Ibram X. Kendi’s, How to be an Antiracist is a powerful, eloquent, confessional exploration of racism and antiracism in a variety of aspects. Kendi invites readers along on his own journey of discovery of the racism that lives within himself, and of the habits and attitudes he strives to cultivate to uproot that racism. Kendi is not especially concerned about purity tests or disagreements about terms. Kendi believes the proper field for fighting racism is in concentrating very specifically on questions of policy — the ways we choose to live together. He writes, “A racist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups. An antiracist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial equity between racial groups” (p. 18).
Kendi affirms the broadly accepted idea that race is a purely social construct, a “power construct.” There is no genetic or even ethnic reality to the idea of race. Race is, says Kendi, a “mirage,” but one that is very powerful and effective in American society, and thus one to which we must pay attention. Antiracist policy seeks to erase racial inequities — and sometimes that will mean reversing them for a season as we seek to correct past injustices. For example, Kendi does not mention recent battles over Affirmative Action in schools, but his writing provides a clear rationale for the purpose of Affirmative Action and the ways that would feel like discrimination to groups who are so accustomed to privilege and preference as to consider that the norm.
In a book full of clear ideas, respectfully and well-argued, the one most striking to me was one with which he began, the one behind the title. “Not a racist,” “non-racist,” “color-blind,” and “post-racial” are all attempts to avoid the issue. And here’s the clue: if you’re looking to avoid the issue, it’s almost certainly because you’re not the one being hurt by the issue. It’s because you stand to lose rather than to gain by dealing with the issue directly. My feelings of guilt and impotency around the reality of racial inequality mean I wish it would go away. Yet it does not. To avoid dealing with racism is to acquiesce, to agree to, ultimately to support, the status quo. I believe the status quo in our country is still terribly marked by racism. So my choice — as a human being and as one who strives to follow Jesus — is whether I’m going to say I’m OK being part of a system the sustains racial inequity or whether I will strive to set aside my own racist habits (affirming or not calling out policies that promote injustice) and choose instead to speak and act in ways that are consciously, decisively antiracist.
Short chapters and friendly, readable prose make this book simultaneously approachable and thought-provoking.
Ibram X. Kendi, How to be an Antiracist (One World: 2019) reviewed by the Rev. Todd Foster