I recently tuned into some of the Twitter feeds of people I respect to learn what they have to say about American racial tensions. One of these is hip-hop artist Jason Petty, better known by his stage name, Propaganda. His albums have opened doors for me, talking poignantly and fairly about hard things. He gave a list of 4 or 5 reading recommendations sans commentary, two of which I have finished at this point. I want to review one of them here to help myself process the book and offer others an opportunity to join me in conversation. The book is “How to be an Antiracist” by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi.
First, what I liked about the book:
To begin with, he affirms the beauty of being black. In so doing, he names and opposes a selection of the degrading insults black people have faced in the West as if they were simply a very poor version of white. As a white Christian, I rejoice with him that the Maker’s palette is capable of more than me. I marvel at the diverse masterpieces that all come from the great Artist. I love to hear about Dr. Kendi embracing cornrows and dreadlocks and ditching the orange contacts. His talents are well employed to defend and extol black beauty.
Another thing I appreciated was his offering a black perspective on many of the things that are commonly said in our culture. For example, have you ever considered that is it belittling to say that black people are “naturally athletic”? It sounds like a compliment, but in reality it undervalues the discipline required to be an accomplished athlete of any color. We need to listen more to black voices about the things we say.
I value Dr. Kendi’s humility in confessing his embarrassing early college attempts to understand slavery and colonialism (“White people are aliens!”, a theory mercifully shot down by an incredulous friend). He confesses to listening early on to hate mongering anti-white racist theories and mythologies the equal of any that ever smeared blacks. In so doing, he identifies himself with the rest of us as a man on a journey that has also gone down some dead end streets.
I am intrigued by his criticism of school integration leading to the reduction of distinctively black spaces. I agree that our society is made poorer if everyone just wants to jump on the white cultural bandwagon rather than exploring the possibilities flowing from black ownership and creative freedom.
Lastly, I appreciated his twin insistence that individuals be freed from the exhausting burden of “representing their race” and that ethnicities not be identified with the worst subset of their group. He owns his own lack of motivation in high school and rightly says it shouldn’t reflect badly upon anyone else. Fairly applied, this means his beef is not with white people, but with racists of whatever color.
He defines racism as both a personal belief in a racial hierarchy and support for racist policies. One can do one without the other, sometimes without knowing it. He defines racist policies as “any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups.” By racial inequity, he means disparities between racial groups in home ownership, wealth, income, education, etc. This is where my critique begins.
First, he dismisses alternative explanations of racial disparities by dealing with them only as negative stereotypes rather than neutral possibilities. To repudiate the charge of “black laziness” as an explanation of economic disparities is well and good, but that is not the same thing as examining and contrasting the attitudes in various black communities toward work, time, and money to see how they might contribute to or detract from their prosperity. I know that his book doesn’t aspire to be a scholarly book filled with footnotes and I would charitably suppose that this kind of work has been done somewhere by someone that agrees with him, but it seems to me that he only deals superficially with straw man arguments. Reading even a little Thomas Sowell has spoiled this kind of reasoning for me.
(See Sowell’s “Ethnic America” and “Black Rednecks and White Liberals” to see what I mean. Unfortunately, the only mention of Sowell, a brilliant and world-reknowned black economist who has dealt extensively with the topics mentioned in this book, was only to identify him as a Stamford professor who criticized the academic stature of historically black colleges. This seems more than a convenient omission.)
Secondly, like many he opposes, he tends to dehumanize those he considers his enemy. His narrative recounting of the tragic death of Trayvon Martin portrays George Zimmerman as just a hateful bigoted man-killer. I write this knowing some of what he intentionally left out. He grants him no humanity and says nothing which might mitigate the assumption of malice and guilt. This encourages prejudice and leads to a bleak false dilemma: if George Zimmerman was an evil demonic being and there was literally no substance to his defense, then how can we look for justice from the system that acquitted him?
Third, in sync with the overall “Black Lives Matter” movement, he treats the threats from police brutality and white men as major existential threats to the black community. Though each death in this broken world is tragic, this focus seems to fly in the face of statistics which indicate that while in 2018 police killed 258 blacks (source) and white offenders murdered 234 (source), blacks themselves murdered 2600 fellow blacks in the same year (source). Why are cases like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown the main problems the black community is willing to protest about when the whole number only amounts to about a sixth of the homicides in the community?
Lastly, I think a large part of my disconnect from Dr. Kendi’s analysis is because he is not a Christian. Christians believe in original sin which affects men of all colors. We have often lived without the humility that is consistent with this doctrine and Christian men have done terrible things, but this is in no way a refutation of original sin — on the contrary, it is a very great confirmation of it. Without a doctrine of original sin, I can only surmise that Dr. Kendi must affirm a special, self-contrived depravity of those who would enslave innocent people (hence the “White people are aliens!” theory of his youth). As a Christian, however, I can admit and understand why almost all whites either used their power to exploit, abuse, and terrorize innocent black people in our country or at least totally ignored it happening. Because of original sin, human beings in general abuse their power and abuse other people. It is lamentable and common as the day is long.
Dr. Kendi makes a secular call to confession and repentance. I think it is impossible for a secular scheme to involve grace, which is why the movement seems so extensively associated with bitter recrimination. I hope to look more into this and write about it later, but I have already gone on for too long.
America needs to do something to cleanse her hands of this innocent blood. What, specifically? I am not altogether sure. Perhaps something like the “transitional justice” advocated by Dr. Anthony Bradley. I am sure converting to socialism as is commonly advocated isn’t what we need.
As for me, personally, I want to understand my black neighbors, friends, family, and Christian brothers and sisters better. I want to know and love their stories. I plan to dig deeper. Unfortunately, from where I stand right now, I do not believe Dr. Kendi is a reliable guide to these fraught topics. I prefer Dr. Thomas Sowell’s economic and social analysis. I prefer Christ’s call to repentance and faith. I am open to correction and these are not my last words on this subject. I hope to hear from at least some of you readers. Peace.