How to Be an Antiracist

Book 24 was How to Be an Antiracist. I have been bombarded with mentions of this book. It’s on NPR. It’s all over social media. It’s practically the bible of the BLM movement. I figured I’d read this just to be up to date on the current arguments and terminology preferred by the social justice movement. Also, I decided to take one for the team and read it so that you don’t have to.

The author does have an advanced degree (a PhD), but in a field that doesn’t require any formal training in logic or proof (African American studies). The tl;dr here is that the premise of the book rests on the idea that all races, cultures, classes are equal, and thus equally good, so any racially disparate outcome is a priori the result of racist policy. This is begging the question, as it’s a big claim and needs to be proven. Kendi makes no attempt to prove his assertion, or to exclude the possibility of other differences being the root cause of disparate outcomes (income, IQ, etc).

He also defines racism in such a way that makes it antiracist to discriminate based on race at the policy level. Yes, in an amazing feat of mental gymnastics, he asserts that it is necessary to discriminate based on race to be antiracist. He says “The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination.” He makes no secret that the goal of his new antiracist framework is not seeking equal opportunity but equal outcome.

His writing style is not exactly scholarly. The book is heavy on personal anecdote and goes on in great detail about such topics as what fashion items he and his friends thought were “fresh” during his high school years. At the same time, he asserts without any attempt to prove that all races/cultures/classes are equal. Sure, we can agree that it’s meaningless to say that one race, culture or class is better than another generally. However, if we restrict to specific questions, we can answer them. Things such as “is a given race/culture/class over-indexed in the set of Harvard grads, engineers, high-paid individuals, prisoners, welfare recipients, etc” we can answer all of those questions. If his assertion is that race, culture and class all play zero contributing role to how their members end up faring on various metrics, he really needs to prove it or at least provide evidence. He doesn’t. He even goes one step further and claims that personal choices and behaviors should not be considered: that every unequal outcome is the result of racist policy.

Kendi includes many statistics comparing black outcomes to the benchmark of the US population by race. Statistics such as “Black students were four times more likely than White students to be suspended from public schools” and many more. He attributes these 100% to racism, and not at all to behavioral differences. He doesn’t even acknowledge that anything other than racism could be a factor. He doesn’t give any reasoning why the demographics of the US population is the correct benchmark. For example, given that blacks commit murder at about 8x the rate that whites do, would it be correct to say that the number of blacks in prison for murder should reflect the general demographics of the US? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to expect the rate of imprisonment for murder to match the rate at which murders are committed?

On “biological racism”, Kendi says “Biological racism rests on two ideas: that the races are meaningfully different in their biology and that these differences create a hierarchy of value.” He then uses the old talking point of there being more genetic diversity within race than between races to invalidate the idea of races being genetically distinct in a meaningful way. There are entire books written on the subject, but Kendi is satisfied with dismissing the idea with one line.

Not only does Kendi fail to prove his assertions, he also contradicts himself. For example, he claims that classes are all equal, and none is better than any other. He does not accept that the wealthy are doing something differently that gives their children a better shot at school, job prospects, high income, staying out of prison. However, he also brings up property taxes funding public schools as a reason for the black-white performance gap. So which is it? Does money help improve outcomes? Or is it irrelevant because all classes are equal?

Antiracism, as defined by Kendi, is an absurd and poorly thought out concept. Even granting him his definitions and his assertions, we can find an antiracist policy (by his definition) that I am certain he would find objectionable. (nb: This is a reductio. I am not seriously suggesting this as policy.) Once the black imprisonment rate for murder reaches 13% of all prisoners convicted of murder, let the subsequent black folks convicted of murder roam free. This would be an anti-racist policy, as it helps align the black imprisonment rate for murder with the demographic breakdown of the US in general, which Kendi insists is the correct benchmark in all cases. I would assume Kendi would disagree with this policy because black murderers mostly kill black victims.

Kendi advocates for massaging outcomes to look more equal by race, what the social justice kids call “equity” to distinguish from the concept of treating people equally under law and policy. It seems pretty obvious that making changes at this level only changes outcomes on a skin-deep level and doesn’t address any underlying issues. I’m a bit baffled that this book is as popular as it is, given the shortcomings I’ve listed here. Maybe you can help me understand?

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