In the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests that have jolted the nation, important questions regarding what racism is, how to root it out, and what an anti-racist future would look like have come to the forefront of mainstream political and cultural discourse.
A wave of scholars, activists, and pundits with the explicit intention of expanding the concept of racism have gained footing in mainstream society across the West. To alter a phrase from the late sociologist and politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the aim is to “define racism up” to meet the increasing demand for racial justice.
Among these figures is the celebrated author and historian Ibram X. Kendi, whose two major books—How To Be An Anti-Racist and Stamped From The Beginning: A History Of Racist Ideas—have recently skyrocketed to the top of The New York Times best-sellers list and quickly become a staple of the American conversation about race. Kendi, the youngest writer to ever win the national book award, has been rewarded for his efforts with glowing profiles in both liberal and conservative outlets alike, and his work has been foundational to changing how racial inequality and racism are framed in popular culture.
Kendi’s central intellectual contribution has been a redefinition of “racism” and how it works. As he argues in his most recent book How To Be An Anti-Racist, there is no such thing as being a “not-racist”—there is only anti-racism and racism. Indeed, simply claiming to not be racist is a form of denial, the very “heartbeat of racism.” For Kendi, “anti-racism” means supporting and instituting policies and ideas that level racial disparities of socio-economic outcome, while “racism” consists of any policy or idea that results in racial inequity.
For instance, if black Americans have less wealth than whites en masse, that disparity is prima facie evidence of racism under Kendi’s articulation—whether past or present, overt or subtle, conscious or unconscious, intentional or inadvertent—and the goal of “anti-racism” is to eliminate the gap. To argue that wealth disparities are rooted in cultural holding patterns or internal group factors, rather than descrimination per se, is ultimately to express a “racist” idea.
Moreover, while most Americans proceed from the assumption that racism is a form of prejudice that derives from either hatred or ignorance, Kendi posits that we have it totally backwards: in his view racist policy derives from majoritarian socioeconomic self-interest from which comes racist ideas to justify the unequal outcomes created by those policies, while ignorance and hatred are just the interpersonal fallout of racist policies and ideas.
In his own words,
The opposite of “racist” isn’t “not-racist.” It is “anti-racist.” What’s the difference? One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an anti-racist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an anti-racist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an anti-racist. There is no in between safe space of “not racist.” The claim of “not racist” neutrality is a mask for racism.
He then applies this framework to policy,
A racist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups. An antiracist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial equity between racial groups. By policy, I mean written and unwritten laws, rules, procedures, processes, regulations, and guidelines that govern people. There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy. Every policy in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity between racial groups.
It is this definitional shift of racism upwards—from a belief or an attitude that projects antipathy towards an identifiable Other to any explanation of a racial disparity that doesn’t explicitly name and blame “racist” policies and ideas—that is significant about his writing. This shift flows naturally from the underlying assumptions that disparities are always a consequence of racism. The principle of colorblindness is therefore not just wrong in Kendi’s and similar thought, but it is actually racist in this telling. Kendian logic insists that it is impossible to look beyond race, and the effort to do so can only be a guise for maintaining the “racist” status quo.
Moreover, discrimination by itself is not necessarily racist in this view, so long as it is used to create racial equity. Kendi explains thusly: “The only remedy to racist discrimination is anti-racist discrimination. The only remedy to past discimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.”
Although it may be off-putting to some, Kendi’s weird style of painting in broad strokes of morally binary black-and-whites before scrambling them around and repeating them backwards as though it somehow further qualifies his argument is clearly getting him somewhere. This framework represents the latest stage in the conceptual expansion of “racism” that has been gradually unfolding since the late 1960s.
It wasn’t until after the victories of the early civil rights movement that notions of systemic or structural racism were first introduced into the cultural lexicon. In their 1968 book Black Power: The Politics Of Liberation, Kwame Toure (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael) and Charles Hamilton make a distinction between individual racism and institutional racism, the former as an overt expression of bigotry and the latter as a more covert form of oppression without a clear locus. This has since been extended into cultural racism, as institutional racism has waned in influence since the 1960s.
But the concept of systemic racism has been hazy since its inception. Racism in America had always been systemic and its individual manifestations were always largely unconscious, so the shift from overt to covert is suspect. Systemic racism is now generally understood as racism once or twice-removed. For example, the fact that police officers are more likely to act aggressively towards black suspects is interpreted as “racist” in a structural sense because, even if the officer is making judgements based on their own experiences and expertise in a given situation, the fact that blacks have more encounters with police is an indirect consequence of historical racism and is therefore an injustice.
But this idea precludes individual responsibility for direct instances of racism and erases an important category distinction between bias and disparity. For instance, there happens to be significant evidence of overt racial bias in certain aspects of policing (though its origins are more complex than assumed), particularly in the case of low-level uses of force. But this is different from looking at the racial disparity in policing outcomes such as arrests and simply asserting, without evidence, that it is indicative of racism. We can’t ignore the complicated tangle of socio-economic, geographic, and cultural forces that incline certain groups to have more interactions with the police than others. Bias is not necessarily the primary source of these disparities. The imprecision and overapplication of the term reveals how it is often less about descriptive accuracy than it is about summoning moral and historical gravitas.
Racist attitudes have been in drastic and measurable decline for 60 years while the definition of racism continues to grow, as though every step forward in the fight against racism is met with an expanded idea of its scope. When conservative or liberal commentators point to evidence of racial progress, the anti-racist rejoinder is to assert that racism is more subtle but just as pernicious as it once was. Yet if individual racist attitudes matter less than its ongoing structural impacts, it’s reasonable to assume the stigma of racist will be used less to describe individuals and more to describe policies, institutions, and systems. But, of course, that hasn’t happened at all. Nuanced attempts to redefine the term haven’t resulted in extracting the sting from the “racist” epithet. It is now thrown around more casually than ever and yet can still easily cost someone their job.
Kendi barrels through this speed bump with a “both/and” line of reasoning: “The construct of covert institutional racism opens Americans eyes to racism and, ironically, closes them too. Separating the overt individual from the covert institutional veils the specific policy choices that cause racial inequities, policies made by specific people.”
It’s normal to be asking oneself at this point whether a simple question—what is racism?—should really be this complicated. We are meant to believe racism is both interpersonal and structural, arising both from the bottom-up and from the top-down, emanating from individuals as well as systems, is everywhere and nowhere at once. This completely strangles any common sense idea of what racism is or how to fight against it. To Kendi, “racist policy” says all there is to say, but his definition of racist policy is really just anything that results in unequal racial outcomes. The fact that virtually no two ethnic groups have ever had equal outcomes on all socioeconomic measures anywhere should leave us wondering what the hell he’s talking about.
So long as racial disparities exist, anti-racists can reflexively ascribe them to racism and justify any and every measure deemed necessary to eliminate them while anyone who questions this approach can be labeled racist and swiftly thrown out of polite society, and this occurs as we gradually veer towards an increasingly dystopian culture of fear. It doesn’t take an ethnic studies major to recognize the danger of this approach. Even Kendi acknowledges that his “secular strivings to be an anti-racist” are inseparable from his “parents religious strivings to be Christian.” The difference is that one is an inward journey of the spirit and the other is an outward project meant explicitly to attain power. Anti-racism is a totalizing religion disguised as politics.
But even if the better angels of our collective nature can prevent Kendi’s borderline totalitarian vision from becoming reality, all sorts of short-term damage can be done to our social fabric in the meanwhile. The more immediate issue with the anti-racist framework is that it never questions the moral logic of racial blame and intergenerational guilt/innocence. In his view, we can only ever place blame on white racism or black deficiency for persistent racial inequality; we can either be an anti-racist or a racist. This is a false dichotomy.
In an increasingly multi-ethnic society, does it really make sense to view the multitude of inequalities we see across the board through a binary lens of white racism and black victimization? In my own view, we’d go further by taking racial blame out of the equation altogether in exchange for universal and individual responsibility. In the bleak anti-racist view of humankind, such an effort is futile. What matters is power. We are left to battle it out in an ever-fracturing landscape of racial and political polarization.
It’s wholly possible to continue the fight against racism and inequality in America without accepting Kendi’s weird definition. Racism, historical racism, and racial inequality are all real and must be addressed, but it is the seamless weaving together of these things into a grand narrative that places white supremacy at the center of the story of Western civilization that goes too far. The traditional notion of racism as an interpersonal force of irrational discrimination with historical and structural implications doesn’t require expansion, and those who attempt to should be met with skepticism instead of mindless adoration.