Rich white capitalists may be donating millions to Black Lives Matter, but they’re also funding and praising nonsense like Kendi’s babblings on race and capitalism.
“When the ideas of the Black Radical Tradition are finding wider agreement, this book is an attack upon it.”
How can it be explained that an unremarkable book, How To Be An Anti-Racist, rising to the top of The New York Times best sellers’ list and its author becoming an overnight intellectual star and academic celebrity; or his being given an endowed chair at Boston University, previously held by just one other person, the well-known Zionist Ellie Wiesel; his Institute on Anti-Racism receiving $10 million from tech billionaire Jack Dorsey. All of this occurring in a little more than two years. A spectacular and unprecedented rise.
Ibram Kendi reasons through conservative ideologies such as Evangelical Christianity and Afrocentrism. His theories are a confused kaleidoscope of sociological nonsense and unverifiable historical claims. His assertions have no resonance in the long history of antiracism scholarship, research, commentary and writing. Kendi fills the book with definitions. However, his definitions are not definitions at all, but mere tautologies, where he uses the term he’s defining in the definition, sometimes several times. He makes empirically unsubstantiated claims such as we’re all racists, including most Black people and Frederick Douglass and W.E.B Du Bois. He disconnects power relations from his understanding of racism; he separates racism from its economic foundations and from the exploitation of labor for profit; he uses the term inequity over structural, systemic and institutional racism. Finally, according to his definition, racism is not white supremacy and the answer to the problem boils down to changing racist policies not racist systems, institutions and structures. However, if we’re all racist, then the category racism is meaningless and no longer denotes oppression of one group by another.
“His theories are a confused kaleidoscope of sociological nonsense and unverifiable historical claims.”
Kendi was raised as an Evangelical Christian. Thinking through absolutes of, for instance, good and evil, God and the Devil, organizes his understanding of phenomena. Confession, the practice of atonement, admission of sin, recognizing you are a sinner and rejecting denial are Evangelical Christian tropes he draws on to understand racism. He applies these tropes to teaching others how to be anti-racists. While perhaps good for conservative Christian eschatology, it’s really bad for anti-racism scholarship and research.
How does this play out in Kendi’s intellectual practice? He says a racist is “One who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.” And on the other side an antiracist is “One who is supporting an antiracist policy through their racist action or expressing an antiracist idea.” Stated in another way, good people are people who do good things and bad people do bad things. To be clear there are thousands of sociological, political, historical, literary, autobiographical and other treatments of racism, few if any have so reductively and simple-mindedly defined racism. Nor has there been a credible definition that leaves out social, systemic, structural and historical factors in their definitions. But even then, how do W.E.B Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, and perhaps James Baldwin and Martin Luther King become racist?
“Few if any treatments have so reductively and simple-mindedly defined racism.”
The book’s title, How to Be an Antiracist helps to explain what it’s about. It is a self-help book; a genre preferred by marketers of “cures” of all types. The more recent variant of this genre is the self-care books, marketed to petit bourgeois professionals confused by the chaos and contradictions of modern capitalism. Like most books in this genre they are highly autobiographical. The author himself has been cured of the malady of racism and wishes to share his cure to a wider audience. Kinde optimistically announces, “We can be a racist one minute and an anti-racist the next.” Astonishingly for a Black person, he declares: “I used to be a racist most of the time. I am changing. I am no longer identifying with racists by claiming to be ‘not racist.’ I am no longer speaking through the mask of racial neutrality. I am no longer manipulated by racist ideas to see racial groups as problems. I no longer believe a Black person cannot be racist.” (my italics added)
He condemns the “illusory, concealing, disempowering, and racist idea that Black people can’t be racist because Black people don’t have power.” So Black folk without power and who are the victims of racism, colonialism and white supremacy are themselves white supremacists and racists. For Kendi, the first step to Blacks overcoming their racism is admitting they are racists.
Why do white elites, university administrators, foundations and tech capitalists embrace such ludicrous ideas and theories? What is the ideological context within which this occurs? What are the politics of the book: conservative, liberal, reactionary or something else? What social classes and groups benefit from its ideas? Moreover, what is the relationship between this book and the growing antiracist mass consciousness and activism?
“For Kendi, the first step to Blacks overcoming their racism is admitting they are racists.”
To start we must look at the ideological crises of the state, the society and the political contradictions and chaos engulfing the ruling class and society. The state is those interconnected political, military, police, intelligence, economic, financial, and ideological institutions that have ultimate authority to use force and violence in society in the interest of one or another social classes, political alliances or economic interests. The US state defends the capitalist economic system and its class and race hierarchies. The ideological crisis of the state is brought on by a crisis of legitimacy, when significant parts of the population reject its authority and its rule. They can make nations ungovernable. The US is at such a moment of crisis.
The US, however, remains the vanguard of the global movement to save western capitalism and white civilization. It is the military strike force of western hegemony. Its strength is weakened, and its hegemony challenged by the rise of an energized Chinese socialism and new global alliances of non-western nations and political forces.
The Black Freedom Movement (although weakened since its high point 1955 to 1980) remains the domestic Achilles heel of US empire and its policies of war, economic austerity and poverty. If calibrated to the moment and ideologically developed, the Black Freedom Movement can again be the mobilizing center of a people’s Movement to take power in the name of radical democracy, peace and socialism. The crisis of state power and the potential rise of a radicalized people’s Movement begins to explain the ruling elites’ embrace of this book.
“The US state defends the capitalist economic system and its class and race hierarchies.”
It is part of the ruling elite’s ideological intervention to thwart the development of anti-racist consciousness, united fronts against racism and new levels of activism. Millions of people recognize that racism and white supremacy are the greatest obstacles to a people’s democracy and the economy’s reorganization upon socialist principles. People recognize the moral rebirth of the nation cannot happen without the defeat of white supremacy. Ironically, this context makes Kendi inevitable. If not him it could have easily been someone else; it is the function not the person. When the ideas of the Black Radical Tradition are finding wider agreement, this book is an attack upon it.
A revealing part of the book is how it deals with the race/class dialectic and racial capitalism. “To love capitalism is to end up loving racism”, Kendi insists. How does he understand capitalism? Like his understanding of racism, capitalism is defined by its policies, not as a system; albeit policies of “theft and racism and sexism and imperialism.” But these are evil policies that capitalism must “disentangle” from. Racist policies and capitalist policies are twins; therefore, anti-capitalist policies must be joined to antiracist ones. Kendi wants to change capitalist policies, but not replace the capitalist system; in the same way he wants to replace racist policies, but not structural and systemic racism. He rejects using socialism or communism, preferring the words anti-racial capitalism. Socialism and communism are alternative social systems to capitalism. Lastly, Kendi wants the capitalist system, but without racial capitalist policies.
“Kendi wants to change capitalist policies, but not replace the capitalist system.”
How can he talk about racist policies, with no reference to power; no reference to who makes policies, who enforces them and whose interests are served by them. Policy without power is meaningless. Kendi thus obscures the inevitable relationships between systemic, structural and institutional power and systemic, structural and institutional racism. Concepts such as racial equality and racial inequality, concepts addressing systems, structures and institutions, are replaced with racial equity and racial inequity, terms that negate systemic questions in resolving racism and propose, again, only policy changes.
What is revealed is that the main audience for Kendi’s analysis is the ruling class and policy makers. His evangelical salvation narrative is to save those in power. He wishes to teach them how to be “anti-racists”.
He speaks of urban segregation and poverty without mentioning gentrification. The spaces of urban segregation and the space of the African American Studies Department at Temple University are talked about. Molefi Asante and Ama Mazama -- his mentors -- are his concern. Both support Temple University’s ruthless and uncompromising gentrification of the North Philadelphia Black working class and poor community. This was never made clearer than during the fight by ordinary North Philadelphians over Temple’s effort to build a football stadium in the middle of their neighborhood. This struggle harkened back to the best days of the Black Freedom Movement in Philadelphia, especially the struggle to break down segregated urban spaces and institutions. Asante and Mazama openly oppose the community and support Temple University; Asante went so far as to attack three Black women residents and activists as “Marxists” and tools of white socialists. Asante and Mazama are right wing cultural nationalist. Like Kendi they often mouth progressive phrases, yet never move too far from a pro-capitalist and anti-Black working-class script.
“His evangelical salvation narrative is to save those in power.”
I was a professor at Temple in the African American Studies department. After helping to lead a long struggle to hold on to Black leadership of the department I was unexpectedly fired by Asante and Mazama. The firing occasioned a student, community and nationwide two-year movement to reinstatement me. Drawing from his reactionary ideological toolbox and justifying his unprincipled behaviors, Asante assured the Temple administration that I was nothing more than a “communist apparatchik.” As such I was not worthy of a faculty position. He revealed the deep anti-communist roots of his Afrocentric philosophy and practice. He said, moreover, the department did not need W.E.B Du Bois, the specialty that I taught. In the place of Du Bois he wanted courses on hip hop.
Kendi‘s Christian Evangelicalism and right-wing cultural nationalism are joined at the point of anti-communism. James Baldwin in 1961 when speaking of African colonization made it clear that anti-communism, racism and colonization are interconnected evils. And that anti-racism that is anti-communist is fake anti-racism. It is part and parcel of the states’ attempt to redirect social consciousness and struggle into self-defeating dead ends.
“Kendi‘s Christian Evangelicalism and right-wing cultural nationalism are joined at the point of anti-communism.”
This book says to the impoverished and angry masses, lower your sights, don’t fight the systems of racism and oppression, in fact don’t mention these systems and structures at all. To the people calling for power to the people, Kendi assures them you don’t need power. To tens of millions of young people who have given up on capitalism he says to them, give up on socialism and communism and stick with a reformed anti-racist capitalism.
Young people would do well to heed the words of W.E. B Du Bois who declared in his letter joining the Communist Party USA “I believe in communism”, or his speech “The Negro and Socialism” where he proclaims that socialism, as a system, is the answer to the ruin of racism and capitalism. We should all listen to Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) who in the book Black Power says that without power Black folk could never achieve genuine freedom.
James Baldwin speaks for us and to us, now and into the future, when he wrote in the book No Name in the Street:
“The necessity for a form of socialism is based on the observation that the world’s present economic arrangements doom most of the world to misery; that the way of life dictated by these arrangements is both sterile and immoral; and finally, that there is no hope for peace in the world so long as these arrangements obtain.”
This is the direction of antiracism. Ibram Kendi and the ruling elite he serves can only lead to disaster and defeat.
Anthony Monteiro is an organizer with Philadelphia’s Saturday Free School, a Du Bois scholar, a community educator, a radical and activist.
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