This book mainly details the various ways that racism can appear in American society, and in what ways people practice it.
Ibram X. Kendi
Kendi is a professor in the Humanities field at Boston University. He has also written for The Atlantic and CBS News. In 2020, Time Magazine named Ibram X. Kendi one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Much of the beginning of the book is quite autobiographical–and biographical when it came to his parents. They were introduced to soul liberation during their time in university, which was during the time of Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael. They would later abandon such fervor when raising Kendi.
There is a lot of emphasis on the dynamics of racism not just by Whites against Blacks, but also within the African-American community. Kendi knew this firsthand as his own family looked down at other African-Americans for failing to take advantage of the American Dream. This was especially played out among different ethnicities of African-Americans, such as the African immigrants looking down at the African-Americans descended from the African slaves.
Kendi also frequently cites the statistical reality of African-Americans when it comes to poverty and incarceration. He then concludes that it is not just the racist white system that is doing this, but also the African-Americans who are actively supporting it; either with their opinions or being in actual positions of power and actively commencing these measures.
Kendi also makes it clear that racism is not only detrimental to black and brown people, but also towards the white lower-class. He pointed out that millions of white people were killed in the Civil War and World War II. In spite of the talk about white supremacy and the right to own black slaves, it came at a cataclysmic cost, specifically at the expense the white lower-class.
As for the ways in which racism plays out, there are two different types: individual racism and institutional racism. Individual racism involves any incident of racism that is directly targeted by an individual(s) against an individual(s), such as a hate crime. Institutional racism is the willful disregard for the lives of black and brown people that are shown in statistical and geographical disadvantage. A notable example of institutional racism is the lack of action on climate change, which disproportionally affects people in the global south.
The play of individual and institutional racism is a theme of Ian Haney Lopez’s book Dog-Whistle, in which he writes about how both Democratic and Republican–though mostly Republican–politicians have used dog-whistling in order to win votes. He then explains how a politician may not be individually racist, but it would not stop them from passing laws that make life objectively worse for people of color.
Kendi points out statistically that poverty and disenfranchisement are the reasons why lower-class African-Americans have higher crime rates than upper-class African-Americans. This parallels with what made Malcolm X admonish the media for dwelling on African-American criminality, and not on the poverty and the disenfranchisement that results in it in the first place. Like Kendi, Malcolm had personal experience witnessing this dynamic, specifically in his younger years in Harlem as a hustler.
Furthermore, Malcolm also deplored the black upper class for not benefiting the black underclass, rather the white upper class. He knew that it was not just an issue of making money, but about the circumambulation of money within the African-American community. Indeed, while the black upper-class may think of themselves as being above their poorer counterparts, they are still not maintaining their original selves, rather replicating the white upper-class.
And there is the issue of Afrocentricity, which Kendi mentions as viewing history and culture specifically through the perspective of the African diaspora. He noted how much it provided a resistance to the segregationist mindset. Once again as experienced by Malcolm X, he knew that history should not be infantilizing, rather it should tell the whole story, specifically of slavery and how that continues to affect African-Americans. His reading portfolio when he was in prison include historians who focused heavily on slavery.
However, I did have a problem with the way Kendi generalized the gender roles in the African-American community. If there is one thing that Kaufman and Sturtevant noted about the medieval ages is that gender roles were complicated. That said, there can be a case to be made that gender roles were also complicated in the black community. Kendi himself noted that his own father was raised in a single-mother household that made it clear that he would not be “the patriarch” of the house–though it was probably because he was not old enough to hold down a job. Being a patriarch does not give a man absolute power over his own family, rather it gives him a lot of responsibilities, such as protection and care. If you were to explain to any man what it means to be a patriarch–specifically the responsibilities it entails–most of them would not want to be one. Not only that, but Kendi has not disproven the reality that being raised by a single parent is difficult.
Also, it is also important to note, as Jacobson did, that the left-wing is practically a dysfunctional family, with various factions fighting amongst each other. The black activists fight with Jewish activists, as one example, particularly when it came to the Arab-Israeli War. The intersectional factions may fight alongside each other, but there is a guarantee that they will fight amongst each other.
There is a lot of usage of jargon that Kendi has coined in order to demonstrate his points. They are usually juxtaposed with the words racist and anti-racist in order to show the differences between them. Much of the book has to do with the use of concepts that are either racist or anti-racist. They are divided based on their connection to society. These include:
- Racist/Anti-Racist Idea: relates to someone’s bias. There can be no such thing as color-blindness when taking into account the history of someone’s lineage of oppression leading up to their own oppression.
- Racist/Anti-Racist Policy: these are the pieces of legislation that affect people of color in ways that would appear neutral, but are harmful underneath that veil.
- Racist/Anti-Racist Discrimination: The only way to fix racist discrimination–as Kendi argues–is to introduce anti-racist discrimination which benefits people of color. This includes affirmative action.
- Racist/Anti-Racist Equity: Basically, this is the living standards of each demographic. As expected Black and Latinx living standards are statistically lower than White living standards.
So on and so forth. The point of these dichotomies is to emphasize how there are differing behaviors between racists and anti-racists, since they involve discerning between logic and folk knowledge.
As for the different types of racists, he provides two types: assimilationist and segregationist. The assimilationists believe that African-Americans can only achieve equality with white Americans by behaving, acting, and speaking like them. These included people even as well-meaning such as abolitionists. Then there are segregationists who believe that African-Americans should maintain their own space; though with no guarantee that they would receive the same treatment as the white space. This was especially played out during the Jim Crow era when black-only spaces, such as schools, were given less funding than white-only schools.
As for the ending, he makes an extended metaphor, comparing racism to cancer. It ravages the body until there are tumors that can be removed and if there is chemotherapy involved.
What is tragic is that there will always be behavioral racists who will see entire groups of people through individuals who do misdeeds. There will always be people who think of Chris Brown, O. J. Simpson, or R. Kelly; and then forbid their own children dating significant others who so happen to be African-American. In spite of the fact that they were wealthy exceptions, the fear of what cannot be understood is enough to keep people in their racial delusions.
That is why I do not share Kendi’s optimism, since racism–as prescribed by Western powers–has existed for half a millennium, and it will not end within a single generation. A thing to keep in mind about racist Americans is that they always have nations of boogeymen hiding in their closet. One decade its the African-Americans that haunt them; the other decade its the Muslim-Americans; the other decade its the Chinese-Americans; etc.
It is very easy to deduce, as Kendi did, that these racist beliefs and policies are pushed by the very wealthy who want to maintain their power and will play everybody off against each other in order to do so. However, there will always be people who will associate themselves more with a third-generation multi-millionaire like Trump than with a fellow worker who has the same problems as them who just so happen to look or think differently.
As for Kendi’s call to action, he writes about how boycotting and protesting does a lot to make social changes. He did note that attaining power is far more difficult.
Recommend This To…
- Anyone interested in the usage of word choice among the left.
- “The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told To Alex Haley.” 1st Trade Edition. Ballatine Books. February 1992.
- Jacobsen, Matthew Frye. “Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post–Civil Rights America.” Harvard University Press. 2009.
- Kaufman, Amy S. and Paul B. Sturtevant. “The Devil’s Historian: How Modern Extremists Abuse The Medieval Past.” University of Toronto Press. 2020.
- Kendi, Ibram X. “How To Be Anti-Racist.” One World. 2019.
- Lopez, Ian Haney. “Dog Whistle Politics.” Oxford University Press. 2014.