How-to book for healing racism provides persuasive case for acting now to transform societal conditions for Blacks
By Larry Elle
How to Be An Antiracist, By Ibram X. Kendi
One World, 2019 Hardcover $27.00
It’s rare in America when a book about racism becomes a New York Times best seller, but How to Be an Antiracist has achieved that distinction. Its success, meanwhile, has coincided with the acceleration of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Meanwhile, polls show a majority of White Americans now believe Black Americans haven’t been treated fairly.
Antiracist is not a stuffy treatise on race relations. Rather, it’s a thorough laying out of facts demonstrating the pervasiveness and harmfulness of racism. It’s also woven around the author’s personal story of his emergence from his own racist ideas. Ibram Kendi doesn’t speak to his readers as a flawless prophet, but as someone who has struggled all his life with internalized racism. In fact, he won a high school oratory contest with a speech blaming Blacks themselves for their many troubles.
The memoir portion of his book is particularly impressive and, as a White reader, I had no trouble identifying with his struggles to become antiracist. The author went from holding an early W. E. B. Du Bois view that the “Talented 10th” of the Black community had to rescue the other 90 percent of Black Americans from a “culture of poverty.” He later realized that this view blames the victim, and he eventually dropped his approach of “moral suasion” as the route to full equality, positing that the answer lay with advancing antiracist policies.
Kendi explains his ideological evolution as a series of steps away from an internalized racist viewpoint to one of antiracism, where no “racial group is inferior or superior to another group in any way.” At times he espoused anti-White views, as well as anti-gay and anti-feminist perspectives, gradually coming to affirm his current belief that it is racist policies that are the cause of racial inequality and other inequalities as well.
Bottom line, the job of antiracists is to agitate for and secure policies that promote equality at all branches of government and in the economy.
If there is a weakness in the book it is he never fully spells out exactly what the antiracist policies are he advocates. But he does give hints, e.g., Black infants have 2X the mortality rate of White infants, and that White Americans live 3.5 years longer that Black Americans, indicating a need to equalize access to quality health care services. The current high mortality death rate for Black Americans suffering from Covid-19 compared to White Americans is another glaring example.
One of his prescriptions is a call for a much stronger affirmative action than hitherto imagined. This kind of advocacy may seem radical, but way back in 1965 President Lyndon Johnson said, “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race, and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others’, and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”
Kendi builds an impressive case that there is much to make up for. For example, the average Black poverty rate in 2017 was 20%, triple the White poverty rate. Currently, White household wealth is far greater than Black household wealth. He notes there are tax policies favoring the rich, unequal rates of incarceration for similar crimes, and unequal access to housing and quality education. An example of unequal access is a recent study by Daniel Markovits of Yale Law School students. He found that a majority of students grew up in the wealthiest 1 percent of household income levels.
Poor Blacks are more likely to live in neighborhoods where other families are poor, creating what Kendi calls the “double burden” of living in poorly resourced communities with fewer opportunities. This is especially true in many school systems that are under-resourced as compared to need, thereby cutting off another route to upward mobility.
Should there be better resourced public schools? More private charter schools? Massive individual tutoring, or other innovations to remedy educational inequality? The author provides no direction here, perhaps leaving that task to the new antiracist foundation he is creating at Boston University.
One of the benefits to this reader of How to Be An Antiracist is that it helped me recall my own racial indoctrination as a White male growing up in an all-White working class section of Buffalo, New York. I never encountered any Black children until I reached 7th grade, attending the local Junior High School, but I took as truth the television and movie portrayals, and family and other adult conversations about Blacks. Blacks were always categorized as a group, as “Blacks,” while Whites were recognized as individuals, with unique identifiable traits, some positive, some negative, but not all thrown together as one mass of humanity.
Kendi notes that “Racist ideas make people of color think less of themselves, which makes them more vulnerable to racist ideas.” Meanwhile, “Racist ideas make White people think more of themselves, which further attracts them to racist ideas.” This is one of the reasons racism is so difficult to overcome.
In addition, there are short-term benefits for Whites of these ideas, like in the case of my dad having a much easier time getting a higher paying job at the Chevy factory he worked at. On the other hand, in Buffalo, Blacks were confined to the lowest level positions at the Chevy plant, if they could get hired at all.
Racism has its privileges for Whites. But in the long term, racism undermines the fabric of society, the “beloved community” Martin Luther King preached and struggled to attain.
Kendi doesn’t believe moral suasion will end racism, i.e., preaching a kind of “let’s all treat each other as brothers and sisters,” hoping a raised consciousness will allow people to witness the unfairness of racism. He believes and argues persuasively that there must be policy changes first, and from this will flow a more equal society. I endorse his approach although the ideological shift happening today around Black Lives Matter gives me hope that many people will see beyond the short-term benefits of racism. In any case, let’s give three cheers for Kendi as he creates an antiracism program to advance his anti-racist agenda – and I hope, a collective American anti-racist agenda.