Why Ibram Kendi’s Antiracism is So Flawed
This piece is available in audio format on our podcast, "Heterodox Out Loud: the best of the HxA blog." Narration begins at 1:05.
“There is a divide in America between the souls of injustice and justice.” So maintains historian Ibram X. Kendi. The full arc of American history can be understood as a battle between these two souls, Kendi says, with genocide, enslavement, Trump and bigotry on the one side and equality, science, Biden and empathy on the other.
Kendi is the closest approximation we have to a national guru on race relations. Director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research and author of the runaway bestseller How to Be An Antiracist, his antiracism framework has been embraced with fervor by corporations, nonprofits and schools.
In the coming months, his ideas are sure to gain more traction, especially through classroom instruction and teacher professional development at the K-12 level and diversity/anti-racist trainings at the college level. Unfortunately, Kendi’s neat and tidy division of the world into “racists” and “antiracists” is too simplistic to give educators the right tools to have the kind of rich, well-informed conversations about race that are so vital in this historical moment.
Kendi holds a stark, absolute vision of the world, which he expresses through commandment-style proclamations. “Every policy,” he says, “in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity between racial groups.” In a recent talk, he compared racial justice to a light switch: “Last I checked, lights are either on or they’re off. Last I checked, there’s really no in-between injustice and justice.”
There are countless examples that challenge Kendi’s dichotomous worldview in which the light of racial justice is either shining or extinguished. Take the history of school desegregation.
According to Kendi, an “antiracist” policy must reject the notion of a racial hierarchy. At first blush, the movement to desegregate schools would appear to fit this definition. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling famously proclaimed that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The majority of African Americans across the country greeted the decision with joy and optimism.
Zora Neale Hurston, however, dissented. “I regard the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court as insulting rather than honoring my race,” she wrote in a blistering 1955 Op Ed (“Court Order Can’t Make the Races Mix.”) Decrying the “forcible association” mandate at the core of Brown, Hurston said she gained no satisfaction from a ruling that ordered “somebody to associate with me who does not wish me near them.” “It is a contradiction in terms to scream race pride and equality while at the same time spurning Negro teachers and self-association,” she declared.
The Brown ruling posited that segregated schools generated a “feeling of inferiority” that reduced the motivation of black students, depriving them of the “benefits they would receive in a racially integrated school system.” But what would black students gain, Hurston asked, from the mere “presence of white people” in a school? The notion that there was “some residual, some inherent and unchangeable quality in white schools, impossible to duplicate anywhere else” was laughable to her.
Black thinkers, activists, educators and parents have never agreed on whether the Brown decision upended or fortified the U.S. racial pecking order. Black Power icon Stokely Carmichael echoed Hurston when he called school integration a “subterfuge for the maintenance of white supremacy,” which reinforced “the idea that ‘white’ is automatically better and ‘black’ is by definition inferior.” This is a far cry from Martin Luther King’s assessment that Brown reaffirmed the “American doctrine of freedom and equality for all men.”
“An antiracist policy,” Kendi says, “is any measure that produces or sustains racial equity between racial groups.” School desegregation turned out to be devastating for many black children, black educators and black communities. “Hellish” is how Little Rock Nine member Elizabeth Eckford described her year at Central High. Experiences of alienation and dislocation were more common than not for black desegregation pioneers. As one student from Wilmington, North Carolina recalled: “We went from our own land to being tourists in someone else’s.”
Meanwhile, black educators lost their livelihoods in droves. By 1975, over 2,300 southern black principals and over 30,000 southern black teachers had lost their jobs. In the 1970-71 academic year alone, displaced black teachers in the South suffered an estimated $240 million in lost income. Scores of black schools closed in the wake of Brown, as integration overwhelmingly entailed black students moving into white institutions. The surrounding communities lost key neighborhood hubs, not to mention school traditions ranging from debate societies to sports teams.
It seems undeniable that these aspects of school desegregation as a policy maintained and produced racial inequities in terms of psychological well-being, economic security and community vitality.
The picture, of course, is far from complete. There were many cities and towns that saw successful school desegregation efforts--places where schools integrated with little incident and where students, teachers and staff developed valuable inter-racial friendships. From an equity perspective, there is compelling evidence that more racially integrated schools have all kinds of positive benefits. One major study found that, for black students, “school desegregation significantly increased both educational and occupational attainments, college quality and adult earnings, reduced the probability of incarceration and improved adult health status.”
School desegregation has been characterized by fits and starts, twists and turns, with righteous victories running in parallel to massive resistance and despair. It has come with all sorts of costs and benefits for black folks--and smart, well-informed people across the political spectrum continue to debate whether it has ultimately served the cause of racial progress. As a policy initiative, it occupies the muddy, middle ground between injustice and justice.
Kendi offers up a tantalizing promise that has proven highly seductive for many Americans who are waking up to the realities of racial injustice. It is a choose-your-own adventure where you always have just two options: racist or antiracist. This either-or paradigm, alas, presents a highly misleading picture of the nature and consequences of ideas, policies and social movements. It describes a world that never was and never will be--a world without contradictions, ironies or unintended consequences.
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