“Not racist” vs. “Antiracist”

Against the Current, No. 204, January/February 2020

Malik Miah

How to be an Antiracist
By Ibram X. Kendi
One World Press, 2019, 320 pages, $27 hardcover.

IBRAM KENDI IS director of the Antiracist Research & Policy Center at American University. The thesis of his book, How to be an Antiracist, is that in a system fundamentally shaped by racism, Black people who have suffered from racist ideas also hold racist views themselves.

Whites also hold such views. To combat “racist ideas,” Kendi argues, requires recognizing that all previous Black leaders — the Black elites — including those who espoused militant nationalism, or more radical anti-capitalist theories, accepted white ideas of racism.

Kendi’s conclusion: fighting racist ideas means rejecting “not racist” as a term of self-identification. Instead, he explains, being an active “antiracist” is necessary to defeat racist ideas and government and state policies.

A Revelatory Moment

Recounting his own experience, Kendi traces his view of racist ideas following a speech he’d given at a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration in 2000. He says that his critical view of Black youth was a “racist speech,” blaming Blacks themselves for the failures of a racist society.

In the opening chapter “My racist introduction,” he explains how “A racist culture had handed me the ammunition to shoot Black people, to shoot myself, and I took and used it. Internalized racism is the real Black on Black crime…. Denial is the heartbeat of racism.” (8-9)

These aren’t new observations. Black educators and leaders, since the founding of the country from white settlements where indigenous peoples and slaves did not count as humans, have said the same.

The debate was what to do about it: Should the oppressed accept or accommodate to their inferior status, or fight to change it?

In the 1960s Black nationalists and militants led by Malcolm X and others said the road to freedom was through “Black Power.” Later some added that only socialism and a rejection of capitalism was the solution.

Kendi explains his “denial theory” of racist culture, targeting the concept of “not racist” as a central reason why fighting racism has not succeeded. The onus is placed on the individual:

“What’s the problem with being ‘not racist’? It is a claim that signifies neutralist. ‘I am not a racist, but neither am I aggressively against racism.’ But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle, the opposite of racist is not ‘not racist.’ It is ‘antiracist.’  What is the difference? One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an antiracist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups, as a racist, or locates the root of problems in power and policies, as an antiracist.” (9)

Racism’s Complexities

The book’s 320 pages, with extensive footnotes, is organized in 18 chapters that are introduced with what he sees as “racist” and “antiracist” definitions — for example, in Chapter 12 on “Class,” with his discussions of “class racist” and “antiracist anticapitalistic.”

But the definitions are in most cases contradictory and confusing. The concepts of structural and institutional racism are not presented as the core of “racist ideas.” For example, referring to his 2000 MLK celebration speech, he calls his criticisms of Black youth as a “racist idea” — because whites said the same thing about African Americans.

Yet Black leaders, whatever their view of solutions to end racism, stood for Black self-reliance and education and, in Kendi’s view, were subscribing to white ideas of how to do so.

But it is not a “racist idea” to advocate for self-reliance and to stand on your own feet. It has little to do with racism.

The counter positions are the same in each chapter: what are racist ideas and antiracist ideas, and how to transform individuals. The power of the state and capitalism, while mentioned, are downplayed as the solution except to say that racist ideas and policies are the problem.

Kendi is correct that fighting racism aggressively is key to change. But he is wrong to say that being “not racist” or color-blind is a default to being in support of racist ideas. The fundamental problem in the United States, as it is in other countries, is the use of ethnic and racial discrimination to keep the powerful in power.

Racism is a tool to convince whites and others to see the oppressors as “one of them” (most whites in the former Jim Crow South) and not the class unity of the working class and oppressed peoples (Blacks, Latinos, indigenous peoples).

Tactics to Fight Oppression

The tactics or slogans the oppressed use are concrete. In South Africa during the antiapartheid struggle, the African National Congress and its leader Nelson Mandela used the slogan “color-blind society” to demand Black majority rule. They also picked up arms.

In the Jim Crow legally segregated South, disenfranchised and broadly discriminated Blacks demanded an end to legal racial segregation. Martin Luther King did not accept legal white domination/racist laws. He organized against the immoral laws of the South to demand equality.

King and the civil rights movement organized the Black community and support from sympathetic whites in whatever way they could help. This included using the ideas of the U.S. Constitution that Kendi now sees as a source of “racist ideas” (understandably since its framers did not include slaves, non-white immigrants and indigenous peoples as citizens in the founding documents).

Yet the example of Black elected officials, or Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court and what DuBois called the “Talented Tenth,” hasn’t changed structural racism or institutional power relations.

Power and the Freedom Struggle

What about power? Kendi refers to the fact that Blacks having some power hasn’t ended racist ideas. Kendi’s argument is: “Powerless Defense. The illusory, concealing, disempowering, antiracist idea that Black people can’t be racist because Black people don’t have power.” (136)

In Chapter 11, “Black,” Kendi challenges a belief that Blacks can’t be racist because they don’t hold power.

He confuses “prejudice” and racism. Prejudices can be based on culture or ethnic origins and preferences. Prejudice is not automatically a sign of racism.

Nor is it accepting “racist ideas” that explains why oppressed ethnic and racial groups are denied their rights. It is the system itself.

African Americans know what racism, white superiority, is. As a subordinate people who have been subjugated to torture and murder with no justice, Blacks are cold-blooded about this issue. African Americans are realistic in everyday politics.

Yet when the opportunity exists to have a more radical solution to racism, many Blacks who went for the “safe” electoral position will move quickly to the left. In the late 1960s and ’70s as a record number of Blacks were elected to office and got management jobs in corporations, support rose for the idea of an independent Black political party.

In the early 20th century, the NAACP and others focused the fight on the legal issues such as lynching laws and Jim Crow. W.E.B DuBois criticized Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Institute for accepting segregation and not fighting it.

Washington focused on training Blacks as teachers and other skills. The NAACP sought to integrate Blacks as equals to whites. Integration is not a “racist idea,” any more than an oppressed people giving up on a unified America wanting their own country — self-determination.

Many in the educated Black elite have understood as King did that in the United States (unlike some European, or Asian or African countries), blood line doesn’t determine citizenship.

The term “American” is based on the ideal, even though initially it only meant whites from parts of Europe. The ideal of citizenship is what Frederick Douglas, DuBois and King used to demand: let Blacks be fully equal part of that original ideal.

In the 1960s when civil rights were won by mass actions, but structural racism remained, the Black Power left wing demanded more.

Radical elements like SNCC and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit’s auto factories, and the Black Panther Party, led many to support anti-capitalist revolutionary views to fight racists. There was no debate about “not racist” versus “antiracist.”

Class Analysis and Politics

Racism as we know it today is a social construct of modern capitalism. It has been used and will always be used by the ruling class to dominate peoples and divide the working class.

Race and racism cannot be separated from that class reality. Even ethnic violence in Africa uses arguments of former colonizers to justify the oppression and exploitation of minority ethnic groups.

Nonetheless, the issue is not whether a person sees oneself as “not racist” or “antiracist.” It is broader than that. To fight racism in the American context is to understand its roots. The Black left understands that to fight racism alone without an anti-capitalist analysis self-limits the fight.

Gains can be made (e.g. civil rights laws), but these same gains will be under sustained attack by the right until reversed (e.g. school desegregation demise).

Kendi says socialist countries have also failed. He points to Cuba. (159) Socialist Cuba — although under fierce attack by a U.S. economic embargo for 60 years — never­theless has taken positive strides precisely because of antiracist changes in policies and structures responding to historical racism.

Afro-Cubans received positive promotions and assimilation — not as much as demanded by Blacks there, but more than any other country in the Western Hemisphere.

The problem in the old socialist left, prior to the civil rights revolution, was the belief that the issue of racism would be only resolved by the class struggle, without taking on the reality of racial discrimination and oppression.

Even at the height of the civil rights struggle in the 1960s, the Communist Party, for example, opposed Malcolm X and Black nationalism. That is no longer an issue for modern day socialist and communist organizations.

Kendi is critical of the Black intellectuals and calls their ideas as a reflection of “racist ideas.” “To be an antiracist is to recognize neither poor Blacks nor elite Blacks as the truest representative of Black people.” (165)

Yet he never says who would be the “truest representative” of Black people. The focus instead is on individual decision making, not the power relationship between the capitalist system and its use of state power.

Solution: Treating Racism Like Cancer

“What if we treated racism in the way we treat cancer? What if the humans connected the treatment plans?” (237)

To cure cancer is based on medical science. But since racism is a manmade social construct of the powerful, it can only be eliminated by a socialist revolution that opens the door to its eradication.

No surprisingly, Kendi is not optimistic about the future. In his final two chapters (“Success” and “Survival”), Kendi writes:

“Race and racism are powerful constructs of the modern world…. Racism is not even six hundred years old. It’s a cancer that we caught early.

“But racism is one of the fastest-spreading and most fatal cancers humanity has ever known. It is hard to find a place where its cancer cells are not dividing and multiplying.

“There is nothing I see in our world today, in our history, giving me hope that one day antiracists will win the fight that one day the flag of antiracism will fly over a world of equity.

“What gives me hope is a simple truism. Once we lose hope, we are guaranteed to lose. But if we ignore the odds and fight to create an antiracist world, then we give humanity a chance to one day survive, a chance to live in communion, a chance to be forever free.” (238)

Kendi’s definition of “racist ideas” is so sweeping, and contrary to the realities of racial oppression and of how to fight the ideology of white supremacy, to cause me to see it as a diversion.

It doesn’t matter if you call yourself not racist, anti-racist, or color-blind. The test is your actions (Kendi does say so) to end racial discrimination.

As someone who made a conscious choice to go beyond Black Nationalism in the 1970s to identify as a revolutionary socialist and join a multinational socialist organization as the instrument to fight racism and capitalism, I’m confident the young generation of anti-racist activists will make the same choice.

While I’m critical of Kendi’s analysis, each chapter is worth a fuller discussion and debate.

January-February 2020, ATC 204

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