Is Antiracism the Answer to Racism?

A compelling author makes an unconvincing case.

It is easy to root for Ibram X. Kendi. In 2018, Kendi found himself in the battle of his life after being diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer, which has a twelve percent survival rate. After months of chemotherapy and surgery, Kendi was thankfully cancer free and able to follow up his National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America with How To Be An Antiracist.

In the final chapter of the latter, Kendi likens the cancer that threatened his life to the racism that threatens our country. Throughout the book, Kendi’s personal story serves as a backdrop for how he developed his current views on race. Influenced by his parents’ emphasis on self-reliance, Kendi used to blame Black people for their problems, but now he blames the racist policies that ensnare them. He used to believe the conventional wisdom that ignorance was the source of racist ideas, but now he views racist ideas as borne of self-interest. In turn, that leads to ever more ignorance and hate. Just as aggressive treatment was necessary to save his life, Kendi proposes similarly aggressive treatment for the nation. The medicine, he says, is called antiracism.

Antiracism does not mean what you probably think it means. For most of our history, the term has been used sporadically to describe efforts or policies to oppose racism. Most Americans likely still understand it as such. But in the past decade, the term has taken on a different meaning—one that describes a very specific way of thinking about and confronting racism.

To be antiracist, according to Kendi, is not merely to be against racism. Reasonable people do not need to be convinced that racism is irrational and harmful—or that it must be confronted. How To Be An Antiracist is not an argument for those principles. Nor is it a guide to specific policies that will effectively combat racism. Rather, Kendi defines an “antiracist” as “one who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea” (He repeatedly tries to define a word by using the same word, which can be confusing.) To be an antiracist, he says, is to adopt a belief system that is built on a few core principles.

One of the foundations of antiracist thinking is that “the racial groups are equals in all their apparent differences—that there is nothing right or wrong with any racial group.” Another is that “racist policies are the cause of racial inequities.” Kendi believes an antiracist world would be one in which “equal opportunities and thus outcomes exist between the equal groups.” And though few would disagree with the folly of making sweeping judgments about different racial groups, or criticize efforts to close the “opportunity gap,” Kendi never successfully makes the case for some of his more controversial claims.

There are obvious counterarguments to his thesis that racist policies are necessarily the cause of all racial inequities. For instance: recent studies show that, as a group, Asian Americans now achieve better academic outcomes and earn more money on average than White Americans. Following Kendi’s reasoning, the cause of that racial inequity must be racist policies that either favor Asian Americans or discriminate against White Americans. But he never explains what racist policies could possibly account for this gap.

Similarly, there are well-documented discrepancies within racial groups that defy easy explanations. In the book, Kendi cites the widely used example of Black immigrants, who are more likely to have a college degree than native born Black Americans and Americans overall. Kendi acknowledges the success of Black immigrants and attributes it largely “self-selection,” noting that immigrants are more likely to be driven, resourceful, and resilient.Ta-Nahesi Coates has made a similar point that “comparing any immigrant group to virtually any native-born group is like comparing the most ambitious members of one team with the entirety of another team.” Kendi, however, doesn’t seem to recognize that these discrepancies contradict his definitive statement that racist policies are the cause, rather than cause, of racial inequities.

After pointing out that Black immigrants earn more on average than native-born Americans, but still earn less than other immigrant groups, Kendi declares:: “An ethnic racist asks, Why are Black immigrants doing better than African Americans? An ethnic antiracist asks, Why are Black immigrants not doing as well as other immigrant groups?” Why aren’t both questions worth exploring? Why couldn’t the answers to each question help us better understand how to achieve the equality of opportunity Kendi desires?

Kendi’s analysis of Black immigrants is representative of a larger trend in the book. Kendi makes valid points or cites relevant evidence, but then draws a sweeping conclusion that does not logically follow from that evidence. He also repeatedly frames questions with complex answers as necessitating an either/or proposition.

The most engrossing part of How To Be An Antiracist is Kendi’s personal story. Whether you agree with his conclusions or not, it is fascinating to learn about his intellectual journey, including that he briefly believed that White people were aliens because only that could explain how they could treat members of other races so poorly. What’s more, Kendi admirably admits to holding views that haven’t aged well. He chronicles the time he wrote for a student newspaper that White people were trying to destroy black people because “Europeans are simply a different breed of human” and they “have recessive genes” and “are facing extinction.” It takes courage to cast a critical eye on your own beliefs and admit when you have been wrong. We can all follow Kendi’s lead in doing so. Unfortunately, in How To Be An Antiracist, Kendi does not subject his currently held views to the same scrutiny as the views he held as a younger man.

By frequently dealing in absolutes—“One either allows racial inequality to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist. There is no in-between safe space…”—Kendi does little to dispel common criticisms of antiracism.

John McWhorter, a writer for the Atlantic and Columbia University professor, has repeatedly argued that antiracism is more akin to a religion than a viable path toward racial progress. McWhorter contends that, like religious beliefs, antiracist philosophy cannot withstand challenging questions. Quillette contributor Coleman Hughes has argued that antiracist policies would set us up for a never-ending cycle of racial groups having grievances against other racial groups because these policies require present day discrimination to redress past discrimination.

Kendi takes some passing digs at McWhorter, but he never thoroughly addresses many prominent criticisms of antiracism head on. As a result, How To Be An Antiracist often reads like one side of a debate with no opponent. Readers inclined to agree with Kendi may not be troubled by the lack of evidence, or his reluctance to thoroughly address prominent counterarguments. But those who pick up his bookwith some skepticism are unlikely to have their minds changed.

As antiracism gains prominence in academia and the media, Kendi deserves credit for laying out the tenets of this school of thinking. How best to address the legacy of past racism—and what to do about present-day racism—is an important question that deserves serious consideration. The problem, however, is that he does not make a sufficiently persuasive case that antiracism is the answer.

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David Edward Burke

David Edward Burke is a Washington Monthly contributing writer and the founder of Citizens Take Action, a nonprofit organization focused on campaign finance reform and increasing civic engagement.