How to Be an Antiracist
Ibram X. Kendi: How to Be an Antiracist. One World, 2019.

How to Be an Antiracist

A personal, thorough perspective on racism and American life.

Ibram X. Kendi, history professor, bestselling author and National Book award-winner, offers a deeply personal, engaging assessment of racism in the United States. He details the way racism helps justify and consolidate power by creating subordinate groups – not only in terms of race, but in other cultural and social markets as well. Kendi’s insights are essential – but not comfortable – reading for anyone seeking to understand the dangers of racist power and policies. 

Kendi, the founding Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, is moving to Boston University to launch the BU Center for Antiracist Research. These appointments suggest that he has rare expertise in the history, processes and effects of racism and racist policies in the United States. The scope of his award-winning books and research proves this is true.

Terminating racial categories is potentially the last, not the first, step in the antiracist struggle.

Ibram X. Kendi

Kendi garnered the W.E.B. Du Bois Book Prize for his The Black Campus Movement and the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction for his Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racists Ideas in America. At 34, he was the youngest person ever to win that coveted honor. He also writes op-eds for, among others, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Paris Review and The Chronicle of Higher Education. Kendi is something of a superstar in education on the subject of race. It is fitting, then, that he seems to have written this book as a primer or primary text. The title might dissuade you at first; you might expect a radical polemic or a preaching-to-the choir call to arms. In fact, it is neither and is something much more worthy and enduring.

Defining Terms

Kendi states with deceptive simplicity that an antiracist is the opposite of a racist. Antiracists perceive race and fight racist ideas and policy. Throughout the book, Kendi returns to the thematic idea that racism manifests in embracing racist ideas while claiming not to be racist. White people, he insists, can be antiracist. But, believing that white people have all the power, he underscores, denies black people any power.

Kendi details how racist ideas hold that one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group. Antiracist ideas hold that racial groups are equal. Racism combines racist policies and ideas to establish and rationalize racial inequity. Racial inequity means racial groups lack equal standing. “Racist policy” emphasizes the actors behind racism, racist ideas and racist policymakers, in ways that “racial discrimination” hides.

This last point is crucial for Kendi: the primary function of racial discrimination is to conceal the functions of racist policy. He believes that antiracists reveal those policies to mitigate their power. Thus, without saying so directly, he asserts that education is a powerful weapon in this struggle. The more you know about the policies that surround your life, the more you can resist them. Kendi further notes that when the Human Genome Project found no genetic differences among races, those seeking racist power embraced other arguments to cling to what they see as the top of the hierarchy.

There may be no more consequential privilege than life itself.

Ibram X. Kendi

Another central Kendi idea is that racist policies maintain the self-interest of racist power. He provides a telling example which the upcoming US presidential election will highlight when he writes that racist voting policy has shifted from disenfranchising black voters through Jim Crow segregationist laws to disenfranchising them through mass incarceration and voter identification requirements.

A Hierarchy of Race Value

The powerful people who create cultural and behavioral norms, Kendi maintains, also create hierarchies and race-classes. Unemployment, under-employment or poverty correlate to violent crime; race, he makes clear, does not.

Every single person has the power to protest racist and antiracist policies, advance them, or stall them.

Ibram X. Kendi

Kendi explores a compelling argument that may seem counterintuitive at first, but then proves revelatory to white readers: racism harms ordinary black people by demanding that they be extraordinary. White people celebrate accomplished black athletes and performers to claim that racism doesn’t exit. But ordinary black people – ordinary people – he reminds readers, can’t attain that level of success.

A clear, readable author, Kendi demonstrates his knack for making complex processes comprehensible when he writes that racism makes individuals responsible for group behavior and groups responsible for individual behavior.

Referring to SAT and ACT college admission tests, Kendi underscores that differences in performance spring from differences in access to resources: limited access limits opportunity. To bolster this position, he cites how racist housing and tax policies keep black unemployment at double the level of white unemployment, and black wealth at 80 times less than white wealth.

Race-Genders and Race-Sexualities

Kendi embraces terms like race-classes and race-genders, which, he explains, combine racism and sexism to identify groups in a hierarchy. Antiracism grants all race-genders equal status and eliminates gender-racist policies that establish privilege according to a race-gender hierarchy.

When humanity becomes serious about the freedom of black women, humanity becomes serious about the freedom of humanity.

Ibram X. Kendi

Combining racism and homophobia to create hierarchies creates race-sexualities. Kendi believes that policies protecting transgender and homosexual people of all races lead to improved societal equality.

A More Equitable World

Kendi puts his finger on a driving motivation of racist actors in government, education, social policy and business: racists oppose antiracist policies for fear they will redistribute power. Kendi’s clarion call is to exhort antiracists to put their knowledge to work to bring about change and to fight to create a more equitable world.

Knowledge is only power if knowledge is put to the struggle for power.

Ibram X. Kendi

Kendi sets out to provide – and succeeds in providing – a standard text on racism that students, Millennials, Gen Z’ers and anyone interested in understanding how racism functions will treat as the canonical work on this subject. Older Americans, either racist or antiracist, can gain a lot of understanding of the policies and practices that almost invisibly define their culture. It’s easy to imagine this book being taught in universities for years to come.

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