Kendi's "How to Be an AntiRacist" and the Fight to Redefine RacismHistorians in the News
tags: books, book reviews, antiracism, Ibram X. Kendi
Kelefa Sanneh has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2008.
In the thirteen years since his abortive college-newspaper column, Kendi had become ever more convinced that racism, not race, was the central force in American history, and so he reached back to 1635 to show how malleable racism could be. The preachers who justified slavery used racist arguments, he wrote, but so did many of the abolitionists—the ubiquity of racism meant that no one was immune to its seductive power, including black people. In his view, the pioneering black sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois was propping up racist ideas in 1897, when he condemned “the immorality, crime, and laziness among the Negroes.” So, too, was Barack Obama, when, as a Presidential candidate in 2008, he decried “the erosion of black families.” Although Obama noted that this erosion was partly due to “a lack of economic opportunity,” he also made an appeal to black self-reliance, saying that members of the African-American community needed to face “our own complicity in our condition.” Kendi saw statements like these as reflections of a persistent but delusional idea that something is wrong with black people. The only thing wrong, he maintained, was racism, and the country’s failure to confront and defeat it.
“Stamped from the Beginning” was an unreservedly militant book that received a surprisingly warm reception. Amid a series of police shootings of African-Americans during President Obama’s second term, “Black lives matter” became a rallying cry and then a movement, and helped push racism to the front of the progressive conversation. By the time Obama left office, in 2017, polls showed record-high support among Democrats for “special treatment” to help African-Americans, and for the idea that “racial discrimination” is the main obstacle to racial parity. A prominent cohort of writers, led by Ta-Nehisi Coates, was calling for a serious reckoning with racism, and with the way racist policies had worked to depress black earnings and constrain black life. In this climate, Kendi’s book was celebrated as a well-timed contribution to a national conversation. It won a National Book Award and transformed Kendi into a leading public intellectual. His scholarly project has been institutionalized: Kendi is now the founding director of the Antiracist Research & Policy Center at American University, in Washington, D.C.
In modern American political discourse, racism connotes hatred, and just about everyone claims to oppose it. But many on the contemporary left have pursued a more active opposition, galvanized by the rise of Donald Trump, who has been eager to denounce black politicians but reluctant to denounce white racists. In many liberal circles, a movement has gathered force: a crusade against racism and other isms. It is a fierce movement, and sometimes a frivolous one, aiming the power of its outrage at excessive prison sentences, tasteless Halloween costumes, and many offenses in between. This movement seems to have been particularly transformative among white liberals, who are now, by some measures, more concerned about racism than African-Americans are. One survey found that white people who voted for Hillary Clinton felt warmer toward black people than toward their fellow-whites.