Most South Africans have little knowledge of Ibram X Kendi, founder of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, newly appointed holder of the prestigious Andrew W Mellon Professorship in the Humanities at Boston University, and author of a best-selling book on How to be an Anti-Racist.
Yet it is the doctrine that Kendi captures in this book that lies behind the recent upsurge in street protests in the United States and elsewhere, the toppling and defacement of statues, the silencing and ‘cancelling’ of dissent, the outpouring of support for #BlackLivesMatter, the denunciation of individuals and institutions as ‘racist’ – and the confessions of racist ‘guilt’ by many of those accused.
What is racism?
Kendi’s definitions of racism and anti-racism are ‘lucid’ and tangible, he says. It is not necessary to burden people with redundant concepts such as institutional racism, systemic racism, or structural racism, for racism in all these forms can be identified by a simpler test.
‘Racism is a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas’. Racial inequity is ‘when two or more racial groups are not standing on an approximately equal footing’ on measures such as home-ownership, income, and employment.
A racist policy is any law, regulation, or procedure that ‘produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups’. A racist idea is ‘any idea that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way’ and so tries to explain away ‘racial inequities in society’.
What is anti-racism?
Anti-racism is essentially the opposite. ‘An anti-racist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial equity between groups’. An anti-racist idea is one that sees ‘racial groups as equal’ and identifies ‘racist policies as the cause of racial inequities’.
Racist policy is the key issue, for it ‘cuts to the core of racism’ better than the common concept of racial discrimination. Racial discrimination is not a particularly helpful idea, for what matters is whether the discrimination in issue is ‘creating equity or inequity’.
‘If discrimination is creating equity, then it is antiracist. If discrimination is creating inequity, then it is racist’. The correct kind of discrimination – that which creates equity – must be maintained at all times, moreover.
‘The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.’
No race-neutral alternative
There is no non-racist or race-neutral alternative to this racist/anti-racist dichotomy. Hence, the ‘most threatening racist movement’ is not the nationalistic ‘alt-right’ in the US but rather ‘the regular American’s drive for a race-neutral’ approach.
‘There is no neutrality in the racism struggle’, Kendi stresses. Nor can any individual or institution claim to be ‘not racist’ or ‘colour blind’. The only choice is between ‘being actively racist or actively antiracist’.
‘A racist is someone who is supporting a racist policy by their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea. An antiracist is someone is who is supporting an antiracist policy by their actions or expressing an antiracist idea’.
These labels are not fixed, however. Rather, they are ‘like peelable name tags’ that can be applied or removed depending on what the individual or institution is doing, or not doing, at any particular time.
To avoid the ‘racist’ name tag, people must constantly engage in ‘self-awareness’ and ‘self-criticism’, as if they were ‘fighting an addiction’. They must also acknowledge any perceived racist misdeeds they may inadvertently have committed – and overtly oppose any policy that does not produce equity between racial groups.
The link between racism and capitalism
Kendi claims that ‘it is impossible to know racism without understanding its intersection with capitalism’. In his view, racism and capitalism became ‘conjoined twins’ with the growth of the Atlantic slave trade and the reliance on ‘slavery and forced labour in the Americas’. This in turn ‘powered industrial revolutions from Boston to London’, fuelled Western colonialism, impoverished ‘non-white’ countries, and brought the world to its present point – where racial capitalism threatens the death of all through ‘inequality, war and climate change’.
Adds Kendi: ‘To love capitalism is to end up loving racism. To love racism is to end up loving capitalism. The conjoined twins are two sides of the same destructive body… Capitalism is essentially racist. Racism is essentially capitalist. They were birthed together from the same unnatural causes and they shall one day die together from unnatural causes.’
What’s wrong with Kendi’s thesis?
So much in Kendi’s analysis is false and dangerous that it is difficult to know where to begin in unravelling its flaws. A few of the most obvious points must at least be made.
His anti-racist goal – the use of policy to produce equal outcomes on all indicators from employment, income, and wealth to education and home ownership – is impossible to achieve, even under the most totalitarian of governments.
It demands demographic representivity in every sphere, as if all individuals start from the same ‘blank slate’ and can be moulded by the state to develop the same aptitudes, interests, and skills and so achieve the same outcomes – irrespective of variations in age, education, experience, family structure, self-discipline, and the like. In the real world, however, variables of this kind are significant and prevent the supposed ‘norm’ of demographic representivity from ever being met in any heterogeneous society.
Setting an impossible goal is not meant to help resolve the problem of inter-racial inequality. The aim is rather to maintain a constant state of racial polarisation and division which can be used to justify ever greater state powers in the pursuit of equity.
Kendi also ignores the fact that race-based affirmative action policies inevitably help the most skilled and politically connected within the disadvantaged group – what India calls the ‘creamy layer’ – while bypassing the people most in need of help. This outcome is particularly evident in South Africa, where BEE policies over many years have helped only some 15% of black people while overlooking and harming the remainder.
Kendi’s thesis assumes that redistribution from one racial group to another – in South Africa, from a 10% minority to a 90% majority – can bring about prosperity for all. But that ignores the need to grow the pie, rather than keep cutting it into smaller pieces.
Comments economist Thomas Sowell of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution: ‘What do the poor need most? They need to stop being poor. And how can that be done, on a mass scale, except by an economy that creates vastly more wealth? Yet the political left has long had a remarkable lack of interest in how wealth is created. They think that wealth exists somehow and the only interesting question is how to redistribute it, by turning money and power over to people like themselves.’
Kendi also denies human agency and encourages victimhood, while dismissing as ‘racist’ those who disagree with his false assumptions and tunnel vision. The ‘racist’ accusation has long been damaging to reputation. However, in the environment that Kendi and others have helped create, it has morphed into a powerful disciplinary tool that can be used to demonise, de-platform, and even to dismiss those so denounced.
The political dangers in Kendi’s approach are enormous. It is helping to establish a new statist ideology that replaces core Western values of individualism, equality before the law, limited government, free speech, and the pursuit of objective truth through scientific and other inquiry.
Kendi’s thesis demands conformity, distorts the present and the past, and ignores the practical barriers to upward mobility that need to be addressed. It also uses its narrow concept of ‘anti-racism’ to attack and in time destroy the capitalist system that, despite its faults, has done far more to lift billions out of poverty than any other economic system.
[Picture: Slowking4, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73555538]