Ibram Kendi has written a coming-of-age memoir somewhat prematurely. The opening of How to Be an Antiracist highlights Kendi’s epiphany at age seven upon seeing the world through the prism of race. The occasion was his introduction to a new school and new teacher, upon which occasion he wondered bewilderingly why the teacher was not black.
From that moment Kendi advances through the typical stages of maturation with race always at the center of his view of himself and the world. His experiences were always laden with that prismatic to such an extent that he was oblivious to the other determining events of his life. The most important of those events goes unremarked (and probably unnoticed) in terms of its likely most significant relation to himself. When his parents relocated from the hood in Brooklyn to the Confederate groves of Manassas, Virginia (of which he was keenly aware), they were likely rescuing him from the continuing influence and probable dangers of his “friends” like Smurf, described as an emerging thug or gangster.
Kendi’s committed prismatic of race obscured all such environmental awareness and appreciation of the protective attentiveness of his parents (though he was acutely conscious of their aspirations for his academic and athletic development). He did not develop academic aspirations until late in his young adulthood, and his athletic aspirations did not crystallize into notable performance. Nevertheless, he crossed the necessary threshold of matriculation into university education at Florida A&M, a Historically Black University, at which he continued the embedded reflex of decoding racial experience.
Kendi’s labors eventuated in a healthy release from seeing race as a primary referent. He provides frequent and important references to his liberation from race denigration (his seventh- grade, award-winning oratorical performance), color prejudice, and race-exclusive socialization. Such liberation resulted in observations like “Internalized racism is the real black on black crime” and “when we believe that an individual’s seeming success or failure redounds to an entire group we’ve accepted a racist idea” and “[t]o be antiracist is to never conflate racist people with White people, knowing there are antiracist Whites and racist non-Whites.”.
When he emerged from this evolutionary development with the crystalline view that the racial prismatic itself was a distorted view of reality, he seemed poised, so to speak, to re-epiphanize into the full daylight of cultural awareness that could navigate differences with sensitivity to full human potentiality. He expressed it thus:
I realized there is nothing wrong with any of the racial groups and everything wrong with individuals like me who think there is something wrong with any of the racial groups. It felt so good to cleanse my mind.
This almost Davidic psalm of gratitude for “creating in me a clean heart” inspires hope for a strenuous exertion in defense of the dignity of human individuals endowed with agency. Lamentably, the turn taken by Kendi leads anywhere but. And that is the story of the failure of this coming-of-age memoir.
A Flawed Conception of Political Life
To understand why Kendi’s work takes this turn, one must open his earlier work, Stamped from the Beginning. That work is the foundation of How to be an Antiracist and provides the analysis omitted in the later work. There, he explains that racism arose in 15th-century Europe and acquired systematic form in the age of exploration. He conceives that the architecture of Europe was predicated upon the solidification of power relations with non-Europeans upon racial distinctions. In developing this analysis, he founds his reasoning upon the claim Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, enunciated in his inaugural address. That claim was that black slavery was “stamped from the beginning” in the European settlement of North America. In relying upon this foundation claim for the defense of slavery Kendi imitates those advocates who rely upon the argument of John C. Calhoun that slavery was a “positive good.” That is to say that one and the other predicates an analysis of the United States on the defeated claims of slavery’s defenders rather than the claims of those who ultimately abolished slavery. This incongruous analysis produces the result that the defeated argument is embraced as the true and proper characterization of the structure of power in the United States.
One reason this result occurs derives from the reliance on the ideological structures of Marxism adapted to Kendi’s needs—namely, the explanation of all political relations in terms of the relations between the “oppressors and oppressed.” In short, in order to analyze the United States consistently with the methodological imperatives of socialism, it is necessary to frame the discussion entirely in terms of a struggle for power rather than a struggle of ideas. The political system may only be understood as patterned relationships of power and submission. Since the very claim of the United States at its proper founding was to have transcended patterned relationships of power and submission, that claim is dismissed or discounted as a methodological necessity. Moreover, every element of the society so analyzed must conform to the required pattern. Thus, capitalism is merely an expression of the power relations in the society and, hence, strictly a matter of the material relations required to sustain race-based slavery.
This analysis, therefore, hangs entirely upon the misconstruction of the development of modern Europe as a bearer of race-based slavery. Not only does that perspective fail to discern the intrinsic and sometimes specific—arguments against power relationships based on race (and gender, for that matter), it far more importantly fails to completely to understand the true origins of modern Europe. That is ironic insofar as the 15th century not only submits Columbus, Marco Polo, and other exemplars of the age of exploration to review, but it also submits Machiavelli and his successors (upon whom Kendi does not reflect at all) to review. Since it was precisely Machiavelli who developed power relations—not blood or tribe or religion—as the fundamental principle of political organization, the irony is all the more significant. For it means that Kendi failed to notice the anticipatory refutation of Hegelian-Marxian analysis.
In a word, the Machiavellian move initiated the momentum that led Europe to develop a mode of civilization that eventually altered the basis of political organization throughout the entire earth. The focus on power relations produced successive attempts to concretize the idea of political power in a general account—most notably the Hobbesian account that replaced all other accounts of authority with positivism. The practical attempts to valorize political power eventually produced the systematic form of the nation-state as the basis of civilization itself. This achieved its consummation in the Westphalian settlement of 1648. However, that settlement produced the new and ultimately universal form of all political life without resolving the inherent problem of authority. The power thus established was arbitrary, inasmuch as theoretical notions of right were insufficient to direct claims of sovereign authority. Consequently, further reflection was required in order to elaborate a form for the nation-state in which the power that lay at its base could be understood as neither absolute nor arbitrary. That required the development of constraints on power in the service of liberty. Preliminary theorizing in that direction—by John Locke most notably—did not succeed in achieving the result. The Westminster constitutionalism that arose in the wake of the Glorious Revolution made Parliament legally sovereign, and therefore lacked the architecture to protect the liberty of citizens from arbitrary rule. Ultimately, therefore, progress was made with the influence of theorists such as Montesquieu, who inspired the creation of the American Constitution as the first truly contractual limit on government power. The constitutional nation state, where power is deliberately constrained, arose from the development of European political thought.
What this means for our purposes is simply that the civilizational form that Europe eventually bequeathed to the globe is predicated precisely upon rejecting the claim that politics consists of the relations between oppressor and oppressed. Insofar as that has been accomplished to some degree, it is therefore false that the systematic form of politics establishes at its origins (“stamped from the beginning”) racial or cultural attributes as components of political identity. Kendi’s arguments, accordingly, are predicated upon misinterpretation of the forms and principles of political life itself.
Racism and Anti-Racism
The problem is made manifest at the very beginning of How to be an Antiracist, and it is a problem of logic, of poor reasoning. That is evident in the definitional epigram with which Kendi opened Chapter 1:
RACIST: One who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.
ANTIRACIST: One who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.
The obvious asymmetry discloses the foundation of the entire analysis (if that is not too generous a term) that follows in the book. The premise that inaction is partner to action in definition one, while bearing no role in definition two, must necessarily mean that the argument requires acceptance of an unstated premise—namely, that the existence of “a racist policy” operates with compulsory effect, such that it leaves no alternative response beyond compliance or resistance. The notion that there is no non-racist position (which Kendi explicitly asserts) not only blithely ignores the reality of nonage, let alone disability, but also defies the rational expectation of indifference. Moreover, since there is no correlative inaction with respect to the equally compulsory force of antiracism, it necessarily follows that indifference is not an option either. This is equivalent to arguing that the forces in motion are natural forces (natural laws) operating much as revolutions about the sun operate. Dawns and dusks, however, are rather partners than mutually exclusive, they must succeed one another by turns. By excluding the prospect for deliberation and decision, Kendi effectively undermines his claim on behalf of a moral imperative (or choice) consciously to be embraced. Thus, there can be no end to the revolutions of racism and antiracism, tied as ineluctably as day and night.
Result: no one becomes either a racist or an antiracist, for there is no identifiable agency by which he or she may do so. Instead, one only stands in the light of the one or the other depending on the revolving cycle. Otherwise, whoever may choose to support a racist policy, must necessarily be able still to choose not to do so (for the definition depends on the dynamic of choice, which is not ephemeral). Whoever may choose to support an antiracist policy, must necessarily be able still to choose not to do so. Nor would it follow that election in the one case necessarily determines election in the opposite case. For then the liberty to choose would be a mere illusion, not even a true Hobson’s choice. Put otherwise, whenever one chooses “to go” one is simultaneously choosing not to “not go.” Declining to choose one or the other operationally produces the consequence of staying put (not going) that Kendi mistakenly calls inaction. But this third choice is no less a choice, and thus far an action, than either of the others. True inaction entails no choice at all, whether through studied indifference (assuming agency) or incapacity.
What is at stake, however, is Kendi’s unproved assumption that this is a question of power, in the face of which no one may claim either immunity or indifference—the focus on the compulsory. A gun to the temple may well force a choice on those capable of choosing but will be an empty—if fatal— gesture regarding those not so capable as well as regarding those prepared for any eventuality (meaning the unscheduled choice of self-sacrifice). Kendi can see the matter differently not because his definitions make sense, but only because he rests his judgment on an ideological commitment that identifies racism and capitalism as a conjoined and ubiquitous political reality in the face of which effort must ensue to overturn it or all must succumb to it. That means, in light of Stamped from the Beginning, the cause of antiracism is nothing less than the dismantling of the nation-state. At that point it is not difficult to see it as correlative with emergence of the Marxist universal world state.
Since European civilization—and that is the proper name, not “white” civilization—takes its complete form of expression in the liberty-based nation-state (even if most of the nation-states existing have not yet found the way to a basis in liberty), then “antiracism” means “anti-European civilization.” It is a demand for a new world order. While such a demand is coherent, it is does not follow that it is predicated upon a coherent argument. Thus it is, for example, that it takes the argument against capitalism in order for Kendi to make his “intersectional” turn—while abjuring all class categorization (he dislikes terms such as “systemic racism”) —in order to argue that salvation hinges uniquely upon overturning—not any particular policy—but capitalism itself.
At this point, therefore, the entire conceit of the book is lost. Neither racism nor antiracism is germane to the actual discussion. Only competent political and economic analysis can provide what is required to sustain this screed. And both competent political and economic analysis are completely absent. That should surprise none who perceive, in particular, that the references to capitalism assume without stating a specifically flawed economic principle: namely, that economies are founded in accidental or arbitrary policies. Think of Rousseau’s suggestion that property rights originated simply by someone putting up a fence and someone else respecting it as a boundary. Perhaps Kendi should not be blamed too greatly for such intellectual confusion, for it is rare that anyone defines capitalism with clarity or offers any very serious account of economic activity.
To clarify matters, let us posit that capitalism is not intrinsically distinct from any other form of economic activity. All economic activity is founded in the human propensity to buy and sell (by whatever modality). As such, there is no possible economy apart from such foundation. However, economic activity is subject to varying degrees of regulation, from least (open rapine and exploitation) to greatest (totalitarian communalization). It is the same economic activity in either case but subject to varying degrees of accomplishment depending upon the varying exigencies of regulation. In this regard, it is fair to say that liberty begins (as the ancients observed) with poverty, when the little one may have poses no attraction to others, and slavery begins with wealth, for the opposite reason. The purpose of regulated economic activity, accordingly, is founded upon the benefit of assured title in one’s possessions (as de Soto makes clear in The Mystery of Capital). Beyond functional limits of assured title, regulation becomes counter-productive and replaces the rapine of banditti with the rapine of institutions.
In this context, to add racism—or antiracism for that matter—to dissimulating forms of institutional rapine produces no further meaning or definitional power. The claim, therefore, that capitalism emerged as the distinctive form of racism (or is it vice versa? —Kendi is not clear) and thus setting it apart from human economic behavior in general is not only undefended but demonstrably absurd. The co-existence in history of the emergence of racism and the emergence of capitalism (loosely, and only loosely speaking) provides no foundation for the argument that Kendi makes in How to Be an Antiracist, nor in his earlier work.
Kendi’s failure to create a proper foundation for his argument would seem fairly innocuous save for two factors. First, the argument in favor of antiracism— when not meant as an ideological Trojan horse—is an important and valuable contribution to the developing accomplishment of a fully free and open society, exposed to and operating upon the full implications of assimilationist and inclusive cultural expectations. (Kendi sees this as an excluded choice, but without good reason.) Secondly, the aggressive presentation of formal antiracism (for that is what Kendi intends—antiracism as a coherent political movement and not as cultural expression) deliberately aims to privilege certain claims to power as authoritative at the expense of liberty, and to an extent that precludes further development of any competing political aspirations.
Kendi has here performed the identical absurdity that Thomas Jefferson achieved in the 18th century (and in many ways they are kindred intellects: vibrant but shallow). In Jefferson’s case, we found him taking Rousseau’s joke about orangutangs seriously and thus attempting to determine the “humanity” of Africans in Notes on the State of Virginia. The idiocy is simply stunning. Similarly, Kendi has taken Rousseau’s joke about the origin of private property (an accident) seriously and concluded therefrom that property is merely a matter of social attribution (as if Locke’s eaten apple need anything more than individual exertion). Only on the strength of that idiocy does it seem credible to make the argument that society has the authority to define notions of propriety to assure cultural development in accord with abstract preferences.
How to Be an Antiracist fails to answer its title question, precisely because the author has failed to appreciate that what he meant was to justify an argument about how to make antiracists. He failed in that regard, because he has not yet consummated the journey on which he set out at age seven. It is to be hoped that he will complete his memoir when he has reached the fullness of years.