Almost a year ago I read a book called How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, a Boston University professor, author, and widely published essayist. I was ahead of the curve, it seems, as the book is one of several that are now recommended reading for those wanting to learn about racism, and more importantly, antiracism.
Last night I watched an online live interview with Kendi as he talked about his book and its relevance to the post-George Floyd protests and discussions about race. He reiterated some of the themes of his book, which is part memoir as he explores his own deep racist beliefs, both against whites and in many cases, other blacks. He describes how racist policies beget racist ideas beget racist thoughts beget racist inequality.
But wait. You’re not a racist. So this isn’t relevant to you, right?
I’ve never considered myself racist. But then, even the most virulent racists often don’t consider themselves racist, so I suppose personal self-categorization isn’t a good metric. While I did learn some things about myself that made me feel uncomfortable, this post isn’t a test of any individual’s racism. I’m writing about societal racism.
I talked about this more in White on Whites, so here I want to focus on a distinction that Kendi makes that I think is useful for us to keep in mind. Kendi would like to get away from the concept of being “Not Racist.” He argues, and supports, the idea that there are two states: Racism and Antiracism.
Racism is defined as supporting racist ideas or racist policies. While generally you shouldn’t use the word you’re defining in your definition of that word, this is a self-evident exception. Racist ideas are inherently obvious – they stem from white supremacy, the idea that people who are white are somehow superior to people of color. This nation has struggled under this concept for all of our existence. I provided a short history of systemic racism in America in my author website. White people enslaved black people on the false premise that whites were superior, when in fact the only superiority we had was the political power to keep people enslaved. That legacy continues to infect our society today. When white people call black people lazy, or stupid, or inherently not up to our white standards (even though most whites don’t meet those standards either), that is displaying racist ideas. Some racists are easy to identify; others are more subtle. But a person is racist because they express racist ideas. That’s the definition.
Racist policies may be a bit more difficult for most white people to see, or acknowledge. Kendi documents how even some acts designed to repeal racism, e.g., integration of schools, actually deepens racism. Elsewhere I’ve seen documentation of how even federal mortgage loan agencies actually encouraged white flight, the movement of whites from housing developments in the city that were expressly built for workers (mostly white at the time) to suburbs just as expressly designed to block the presence of non-whites. Redlining practices today continue the process by which society insinuates racism into policy.
So we have “racist.” Then Kendi shows that the opposite of “racist” isn’t “not racist,” but “antiracist.” The distinction is important.
Many people, as did I, consider themselves “not racist.” We rationalize that since we don’t use the “N-word” or overtly engage in racist speech or behavior, we must therefore by “not racist.” But that lets us off the hook for the inherent racism built into our society. As I mentioned in White on Whites, we whites have white privilege whether we acknowledge it or not. Our society allows us whites to pass through life never being singled out for scrutiny because of the color of our skin. That isn’t the case for people of color. Black men are disproportionately stopped by police, receive longer prison sentences than whites for similar (or lesser) crimes, and are generally under scrutiny for no reason other than being black. Politicians routinely dehumanize black and brown Americans because they know that, at least in one political party, dog-whistles and fog-horns of racism will strengthen their hold on their key voting block.
Let me quickly expand on that last point. There is a certain uncomfortably large proportion of the American people who respond positively to racist language. We have the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and blatantly racist politicians. These racists are obvious, but before the rest of us white people think those groups are outliers, think about the work of educator Jane Elliott.
Back in the late 1960s, immediately after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jane Elliot began her brown eyes/blue eyes experiment with her grade school class. She showed how easy it was to manipulate people into hating others based on their perceived “superiority” or “inferiority.” More recently she did another experiment with an auditorium full of white adults. She asked them to stand up if they would be comfortable being treated like black people are treated by society. When no one stood up she said, “See, you all recognize that society treats black [and brown and Asian and Native] people in this country differently than white people, and none of you wants to be treated that way.” Watch the very short video.
We know. We know our society is systemically racist. And none of us wants it for ourselves. It reminds me of when Abraham Lincoln noted that as much as plantation owners and slaveholding politicians claimed that slavery was a “positive good,” none of them wanted to take advantage of it for themselves. We know. And most of us do nothing about it.
Which is why being “not racist” is not enough. We must actively be “Antiracist.” We must work as allies to rid our society of the systemic racism that brings us all down. We must do the work.
Kendi suggests that this can be done from either a moral position – racism is wrong and immoral and needs to be eradicated. Or we can do it from an advocacy position – what would white America gain if we weren’t so easily manipulated by racist ideas?
I’ll do a follow up post on this last point shortly.
David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.