around a set of definitions that frame the problem of racism with mathematical precision, like the steel beams of a skyscraper. I found these definitions to be powerful and clarifying, easily the most valuable part of the book. I’m going to quote a few of them here.
Racism: “Racism is a marriage of racist policies and racist ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequities.” [pp. 17-18]
Racial inequity: “Racial inequality is when two or more racial groups are not standing on approximately equal footing.” [p. 18]
Racist policy: “A racist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups. An antiracist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial equity between racial groups. By policy I mean written and unwritten laws, rules, procedures, processes, regulations and guidelines that govern people.” [p.18]
Racist ideas: “A racist idea is any idea that suggests that one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way. Racist ideas argue that inferiorities and superiorities of racial groups explain racial inequities in society.” [p. 20]
Racist: “One who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.” [p.13]
Antiracist: “One who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.” [p.13]
One of the key points Kendi makes in the book is that the words “racist” and “antiracist” are not fixed identities. They describe our actions and words rather than facets of our character. He says that most of us, including himself, say and do both racist and antiracist things, and that we switch from racist to antiracist from moment to moment. So we should not think of the word “racist” as an insult or a slur, but as a descriptive term that helps us correctly identify racism so that we can dismantle it.
The idea of a racial hierarchy is another clarifying concept. Racist ideas rank people in a false hierarchy of value according to their race, and racist policies produce and perpetuate inequities between racial groups. You can see this hierarchy embedded in both segregationist and assimilationist policies. Segregation is based on the idea that one racial group is permanently inferior to another and must be physically separated from the superior group. Assimilation is the idea that one racial group is inferior to another but that cultural or behavioral improvement programs can elevate members of this group to the “standard” set by the superior group.
Another important theme is that racist ideas and beliefs are a consequence of racist policy, and not the other way around.
“The history of racist ideas is the history of powerful policy-makers erecting racist policies out of self-interest, then producing racist ideas to defend and rationalize the inequitable effects of their policies, …” [p. 230]
Kendi spends several chapters debunking racist ideas that the biology, culture, ethnicity, and behavior of Blacks are somehow deficient or inferior to that of Whites, and that this explains inequitable outcomes like higher poverty, poorer health, shorter lifespans, and higher rates of incarceration among Blacks.
Despite the title, How To Be An Antiracist is not really a step-by-step instruction manual. But it does set out broad principles and strategies. Among these, we must treat people as individuals, accept their full humanity, and not define them solely as members of a racial group, nor as representatives of a racial group.
“To be antiracist is to think nothing is behaviorally wrong or right – inferior or superior – with any of the racial groups. Whenever the antiracist sees individuals behaving positively or negatively, the antiracist sees exactly that: individuals behaving positively or negatively, not representatives of whole races. To be antiracist is to deracialize behavior, to remove the tattooed stereotypes from every racialized body. Behavior is something humans do, not races do.” [p. 105]
Ultimately, he says, “… racial inequity is a problem of bad policy, not bad people.” [p. 231]
Therefore, the most effective way to fight racism, to be an antiracist, is to fight racist policies. Rather than trying to educate racists to be more tolerant or appealing to their morals or consciences, focus on changing laws and regulations. The difficulty of course is that racist policies are driven and supported by the self-interest of those who made them, namely powerful Whites. Successful policy change means making it clear to Whites, either through education or demonstration, that racist policies carry a higher cost than equitable antiracist policies.
For example, Kendi makes the point, which I’ve read elsewhere, that the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s succeeded not just because of the moral leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. but also because White elites came to understand that racism in the US was hurting the country’s ability to form alliances with African and Asian countries during the Cold War.
In January 2018, Kendi was diagnosed with metastatic stage 4 colon cancer. After six months of chemotherapy followed by surgery, he became a cancer survivor. Kendi ends his book drawing a poignant analogy between his fight against cancer and the fight against racism. He says we must “saturate the body politic with the chemotherapy or immunotherapy of antiracist policies that shrink the tumors of racial inequities …” [p. 227].
Above all, we must believe we can survive the cancer of racism and believe that transformative change is possible.
How To Be An Antiracist is one of the few books I’ve read on the subject of racism. I grew up in a Jewish family and learned about the long history of antisemitism, so I think I’m not completely ignorant about racism. Still, I’m a white male and I freely admit that I’m only dimly aware of the advantages and privileges that this accident of birth has given me. One of those privileges is that, frankly, I have not needed to focus much attention on the problem of racism in America. So with some hesitation, I’d like to offer a few reflections on this book.
One of the objectives of antiracism is that we should see and treat each other as fully human, influenced but not exclusively defined by membership in racial groups. However, today, right now, we are not on equal footing. The playing field is not level. That means policies must be changed in ways that reduce inequities between racial groups. This in turn invites accusations of reverse discrimination by Whites. Affirmative action in college admissions is an example. Kendi would agree that this is discrimination, but would argue that it is acceptable discrimination, at least temporarily, because its purpose is to reduce inequity. Paradoxically, to get to the point where we accept each other as fully human we must first implement policies that establish equity based on race. This is a long journey.
The definitions and the false hierarchy of race that Kendi presents in the book form an equally powerful framework for acting against other forms of bigotry based on gender, sexuality, religion, ability or anything else. Kendi does address the idea of “intersectionality”, but it’s always under the umbrella of racism. To use a software term, racism is always the “high-order bit” for Kendi, but it might not be for feminists, LGBTQ activists, etc. Nonetheless, I imagine the strategy of reducing inequity by changing policy applies to all of them.
I’ll wrap this up by touching on two topics Kendi does not address: demographics and climate change.
Kendi mentions climate change in passing a couple of times, mainly to note that climate change disproportionately affects Blacks since they tend to live in the hotter South, and on poorer quality land. By Kendi’s definition, refusing to address climate change is a racist policy because it leads to inequitable impacts on Blacks. I don’t know how this is going to play out, but we’re increasingly hearing calls for environmental justice. One trend we’re starting to see is a retreat from coastal areas where government buyouts are cheaper than reconstruction in flood- and storm-ravaged areas. How to fairly apportion buyout money among, for example, rich Whites with luxury beachfront properties and poor Blacks (and Whites) living in low-lying areas is about to become a hotly debated issue.
Meanwhile the US population is becoming increasingly diverse, according to demographer William H. Frey. His book, Diversity Explosion (book, review), forecasts that the US will become a minority-majority country shortly after 2040; a majority of the population will come from non-White minority groups. The White population is declining sharply while Hispanic and Asian groups are growing rapidly. The US Black population is growing too, but at a slower pace. In addition, 16% of new marriages are interracial, and about 3% of the population already identifies as multiracial, according to the 2010 US census. Today, Whites dominate America both numerically and politically. As they lose numerical dominance, their political dominance will also fade giving non-Whites greater power and influence. In theory, this should be cause for optimism since growing segments of the US population would benefit from and possibly advocate more equitable antiracist policies.
As I said at the beginning, I think the definitions are the core of this book. They are precise, powerful and clarifying.
Before reading this book, I would have called myself “not racist”. Now I know better. I’m not sure I’m entitled to call myself “antiracist” yet, but as Kendi says, these terms describe ideas, policies and actions rather than identity or character. I appreciate how his definitions provide an escape route from endless, unproductive, accusatory name-calling. Instead, they point the way to action.
How To Be An Antiracist took me out of my complacent comfort zone. It might do the same for you. That’s why it’s worth reading.
“The Heartbeat of Racism is Denial” – Kendi’s January 13, 2018 New York Times opinion essay.
“Ibram X. Kendi’s Latest Book: ‘How To Be An Antiracist’” – NPR interview with Kend.