Review of Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist

By Barbara Foley       Reprinted from Science and Society, July, 2021

Near the top of the New York Times bestseller list through the summer of 2020 and beyond, Kendi’s 2019 provocatively titled book is one among several books urging racial self-awareness and systemic transformation that attained prominence in the wake of the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police. Accompanied by a SparkNotes study guide, How to Be an Antiracist is clearly headed toward classroom use; it is not just a book, but an event. Moreover, in 2020 Kendi was appointed director of Boston University’s new Anti-Racism Institute, which he calls a “factory for antiracist policy.” One must ask, Does Kendi’s book help to develop the anti-capitalist potential of current attempts to de-naturalize racist ideologies and practices? Or does it aid and abet the current rush to the anti-racism bandwagon on the part of corporate America?

Kendi structures the book as a memoir interspersed with brief commentaries upon past and present modes of racist theory and practice, from Prince Henry the Navigator’s fifteenth-century justifications for the slave trade to the role played by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve in rationalizing late twentieth-century welfare cuts. No one, he argues, is free from racist preconceptions; there is no such thing as “non-racism”—whether espoused by “post-racial assimilationists” or color-blind segregationists”—but only racism and antiracism. Rather than scolding his reader for lack of purity, over eighteen chapters he addresses the range of toxic attitudes—aimed at about both Blacks and Whites—that he himself once embraced: “ethnic racism,” “bodily racism,” “cultural racism,” “color racism,” “class racism,” “gender racism,” and “queer racism.” Antiracists relentlessly pursue self-criticism and are aware of their own “dueling consciousness” (Kendi’s riff on Du Boisian “double consciousness”). Antiracists do not engage in calls for uplift or pleas for justice; instead, they dig in to alter the “policies” that in turn shape popular attitudes and beliefs, thereby creating a better world where antiracism is the new “common sense,” and “racist power lives on the margins.”

Kendi evinces a more than passing acquaintance with key Marxist ideas. Ideas do not float free from material practices; “racist power . . . produces racist policies out of self-interest and then produces racist ideas to justify those policies.”  “Ordinary” White people are disadvantaged by many of the policies affecting “ordinary” Black people; indeed, White supremacy is “an attack on the White race.”  But it cannot be said that Black people, lacking power, are incapable of racism; prominent figures from Clarence Thomas to Condoleezza Rice have enacted policies detrimental to “ordinary” people, Black and White alike. In promulgating the interests of “racist power” over the past several hundred years, he concludes, racism and capitalism have functioned as “conjoined twins”; in a future “equitable” society, by contrast, “almost everyone would have more than they have now.”  Indeed, some might ask, why use terms from the dialectical materialist lexicon—e.g., “ruling class,” working class,” “ideology,” and “praxis” —if Kendi’s use of “power,” “ordinary people,” “ideas,” and “policies” accomplishes the same ends, without arousing the hackles of readers unfamiliar with—or perhaps hostile—to Marxist terminology? Despite its proximity to a class analysis of the past and present functions of racism, however, as well as its projected hope for a future free of racialized inequality, Kendi’s challenge to “racist power” remains safely within the reformist circuit of capitalist theory and practice. It is not a verbal quibble to point out that the principal concepts guiding—and arguably disabling—his causal model are drawn not from historical materialism, but from political science (“policy”), sociology (“people”), and deconstruction (“power”).

Kendi’s conception of class is quantitative and amorphous, based upon differential possession of wealth (“rich,” “poor,” and “in between”) rather than qualitatively defined as a social relation of production. Power is a function of racialized domination, but the state can be wrested away from the White superrich. Capitalism, described as the “hoarding [of] wealth and resources” by “racist power,” reduces the drive to capital accumulation to greed. The metaphorical designation of capitalism and racism as “conjoined twins,” while usefully pointing to their common emergence in modernity, offers little analysis of the structural basis of their interdependency; the metaphor spins out of control, moreover, when capitalism and racism, at their birth, are describedas “newborns look[ing] up with tender eyes to their ancient siblings of sexism, imperialism, ethnocentrism, and homophobia.”  This theoretical mélange is further confused by Kendi’s invocation of Cedric Robinson’s recently repopularized notion of “racial capitalism”—which links capitalism to an intrinsically European drive to domination—and intersectionality theory, which positions all modes of oppression on a plane of causal equivalence.   

Although Kendi is haunted by the ghost of Marx—he twice quotes the famous passage from Capital about “the rosy dawn of capitalist production” in slavery and genocide—he rejects the Marxist argument that racism cannot be eliminated without the destruction of capitalism. This rejection is largely premised, however, upon a cherry-picked version of history that bypasses the historical role of class-conscious leftists in fighting racism.  Indeed, he cites as presumed evidence of Marxism’s inadequacy only two examples: (1) post-revolutionary Cuba’s failure to transcend inherited racial discrimination by 1961; and (2) a 1901 Socialist Party of America pamphlet reflecting (not surprisingly) White supremacist attitudes.  Had Kendi addressed the impressive (if imperfect) twentieth-century record of the Communist movement in treating the fight against racism as central to the class struggle, he could not have so readily dismissed the historical—and theoretical—importance of left antiracism.

More important than how Kendi positions himself in relation to Marxism, however, is how his eclectic theoretical foundation ends up undermining his call for a better world. The failure to ground class in exploitative relations of production leads him to view White “ordinary people” at some times as victims, but at others as beneficiaries, of racism—a formulationthat erroneously conflates different levels of racialized exploitation and oppression with objective benefit. Furthermore, his somewhat mechanical theorization of the relationship between “policies” and “ideas”—the latter consistently follow the former—confuses structural with temporal primacy—whereas processes of legitimation, as well as of opposition, are far more dialectically intertwined. Finally, his insistent use of “policies” to designate practices of all kinds, both racist and antiracist, implicitly constrains the role played by the emancipatory imagination in anticipating, and then effecting, social transformation. But what then do we do with Harriet Tubman and John Brown, much less Toussaint L’Ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, much less Lenin—all of whom engaged in present-day praxis with possible alternative futures in mind? In relation to our moment, Kendi’s theorization of temporal “lag” leaves us stuck in the mire of formulating antiracist “policy” within the existing framework of capitalism. “Changing minds is not activism,” Kendi concludes. “An activist produces power and policy change, not mental change.” Despite Kendi’s hope that racism will, over time, prove “unnatural” and “terminal,” this worthy aspiration bangs up against the limitations imposed by his proposal that we work for a world in which antiracism will be common sense, and racist power forced to the margins.  But since capitalism will presumably still be on the scene, waging guerrilla war, antiracism cannot negate and sublate—that is, abolish—capitalism’s conjoined twin. A strange pessimism undergirds the forward-looking mission of the “factory for antiracist policy”; antiracist optimism requires foundation in a vision of social revolution.

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