A Review of Ibram Kendi’s How To Be An Antiracist

I recently finished reading Kendi’s How To Be An Antiracist (New York: One World, 2019). I really liked the book. That includes the format of mixing personal narrative with propositional statements. Why did I like it?

1) Kendi has a clear definition of antiracism that makes sense to me. He identifies antiracism as working to change racist policies – racist policies in government; racist policies in corporations; racist policies anywhere. He sees racist ideas as following racist policies rather than leading racist policies. This doesn’t rule out learning as much as you can about racist ideas – Kendi’s major work Stamped From The Beginning was a thorough history of racist ideas in the United States. But where do racist ideas come from? He finds that source in the self-interest of policy makers including both persons who directly make laws and institutional policies and persons with economic power to protect.

2) Kendi’s message contrasts directly with the penchant in many contemporary anti-racism training programs to look for racism only in the white psyche. He acknowledges racist ideas and actions in the black community throughout the book. This includes his own disparaging of blacks in his prize-winning high school Martin Luther King Day speech; E. Franklin Frazier’s sociological writings which dominated sociological thought about race from the early 1930s through the mid 1960s; the misguided widespread support in the black community for the War On Drugs which eventually included the 26 out of 38 members of the Black Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives voting for the 1994 anti-crime legislation that led to mass incarceration; and many other examples. Kendi explicitly refutes the argument that black people can’t be racist because black people don’t have any power.

3) Kendi affirms everyone’s basic humanity. This is where the question of assimilation gets a little sticky. Many who advocate for assimilation from positions of power see themselves as normal, and those whom they want to assimilate as inferior. This was true of Oscar Romero’s 1966 book, The Culture Of Poverty, which argued that the culture of people living in poverty locked them into an inferior position. It was also true of the monumental 1944 Carnegie Foundation study by Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, where prejudice and discrimination are seen as creating diminished people which in turn justifies more prejudice and discrimination. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 Johnson Administration report, The Negro Family: The Case For National Action, drew heavily from E. Franklin Frazier’s 1955 book, Black Bourgeoise, to make the case that fixing the broken Negro family should be a top governmental priority – all the government needed to do for black America. Kendi sees these and similar arguments for assimilation as racist because of their view of the other as inferior.

4) Kendi says that everyone is either racist or antiracist. No middle ground. This seems too harsh. Then I remember a slogan that was very common in the 1960s: “If you aren’t part of the solution, you must be part of the problem.” Looking up the latter quote on Google, a writer in the Guardian identifies this as “a misquotation of Eldridge Cleaver. The correct (full) quote is: ‘There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution, or you’re going to be part of the problem.’” Another writer in the Guardian says “Eldridge Cleaver was hardly being original. ‘Those who are not for us are against us’ is in the Bible – and had probably been said before that.”

5) A prominent reviewer asserts that Kendi “found his true and useful self in his current battle against ‘white supremacy.’” That sounds a lot like Critical Race Theory’s battle against “white supremacy culture.” I utilized the search feature in Kindle to find the offending passages. I learned that Kendi’s book uses the term “white supremacy” five times. Four are in places where he is explaining a historical situation. The fifth use of the term occurred when he was in college and was explaining a premature theory he held at the time to his roommate. In short, the battle in How To Be An Antiracist is against racist policies. And, to Kendi, racist policies needing change can cut against anyone from any background including Caucasians. His message to blacks, to whites, to everyone is that we need to identify specific racist policies and then work hard and work together to get them changed.

6) The argumentation in the book is paired with narrative and analysis of Kendi’s own experience. To me, this is the books greatest strength – and its greatest weakness. Without the narrative, the analysis would be empty. With the narrative, the analysis has to deal with the messiness of life. Reviewers looking for a clear logistical argument won’t find it. On the other hand, logical argument is overrated if it doesn’t take the messiness of life into account.