Randall Kennedy is the Michael R. Klein professor of law at Harvard Law School.
‘How to Be an Antiracist” is a memoir by Ibram X. Kendi that details his grapplings with racism and his advice for eliminating it. Kendi is the director of the Antiracist Research & Policy Center at American University and the author of “Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2016. Kendi’s latest book describes his peregrinations as a child and early adolescent in predominantly black, urban settings in New York; as an anxious student at the predominantly white Stonewall Jackson High School in Northern Virginia; as a journalism major at the virtually all-black Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University; and as a PhD candidate in the African American studies department at Temple University. Kendi dissects what he sees as his own racism in each of these phases of his life.
He maintains, for example, that in winning the Martin Luther King Jr. oratorical contest in high school, he voiced racist ideas by excoriating fellow African Americans for inattentiveness to schoolwork, unwed pregnancies and criminality. “It is hard for me to believe,” he recalls, that “I finished high school in the year 2000 touting so many racist ideas. A racist culture had handed me the ammunition to shoot Black people, to shoot myself, and I took and used it. Internalized racism is the real Black on Black crime.” He believes that in college he capitulated to racism by wearing honey-colored contact lenses (“I wanted to be Black but did not want to look Black”), by (temporarily) preferring lighter-skinned over darker-skinned African American women, by subsequently preferring darker-skinned over lighter-skinned African American women, and by hating white people (nurtured by the writings of anti-white theorists such as psychiatrist Frances Cress Welsing). He writes that when he began graduate school he was indifferent to or even prejudiced against fellow black students who were gay.
The principal lesson that Kendi gathers from his catalogue of self-criticism is that to be truly anti-racist, one must set oneself against all forms of social oppression. “How to Be an Antiracist” is a journal of Kendi’s efforts to free himself of the ideological manacles clamped upon him by a society suffused with white supremacism, capitalist exploitation, misogyny and the repression of unconventional sexuality.
The persona reflected in this memoir is compellingly attractive in important respects. At the end of his book, Kendi reveals that in 2018, he received a diagnosis of Stage 4 colon cancer — a frightening prospect for anyone but especially for a young academic with a 2-year-old daughter. That he was able to marshal the wherewithal to push his manuscript through to publication in the face of such grim circumstances warrants applause.
Kendi also displays an admirable independence and candor. Though he situates himself far to the left among black activist intellectuals, he is unafraid to say things likely to singe the sensibilities of many of his potential followers. Kendi illustrates the deep-rooted problem of sexism within black political circles by detailing violence perpetrated by members of the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party against women whom they deemed to be insufficiently deferential. He is similarly uncompromising in his attack on the spurious but surprisingly widespread notion that black people cannot appropriately be deemed to be “racist” because they supposedly lack the power to effectuate their prejudices. Noting the presence of 700 black state court judges, 200 black federal judges, 3,000 black police executives, two black U.S. attorneys general, a black president and many others occupying posts of substantial authority, Kendi writes that “Black people can be racist because Black people do have power, even if limited.” For him that point is central, because a key theme of his book is that all people can and do a play a role in struggles around social justice. Everyone is accountable. And just as anyone can be racist, so, too, can anyone be anti-racist.
Kendi’s book suffers, alas, from major flaws. On one page he posits the interesting and potentially fruitful idea that “racist” ought not to be used as a pejorative term connoting a moral failing but ought instead to be used clinically, as a strictly descriptive term of analysis. On an adjacent page, however, without qualification, he condemns racism as a “crime.” He aspires to establish “lucid definitions” of key terms, particularly “racism” and “antiracism.” But then he writes, “Racism is a marriage of racist policies and racist ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequities” — an exercise in pure tautology. He maintains that “every time someone racializes behavior — describes something as ‘Black behavior’ — they are expressing a racist idea.” Yet Kendi himself appears to do just that when he disapproves of “African American bigotry” aimed at black Haitians.
Kendi derides as “racist” commentary that bemoans social pathologies such as criminality in black America. He fails to explain, however, why it is that black people can be appropriately chastised for being insufficiently attentive to fighting racism, misogyny and economic inequality, but cannot appropriately be chastised for being insufficiently attentive to maintaining the communal conditions — safety, solidarity, habits of civic participation — essential to better defending and advancing their interests in the hurly-burly of American politics.
In the most obtuse pages in “How to Be an Antiracist,” Kendi condemns standardized testing, disparages the significance of what should be alarming racial patterns in academic achievement gaps and excoriates efforts to redress those gaps by elevating the scores of those (typically disadvantaged students of color) lagging behind. His polemic is littered with misleading red herrings, as when he says that implicit in the idea of academic achievement gaps, as measured by statistical instruments like test scores and dropout rates, is a conviction that the qualities measured by such criteria constitute “the only form of academic ‘achievement.’ ” There is no such necessary implication. One can certainly believe that there are important attributes outside those typically measured by standardized tests — such as people skills, persistence and compassion — and still believe that attributes that are measured by standardized tests, such as mastery of arithmetic and reading, are also important, indeed imperatively so.
Yes, the outcomes of testing can be put to malign uses. They have been deployed as justification for subordinating those with lesser scores. But testing can also be used to show the lingering consequences of past wrongs and to apprise society of which students are learning well and which are not, regardless of the cause of the disparity. Intelligently designed tests that are soundly interpreted are messengers that deliver essential news. Kendi suggests stoning the messenger, denying the significance of the bad news delivered or concocting new tests that he assumes will generate more palatable results. Hence he ventures: “What if we measured intelligence by how knowledgeable individuals are about their own environments? What if we measured intellect by an individual’s desire to know?” Fine. But what if those tests also generated outcomes in which certain racial minorities fared poorly? Would that pattern discredit those tests as “racist” as well? Seeking to escape this dilemma, Kendi ultimately proposes rejecting all rankings, urging the recognition only of differences, not levels of achievement. Does that mean that the applicant for a professorship who has a PhD should stand on merely a different, not a higher, basis than the applicant who is illiterate?
Despite misgivings about various features of “How to Be an Antiracist,” we should fervently hope to see more work from Kendi in the months and years to come. His subject, the vexing American race question, retains a towering and tragic salience. In grappling with it, we could use Kendi’s candor, independence and willingness to be self-critical.
By Ibram X. Kendi
One World. 305 pp. $27