Source of book: I own this.
How to be an Antiracist was my official selection for Black History Month this year. (Secondary choices were Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, and Poems 1931-1940 by Langston Hughes.) There is so much in this book to unpack, and I will be mulling it over for a very long time. Fortunately, I own it, so I can easily go back and look at things again.
In some ways, this book helps me put into words so many of the things I have felt over the last decade, but couldn’t quite explain even to myself. For example, the way that people who don’t want to believe they are racist have switched from “whites are superior” to “white culture is superior” - and why that is both inherently racist AND objectively ludicrous. The way that power is at the heart of racism - not hate. My puzzlement at how many people switched from being what Kendi calls “Assimilationists” to “Segregationists” during the Trump Era. And so on. Kendi also approaches the book from a fully intersectional framework: the understanding that sexism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and transphobia are all connected - and indeed inseparable. Understanding that the root problem is power - the exercise of power by some humans over others - and that bigotry is a defense mechanism to justify otherwise unjustifiable exercise of power - makes so much sense, not just from what I have observed of the world, but my own experiences in it once I stepped outside of the hierarchies and pushed back against them.
In this book, Kendi combines his own story - how he came to assume racist ideas were correct, and his process of growth away from those assumptions throughout his life. Kendi also borrows extensively from the Gospel tradition in his writing styles. And I mean that both in the sense of “Hebrew Old Testament” style and Black Gospel style. For example, the two part aphoristic presentation of ideas - very similar to Proverbs or Psalms. And the cadence of the words which reminds me of so many spirituals and sermons within the African American tradition.
I wrote down a lot of notes, but could have literally quoted most of the book. For any of us who recognize that our society and culture were birthed in racism, and still are deathly ill from racist ideas and policies - and who want to become better people - this book is fantastic. Few people I know truly hate others - and I certainly didn’t think I did. But so many hold racist worldviews - as I did - and, even without knowing it, hold deeply to racist assumptions. This is a long journey, and I am barely at the beginning. But I want to make it. For the sake of my friends and relatives who are affected every day by the “background radiation” of racism in our society, and for the sake of the next generation of Americans - the least white in modern history - who deserves better than we are giving them.
I know that people of my former political and religious persuasion will vehemently disagree with Kendi. Indeed, groups like the Southern Baptist Convention are doubling down in opposition to “Critical Race Theory” and other antiracist movements that focus on outcomes. While I think they intentionally misrepresent what Kendi is saying, it is also true that Kendi cuts to the heart of the problem: fruit matters. Having a supposedly pure heart, free from all hate, means nothing if you still support policies that harm others. And group outcomes have to be evidence of one of two things. Either whites are indeed the most superior of genetic humans and thus deserve their power and privilege. Or humans are actually equal, and it is power and policy which distort outcomes. To believe the first requires not only the disregard of history and current factual evidence - it is terrible and anti-Christian theology. Christ was clear that it wasn’t the poor and powerless that were outside of the Kingdom of God - it was and always has been the rich and powerful that are outside of the Kingdom. Wealth and power is not a sign of superiority, but an indication that, through power and policy, you have contributed to the plundering of the poor. Here in the 21st Century, we have to recognize that poverty has been racialized - beginning with the conquests of the 15th Century, raw power has expressed itself in conquest, genocide, and enslavement. To justify the European violence against people of color, racism was invented. And it is a relatively recent invention. And that is the key to understanding racism: power combined with self-interest leads to oppression of the weak. Racism (and the related sexism, homophobia, etc.) are then created to justify the evil actions. Otherwise, the consciences of decent people would bother them.
Where to start? Well, I think going chronologically through my notes is probably the best I can do. Starting with the introduction, Kendi notes that racist ideas feed on themselves in a cycle. But which comes first, the personal or the social?
Like the famous question about the chicken and the egg, the answer is less important than the cycle it describes. Racist ideas make people of color think less of themselves, which makes them more vulnerable to racist ideas. Racist ideas make White people think more of themselves, which further attracts them to racist ideas.
The core of these racist ideas is that social problems are caused by people being the problem - certain people, of course. When in fact, it is policies that are the problem. (More about this later.)
This is the consistent function of racist ideas - and of any kind of bigotry more broadly: to manipulate us into seeing people as the problem, instead of the policies that ensnare them.
This then leads to the problem of racist policies existing while people deny that they are racist.
Denial is the heartbeat of racism, beating across ideologies, races, and nations. It is beating within us. Many of us who call out Trump’s racist ideas will strongly deny our own. How often do we become reflexively defensive when someone calls something we’ve done or said racist? How many of us would agree with this statement: “‘Racist’ isn’t a descriptive word, It’s a pejorative word. It is the equivalent of saying, ‘I don’t like you.’” These are actually the words of White supremacist Richard Spencer, who, like Trump, identifies as “not racist.” How many of us who despise the Trumps and White supremacists of the world share their self-definition of “not racist”?
What’s the problem with being “not racist”? It is a claim that signifies neutrality: “I am not a racist, but neither am I aggressively against racism.” But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of “racist” isn’t “not racist.” It is “antiracist.” What’s the difference? One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an antiracist. One either believes that problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an antiracist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist. There is no in-between safe space of “not racist. The claim of “not racist” neutrality is a mask for racism This may seem harsh, but it’s important at the outset that we apply one of the core principles of antiracism, which is to return the word “racist” itself back to its proper usage. “Racist” is not - as Richard Spencer argues - a pejorative. It is not the worst word in the English language; it is not the equivalent of a slur. It is descriptive, and the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it - and then dismantle it. The attempt to turn this usefully descriptive term into an almost unusable slur is, of course, designed to do the opposite: to freeze us into inaction.
I mean, think about that: Richard Spencer - who literally gave a seig heil and chanted “Hail Trump, Hail Our People,” thinks he isn’t racist. He is a literal fucking Nazi, and he is “not racist.” Which tells a lot about how effective racists have been at dodging the obvious description of who they are. And why so many who voted for Trump and his openly racist policies are so damn sure they are “not racist.” They don’t hate people of color - they just don’t want so many of them coming here, and they sure don’t want to pay taxes that might benefit them.
(Very much related to this discussion is Doug Muder’s excellent article, “You Don’t Have to Hate Anybody to be a Bigot.”)
As Kendi puts it in various ways throughout the book, people “are angry about being called racist, but want to express racist views and support racist policies, while being identified as not-racist, no matter what they say or do.”
Kendi goes back to the beginning of racism as an actual thing - not even 600 years ago. That’s when you start to see racist ideas appear. And, they didn’t come out of nowhere. Rather, Henry the Navigator of Portugal started the slave trade. Seeing the vast wealth to be gained by enslaving Africans, racism had to be invented to defend the indefensible. And thus the view of skin color as determining value started. Along with this, sad to say, came the use of the Christian Church to enforce enslavement and imperialism, and provide racist ideas with cover. Also sadly, Jesus Christ was transformed from a member of a hated minority (Jews in the Roman Empire), a poor, radical preacher who went on at length about oppression and the way the rich would be punished in eternity for their failure - refusal - to care for the poor, into a cosmic cop, punishing people for slight violations of the rules - and the status quo. As a preacher Kendi heard said:
“The Evangelical church...supported the status quo. It supported slavery; it supported segregation; it preached against any attempt of the Black man to stand on his own two feet.”
And this, unfortunately, is also true. My former religious tradition did not (despite their claims) advocate against racism. Sure, some voices did. And they were usually expelled, as they are now. In contrast is the liberation theology of James Cone and others that Kendi describes.
James Cone’s working definition of a Christian described a Christianity of the enslaved, not the Christianity of the slaveholders.
Hey, that has been my journey and goal too: if my religion looks like it would fit enslavers just fine, it is shit religion. A Christian should always be on the side of the enslaved, not the enslaver.
Kendi then takes a look at the basic difference between racist and antiracist ideas. And again, “not-racist” is just a cover for racism. An idea is either racist or its opposite - actively antiracist. In a racist society, supposedly “neutral” ideas are there to maintain the status quo - that of racial inequity. As Kendi notes, this is how “affirmative action” programs are viewed as “race conscious” while tests that produce inequities are somehow “race neutral.” I fully agree with Kendi’s definition of what makes an idea racist.
So what is a racist idea? A racist idea is any idea that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way. Racist ideas argue that the inferiorities and superiorities of racial groups explain racial inequities in society.
Also fantastic is Kendi’s definitions of the three kinds of people. I read this in an article of his several years ago, and it really stuck with me. It helps explain those who call themselves “not racist” while promoting racist ideas and policies.
Assimilationist: One who is expressing the racist idea that a racial group is culturally or behaviorally inferior and is supporting cultural or behavioral enrichment programs to develop that racial group.
Segregationist: One who is expressing the racist idea that a permanently inferior racial group can never be developed and is supporting policy that that segregates away that racial group.
Antiracist: One who is expressing the idea that racial groups are equals and none needs developing, and is supporting policy that reduces racial inequity.
The horror for many of us in the Trump Era was to see people that were once in the “Assimilationist” group switch so damn quickly to the “Segregationist” group. For example, to go from “we just need cultural programs that make immigrants more American” to “Build that giant fucking wall and keep them out.” But Kendi is right: both are racist. By definition. Because when you believe that one racial group of people is culturally or behaviorally inferior, you are - by definition - racist. Becoming an antiracist means letting go of the idea that white people, white culture, white behavior, is somehow “superior,” “civilized,” or otherwise better than that of others. I think that both Trump and Covid made this an easier concept to grasp. Because, man, is white conservative culture right now just plain nasty and horrible. I mean, refusing to wear a damn mask? What the hell is wrong with white people! I mean, I was seeing this before, but it is pretty hard to miss that white conservative culture (and particularly Evangelical culture) is badly antisocial - indeed sociopathic - right now. So any idea of superiority seems even more ludicrous that usual. As Kendi later points out, the whole idea of cultural superiority is only possible because of power. Indeed, throughout history, the winners always claim their culture is superior. If China becomes the world power in the near future, you can bet your ass they too will believe they are a superior culture, just as Rome did back in the day. Culture may be a human universal, but the concept of race is new - and imaginary. But just because something is an invented fiction doesn’t mean it isn’t very real in practice.
But for all of that life-changing power, race is a mirage, which doesn’t lessen its force. We are what we see ourselves as, whether what we see exists or not. We are what people see us as, whether what they see exists or not. What people see in themselves and others has meaning and manifests itself in ideas and actions and policies, even if what they are seeing is an illusion. Race is a mirage but one that we do well to see, while never forgetting it is a mirage, never forgetting that it’s the powerful light of racist power that makes the mirage.
Also a powerful truth is that the fight against racism isn’t primarily one of education or ideas. It is and always has been about power and policy.
I had been taught that racist ideas cause racist policies. That ignorance and hate cause racist ideas. That the root problem of racism is ignorance and hate.
But that gets the chain of events exactly wrong. The root problem - from Prince Henry to President Trump - has always been the self-interest of racist power. Powerful economic, political, and cultural self-interest - the primitive accumulation of capital in the case of royal Portugal and subsequent slave traders - has been behind racist policies. Powerful and brilliant intellectuals in the tradition of Gomes de Zurara then produced racist ideas to justify the racist policies of their era, to redirect the blame for their era’s racial inequities away from those policies and onto people.
This cuts two ways. Racism blames racial inequities on the people - those people cause their own suffering - at the same time that racists generalize from individuals to races. Kendi takes a hard look at black racism as well - the tendency to say “she did that because she is white.”
We often see and remember the race and not the individual. This is racist categorizing, this stuffing of our experiences with individuals into color-marked racial closets. An antiracist treats and remembers individuals as individuals. “She acted that way,” we should say, “because she is racist.”
Of course, plenty of people don’t like it when you do that, because they are “not racist” even when they are acting or speaking in a racist manner. In the wake of Trump’s election in 2016, one of the resolutions I made was that I would not stay silent in the face of racism. I have lost friends and family for speaking up. I also should say that this is something that I have struggled with and continue to struggle with. The bias that is in the cultural water is a tough one to overcome, and it is so easy to just categorize without thinking. It takes constant work to push against it.
Another bit in this book that really hit home in an unexpected way was the section on microaggressions. Here, Kendi insists on using the truth about what something is, rather than a euphemism. Commonly defined as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership,” it is a low-level hum of abuse - yes, Kendi uses that word - against people outside of the “in-group” generally. (This goes for more than just race - it goes for gender, religion, sexual orientation, and so on - including a particular case in my own life.)
As an African American, [psychiatrist Chester] Pierce suffered from and witnessed this sort of everyday abuse. He identified these individual abuses as microaggressions to distinguish from the macroaggressions of racist violence and policies.
[Psychologist Derald Wing Sue] defines microaggressions as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.”
I do not use “microaggression” anymore...A persistent daily low hum of racist abuse is not minor...Abuse accurately describes the action and its effects on people: distress, anger, worry, depression, anxiety, pain, fatigue, and suicide.
What other people call racial microaggressions I call racist abuse.
I believe Kendi is one hundred percent correct here. A constant stream of denigrating messages (in verbal and non-verbal ways) does cause distress and fatigue and anxiety and all the rest. And it is abuse. While Kendi is talking about race in this book for the most part, he later notes the intersection of race with gender and sexuality. Elsewhere, he has noted the intersection of religion as well. It all intersects. And in the case of what certain members of my family inflicted on my wife, the nexus was religion as overlayed on gender. It was a constant stream of denigrating messages (in verbal and non-verbal ways) that eventually severed relationships. At least we could leave the situation. As Kendi notes, there is no reasonable way to avoid this constant stream of racist abuse if you are a person of color in the United States. And I have begun to see it now that I know what to look for.
Kendi ties this in to an example of racist abuse that he and a black girl in his school class endured from a racist teacher who consistently called on white kids to answer questions while ignoring the black girl who knew the answers. And then, when he acted out (mildly) in response, he was targeted for control and punishment.
Looking back, I wonder, if I had been one of her White kids would she have asked me: “What’s wrong?” Would she have wondered if I was hurting? I wonder if her racist ideas chalked up my resistance to my Blackness and therefore categorized it as misbehavior, not distress. With racist teachers, misbehaving kids of color do not receive inquiry and empathy and legitimacy. We receive orders and punishments and “no excuses,” as if we are adults.
This one too hit home personally. Obviously, it wasn’t a race thing, but our family dynamics became increasingly this way on both a gendered and a birth-order basis. I can’t remember exactly when things changed - it was likely gradual - but I can be very sure why it happened. The birth-order and gender stuff was fuelled by the previous generation’s family dynamics. But the switch to control and punishment, the viewing of distress as “rebellion” came directly from the teachings of James Dobson and Bill Gothard, who emphasized the need to teach children unquestioning obedience and, if necessary, break their wills. In the case of Gothard, he was clear that disagreeing with one’s parents was witchcraft - literally opening one’s life to demon possession. This is a bit beyond the post, but I was unexpectedly affected by reading this. The dynamic of “good child” versus “bad child” was all too familiar. Then multiply that by a whole skin color, and it is easy enough to understand the scope of the problem.
In talking about “biological racism” - the believe that certain races are biologically superior or inferior, Kendi makes a crucial point, one that we all too easily forget:
The transatlantic eugenics movement, powered by Darwin’s half cousin Francis Galton, aimed to speed up natural selection with policies encouraging reproduction among those with superior genes and re-enslaving or killing their genetic inferiors. Global outrage after the genocidal eugenics-driven policies of Nazi Germany in the mid-twentieth century led to the marginalization of biological racism within academic thought for the first time in four hundred years. Biological racism - curse theory, polygenesis, and eugenics - had held strong for that long. And yet marginalization in academic thought did not mean marginalization in common thought, including the kind of common thinking that surrounded me as a child.
Now that the Nazis to a degree tainted biological racism, the rage in right wing circles became “color-blindness.” As in, “I don’t see race.” Which is just another way to ignore the very real effects of racism.
Imagining away the existence of race in a racist world is as conserving and harmful as imagining away classes in a capitalistic world - it allows the ruling races and classes to keep on ruling.
Assimilationists believe in the post-racial myth that talking about race constitutes racism, or that if we stop identifying by race, then racism will miraculously go away. They fail to realize that if we stop using racial categories, then we will not be able to identify racial inequity. If we cannot identify racial inequity, then we will not be able to identify racist policies. If we cannot identify racist policies, then we cannot challenge racist policies. If we cannot challenge racist policies, then racist power’s final solution will be achieved: a world of inequity none of us can see, let alone resist.
I also appreciated Kendi’s explanation of the O.J. Simpson trial and it’s inseparability from Rodney King. I grew up just a few miles from where that brutal beating took place. (You can read my thoughts in more detail in this post.) Here is what Kendi says about it, recounting the very different responses from his black peers and his white eighth-grade teacher (and other white people) to the O.J. acquittal.
Back in my classroom, amid the hugging happiness, I glanced over at my White eighth-grade teacher. Her red face shook as she held back tears, maybe feeling the same overwhelming sensation of hopelessness and discouragement that Black people feel all too many times. I smiled at her - I didn’t really care. I wanted O.J. to run free. I had been listening to what the Black adults had been lecturing about for months in 1995. They did not think O.J. was innocent of murder any more than they thought he was innocent of selling out his people. But they knew that the criminal-justice system was guilty too. Guilty for freeing the White cops who beat Rodney King in 1991 and the Korean storekeeper who killed fifteen-year-old Latasha Harlins that same year after falsely accusing her of stealing orange juice.
Speaking of the criminal justice system, Kendi spends some time on the way that “crime bills” have no real connection to crime - instead, they reflect rises and falls in racist fearmongering. (In this context, I also recommend two books: The End of Policing by Alex Vitale, on the way policing is used to manage the symptoms of social and racial injustice; and The Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker, on how, despite “law and order” rhetoric, violence has actually declined, in large part because of better social policies.)
But crime bills have never correlated to crime any more than fear has correlated to actual violence. We are not meant to fear suits with policies that kill. We are not meant to fear good White males with AR-15s. No, we are to fear the weary, unarmed Latinx body from Latin America. The Arab body kneeling to Allah is to be feared. The Black body from hell is to be feared. Adept politicians and crime entrepreneurs manufacture the fear and stand before voters to deliver them - messiahs who will liberate them from fear of these other bodies.
This fearmongering goes beyond partisan boundaries, of course. I first voted during the Clinton administration, and one of his political “accomplishments” was a crime bill that greatly increased mass incarceration at the federal level. This slander - that’s the right word - of people of color by stirring up fear isn’t the only case of denigration that is popular in our culture. Kendi notes that Black forms of music have always been the focal point of moral and cultural panics, from Jazz on down. (In the cult I was in, ANY music that had “African” roots was considered demonic. Literally.) These days, it is Hip-hop that takes the brunt of the abuse, as Motown and R&B have gone pretty mainstream. Kendi has an interesting - and correct - point here too.
Hip-hop has had the most sophisticated vocabulary of any American musical genre. I read endlessly its poetic text. But parents and grandparents did not see us listening to and memorizing gripping works of oral poetry and urban reporting and short stories. They saw - and still see - words that would lead my mind into deviance.
Kendi is right on all counts. And the complaints about (fill in the blank: sex, drugs, misogyny, violence) should be met with the response: have you ever read the ancient Greeks and Romans? The old Medieval ballads? Fairy tales - the original, not the Disneyfied versions? Because, seriously. Oral poetry is correct. (And all poetry really should be read aloud anyway.) Future historians will probably not include corporate pop and country in the greatest musical and literary works of our time. But the best of Hip-hop will be included.
The chapter on “Behavior” is spot on, and something that I have been saying for some time. While individuals are responsible for their behavior, the consequences are vastly different. White males - particularly if their parents have money - seem to get endless “second chances” and never actually pay for their mistakes. One could spend a whole post just on examples from the last few years. In contrast, minorities are endlessly blamed for failing to do better. The difficultly level is greater, but those who are not exceptional are blamed - while unexceptional white people seem to do well no matter what.
One of racism’s harms is the way it falls on the unexceptional Black person who is asked to be extraordinary just to survive - and even worse, the Black screwup who faces the abyss after one error, while the White screwup is handed second chances and empathy. This shouldn’t be surprising: One of the fundamental values of racism to White people is that it makes success attainable for even unexceptional Whites, while success, even moderate success, is usually reserved for extraordinary Black people.
How do we think about my young self, the C or D student, in antiracist terms? The truth is that I should be critiqued as a student - I was undermotivated and distracted and undisciplined. In other words, a bad student. But I shouldn’t be critiqued as a bad Black student. I did not represent my race any more than my irresponsible White classmates represented their race. It makes racist sense to talk about personal irresponsibility as it applies to an entire racial group. Racial-group behavior is a figment of the racist’s imagination. Individual behaviors can shape the success of individuals. But policies determine the success of groups. And it is racist power that creates the policies that cause racial inequities.
As a rather unexceptional White person, I have benefited from this. And, looking at my life honestly, I have to agree that I had it easier at that group level. Sure, my own behaviors had an effect. But I didn’t have to fight bad policies.
[Kind of personal note here: It was sad to see my former youth pastor quoted in this book. Back in the day, he was a leader in a multicultural church who tried to live out his faith. After he left the ministry, he got sucked into the Right Wing political machine, and it seems to have had the effect it has had on so many Evangelicals I know - and he ended up just repeating the racist and islamophobic talking points on talk radio, and had to resign from the Trump administration. I have to wonder what might have been...]
I also thought the chapter on white backlash to be fascinating. The American Right Wing pushes strongly the idea that “antiracist” is code for “antiwhite.” But in reality, the same racist power that harms minorities actually harms a lot of whites too.
History tells a different story. Contrary to “the mantra,” White supremacists are the ones supporting policies that benefit racist power against the interests of the majority of White people. White supremacists claim to be pro-White but refused to acknowledge that climate change is having a disastrous impact on the earth White people inhabit. They oppose affirmative-action programs, despite White women being their primary beneficiaries. White supremacists rage against Obamacare even as 43 percent of the people who gained lifesaving health insurance from 2010 to 2015 were White. They heil Adolf Hitler’s Nazis, even though it was the Nazis who launched a world war that destroyed the lives of more than forty million White people and ruined Europe. They wave Confederate flags and defend Confederate monuments, even though the Confederacy started a civil war that ended with more than five hundred thousand White American lives lost - more than every other American war combined. White supremacists love what America used to be - and still is - teeming with millions of struggling White people. White supremacists blame non-White people for the struggles of White people when any objective analysis of their plight primarily implicates the rich White Trumps they support.
But lest you think that Kendi just has it in for white racists, he also spends an entire chapter on black racists. There are two kinds that he discusses. First are those who are racist toward whites - and he calls them out. It’s not a “all whites are racist” thing, but “people are racist, or they are antiracist.” Which is much more helpful, in significant part because it focuses on policies and power.
The second group consists of those who, for reasons of their own, sell out to tickle the ears of white racists. And we know who we are talking about here. (Note: I appreciate that Kendi doesn’t use the epithet “Uncle Tom,” because I believe the original literary character was no sellout whatsoever. Indeed, he stood up to racist power even though it cost him his life.) The chapter on this has a lot of fascinating history from the era of slavery on of black racists who were useful tools of white supremacists. Kendi notes that they are just tools, though. Speaking of one notorious example, he says:
Black critics ruined his credibility and soon White racists could no longer use him, so they tossed him away like a paper plate, as White racists have done to so many disposable Black racists over the years. Thomas found work as a janitor, before dying in obscurity in 1935.
And we see the same thing. Herman Cain is dead of Covid, having essentially sacrificed his life for Trump. And he too will be forgotten.
The chapter on class is also excellent. Class and race are entangled, of course, as Kendi notes. But classism is a genuine problem even within races. Both black and white look down on their own poor. Antiracism (and anticlassism) takes a different approach.
To be antiracist is to equalize the race-classes. To be antiracist is to root the economic disparities between the equal race-classes in policies, not people.
Pathological people made the pathological ghetto, segregationists say. The pathological ghetto made pathological people, assimilationists say. To be antiracist is to say the political and economic conditions, not the people, in poor Black neighborhoods are pathological. Pathological conditions are making the residents sicker and poorer while they strive to survive and thrive, while they invent and reinvent cultures and behaviors that may be different but never inferior to those of residents in richer neighborhoods. But if the elite race-classes are judging the poor race-classes by their own cultural and behavioral norms, then the poor race-classes appear inferior. Whoever creates the norm creates the hierarchy and positions their own race-class at the top of the hierarchy.
What is particularly obvious to me is that this approach is both completely contrary to the social-darwinist views of the American Right AND much more in line with the teachings of Christ and the words of the prophets. The evidence is strong that to be poor is to experience “predatory exploitation moving in lockstep with meager income and opportunities, which [keep] even the hardest-working people in poverty and [makes] poverty expensive.” Kendi moves on to the pernicious idea that it is social welfare programs that keep people in poverty. But, only certain welfare programs.
Goldwater and his ideological descendants said little to nothing about rich White people who depended on the welfare of inheritances, tax cuts, government contracts, hookups, and bailouts. They said little to nothing about the White middle class depending on the welfare of the New Deal, the GI Bill, subsidized suburbs, and exclusive White networks. Welfare for middle- and upper-income people remained out of the discourse on “handouts,” as welfare for the Black poor became the true oppressor in the conservative version of the oppression-inferiority thesis.
Although the specifics refuting this idea are beyond the book, I should mention that the City of Stockton did a two year experiment with giving a random selection of low-income residents an extra $500 per month, no questions asked. The results are fascinating. Those who got the extra money were far more likely to be employed, and more likely to be employed full time than those who didn’t get the funds. The idea that people won’t work if they get free money is, pretty obviously, based on ideology rather than evidence at this point.
The chapter goes on to take a look at our present form of capitalism, and how the predatory class needs racism to maintain their exploitation of most of the population. Kendi also poi9nts out the obvious: “capitalism” as it exists today is not the same thing as free enterprise - which has literally existed in some form in every human society since the dawn of time. Kendi goes on at length about the difference between “capitalism” as the Right sees it, and the reenvisioning of “capitalism” that social democrats like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren support. I wish I could quote it all, but here is the best part:
I keep using the term “anticapitalist” as opposed to socialist or communist to include the people who publicly or privately question or loathe capitalism but do not identify as socialist or communist. I use “anticapitalist” because conservative defenders of capitalism regularly say their liberal and socialist opponents are against capitalism. They say efforts to provide a safety net for all people are “anticapitalist.” They say that attempts to prevent monopolies are “anticapitalist.” They say efforts that strengthen weak unions and weaken exploitative owners are “anticapitalist.” They say plans to normalize worker ownership and regulations protecting consumers, workers, and environments from big business are “anticapitalist.” They say laws taxing the richest more than the middle class, redistributing pilfered wealth, and guaranteeing basic incomes are “anticapitalist.” They say wars to end poverty are “anticapitalist.” They say campaigns to remove the profit motive from essential life sectors like education, healthcare, utilities, mass media, and incarceration are “anticapitalist.”
In doing so, these conservative defenders are defining capitalism. They define capitalism as the freedom to exploit people into economic ruin; the freedom to assassinate unions; the freedom to prey on unprotected consumers, workers, and environments; the freedom to value quarterly profits over climate change; the freedom to undermine small businesses and cushion corporations; the freedom from competition; the freedom not to pay taxes; the freedom to heave the tax burden onto the middle and lower classes; the freedom to commodify everything and everyone; the freedom to keep poor people poor and middle-income people struggling to stay middle income, and make rich people richer. The history of capitalism - of world warring, classing, slave trading, enslaving, colonizing, depressing wages, and disposing land and labor and resources and rights - bears out the conservative definition of capitalism.
And older conservatives wonder why my kids’ generation is openly anticapitalist? Gee, I wonder why? As I said, the whole chapter is great. Either we are going to completely re-imagine what “capitalism” looks like, or we are going to have to scrap it. What we have now mostly looks like the strong increasingly preying on the weak. Which is nearly everyone. I have posted and linked this before, but the Los Angeles Review of Books did an excellent long article on Paul Ryan and Ayn Rand back in 2015 about the moral bankruptcy of social-darwinist-capitalism as a philosophy. It’s worth reading.
I very much appreciated the chapters near the end on gender and sexuality. Kendi, like many Millennials, understands that sexism is inseparable from racism, and homophobia is inseparable from sexism, and so on. It ALL intersects. They are just different facets of the same disease of the soul. Here is a bit on how he grew up assuming Black patriarchy. Which sounds a hell of a lot like how I grew up assuming White patriarchy.
My parents did not strictly raise me to be a Black patriarch. I became a Black patriarch because my parents and the world around me did not strictly raise me to be a Black feminist. Neither my parents nor I came up in an age conducive to teaching Black feminism to a Black boy, if there ever was such an age. There seemed to be a low-level war being waged between the genders, maybe most clearly articulated in our popular culture.
Considering my parents were pretty progressive about gender roles when I was a kid, it was a bit shocking to me that they then went for Gothard, with his “genitals are destiny” approach to everything. But it was in the general Evangelical culture - and still is.
Regarding sexuality, Kendi first states the truth outright:
Homophobia cannot be separated from racism. They’ve intersected for ages.
And he has evidence. British physician Havelock Ellis first coined the term “homosexuality” - and in the same book, tied homosexuality in women to clitoris size and shape. And guess what? The “gay” clitoris can be found particularly commonly in….wait for it….black women. Sigh. And it goes on. The history of viewing homosexuality as a mental defect has always been tied up with at least xenophobia (in the case of the late Roman empire) and usually racism too. No wonder Kendi concludes that “we cannot be antiracist of we are homophobic or transphobic.”
What have I observed? The people I knew (pre-Trump) to be the most homophobic and transphobic have, with few exceptions, turned out to be openly racist in the Trump era. And in all eras, to have misogynist ideas as well. It is ALL connected. One other great passage in the chapter on sexuality is Kendi’s description of his two female black queer friends when he was a doctoral student, and how they refused to remain silent.
The two of them exerted their influence on our department’s events. When our department brought in speakers for a public event, they came. When there was an out-of-town Black studies conference, they came. When they came, let’s just say they ensured that when patriarchal ideas arose, when homophobic ideas were put out there, when racist ideas came and intersected, they would come for those ideas like piranhas coming for their daily meal. I watched, stunned, in awe of their intellectual attacks. I call them attacks, but in truth they were defenses, defending Black womanhood and the humanity of queer Blacks. They were respectful and measured if the victimizer was respectful and measured with them. But I call them attacks because I felt personally attacked. They were attacking my gender racism about Black women, my queer racism about queer Blacks, my gender and queer racism about queer and Black women.
It is funny how a strong defense can feel like an attack, isn’t it? All it takes is standing up to the dehumanizing, and you get accused of attacking. It’s happened to me a lot.
There is one final bit I want to end with. Kendi notes that the Civil Rights Movement didn’t succeed because racist whites changed their mind about racism. As he queries:
What if no group in history has gained their freedom through appealing to the moral conscience of their oppressors? What if economic, political, or cultural self-interest drives racist policymakers, not hateful immorality, not ignorance?
Rather, the United States faced a severe loss of influence in foreign policy during the Cold War because it was still a freaking apartheid state. The Communists had a compelling argument that “capitalist democracies” routinely mistreated and abused people of color. And the Communists were right. Back in 1963, 78% of Americans agreed that “in waging this world struggle we are seriously handicapped by racial or religions discrimination.” And so, things had to change.
Likewise, right now, the US has a huge and ongoing racism problem that is destroying our reputation and hampering our foreign policy goals. Sad as it may be, this may be a bigger driver of change than moral considerations. But it also suggests that Kendi is right: we need to stop trying to educate and enlighten racists, but instead focus on changing racist policies. Kendi notes that when the Loving case ended prohibitions on interracial marriage, most white people still believed interracial marriage was immoral. Hell, I don’t think my grandparents’ generation EVER changed their mind about that. And a shockingly high percentage of my parents’ generation still opposes interracial marriage - particularly between whites and blacks. (White men marrying Asian or Hispanic women is more acceptable to them. That’s a whole other discussion…) But changing the law led to a change in opinion, not the other way around. Address the problems of policy and power, and opinion will follow. It’s a tough, and often seemingly hopeless fight. But we cannot simply give up. I still believe in a better world. Do you? And are we willing to learn from those outside of the dominant tribe? This book is a good place to start.