How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

I had a mixed reaction to this book. Some of Ibram X. Kendi’s ideas felt novel and compelling. It broadened my perspective in thinking about race. And there’s a lot of historical discussion of race and slavery that covered details I don’t remember from school. At the same time, I felt that many of Kendi’s arguments were flimsy and his facts questionable. He cherry-picked statistics and often misrepresented details or got them outright wrong.

One of my biggest disagreements with the book was that Kendi asserts that in the absence of racism, no ethnic group would be measurably different than any other ethnic group in any dimension. I don’t think there would be a “superior race” in the absence of bias, but I think any nonrandom sample of people will be measurably different on some meaningful metrics.

For example, Jews today are disproportionately represented in occupations like law or medicine. Kendi believes that this is unrelated to Judaism’s emphasis on education. Instead, he says it’s simply a coincidence. People who value education are more likely to be doctors and lawyers, and some people who value education happen to be Jewish, but he sees no causal relationship.

Results over intentions ๐Ÿ”—︎

Throughout the book, Kendi emphasizes the importance of results over intentions. Kendi is frustrated that people with racist motivations can put policies in place that hold down minority groups but still declare themselves “not racist.” He thinks we should focus on the effects instead.

Americans typically define racism in terms of private belief. We call someone “racist” if they do or say things that indicate that they hold racial biases. But when a politician passes a complex law that indirectly increases unemployment for black Americans, it’s hard for anyone else to declare conclusively that the politician is racist.

Kendi’s solution is to define racism in terms of objective, measurable results. He proposes that an action or policy is “antiracist” is if it leads to greater racial equity. Everything else is racist. If your law increased black unemployment, you are racist, regardless of what your intentions were. It’s impossible to be “race-neutral,” as neutral is a tacit endorsement of the status quo, which is racist.

I found the idea interesting at first blush. It does address the problem Kendi describes. But as I thought about it more, it felt like a poor solution in almost every other scenario.

If someone earnestly fights for racial equality but fails to achieve it, what’s the point of labeling that person a racist?

And then the opposite scenario โ€” a racist person unintentionally doing something antiracist โ€” leads to absurd conclusions. For example, when Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd earlier this year, it caused such outrage that racial justice awareness increased dramatically across the globe. Does that make the killing of George Floyd an act of antiracism? Is Derek Chauvin an antiracist? The answer should be “no” under any sane definition, but under Kendi’s definition, the answer would be yes.

The place where I think a results-focused perspective made sense was in terms of activism. Kendi is critical of activists who take pride in being “radical” while achieving no real change. Kendi considers policy change to be the primary avenue for reducing racial inequity, so he doesn’t consider activists radical or effective unless they achieve policy change.

Did eugenicists perform 700,000 involuntary sterilizations on black women every year? ๐Ÿ”—︎

One of the most shocking aspects of How to Be an Antiracist was Kendi’s sloppiness with facts. I appreciated that he included citations for most of his claims, but when I dug into them, I was disappointed that many were secondary or even tertiary sources.

Often, I’d check a source only to find that it was a news article referencing another news article that referenced an academic study. In several instances, the fact became distorted after traveling through so many indirect sources.

The most egregious error I found in the book was this line on page 189:

Gender racism was behind the growing number of involuntary sterilizations of Black women by eugenicist physicians โ€” two hundred thousand cases in 1970, rising to seven hundred thousand in 1980.

700,000 involuntary sterilizations per year? That’s a shockingly high number. There were 26.5 million black Americans in 1980, so this would mean doctors were nonconsensually sterilizing 6-7% of reproductive age black women every year.

The source for this statistic is Killing the Black Body by Dorothy E. Roberts, pages 90-96. That book is available on OpenLibrary, so I looked it up and found the line that Kendi seems to be referencing:

But most sterilizations of Black women were not performed under the auspices of the eugenic laws. The violence was committed by doctors paid by the government to provide health care for these women. During the 1970s sterilization became the most rapidly growing form of birth control in the United States, rising from 200,000 cases in 1970 to over 700,000 in 1980.

This line contains a footnote that points to Thomas M. Shapiro’s Population Control Politics: Women, Sterilization, and Reproductive Choice, also available on OpenLibrary. I found the statistic on page 6:

Unlike the preceding cases of abuse and coercion, voluntary sterilization is commonplace. In the 1970s there was a dramatic increase in the use of sterilization as a method of contraception. Female sterilization is the most rapidly growing form of birth control in the United States, rising from 200,000 cases in 1970 to over 700,000 in 1980.

Shapiro has an appendix of citations, but they’re not tied to specific lines, so it’s hard to figure out the real source of these statistics.

In any case, it’s obvious that eugenicist physicians did not perform 700,000 involuntary sterilizations per year on black women. The 700,000 figure is the number of American women across all races who chose sterilizations in 1980.

What I Liked ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • Kendi treats accessibility of terms as a first-class concern.
    • He avoids the terms “institutional racism” and “systemic racism” because he believes these terms only make sense to people who study race theory.
    • He prefers the term “racist policy,” which has the same meaning and doesn’t require background knowledge.
  • The stories from Kendi’s personal life were interesting and kept the book engaging.
  • He presents a unique way of thinking about racism that I hadn’t seen elsewhere.
  • It was enlightening to see examples of popular figures saying blatantly racist things, both in the distant and not-so-distant past.

What I Disliked ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • Kendi often blurs the distinction between what he believes the definition of a word should be and how Americans currently use this word.
    • e.g., he argues that “racist” is simply a descriptive term to describe behavior and not a moral judgment, though I think that contradicts most Americans’ use of the word.
  • The book defines words in terms of themselves.
    • For example, the first line of the book defines “racist” by repeatedly using the word “racist”:

      racist: one who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.

    • He also uses the present progressive tense to emphasize that “being racist” is tied to your actions at a given moment, but it makes all the definitions sound awkward and convoluted.
  • There were many logical leaps that I didn’t find convincing.
    • e.g., rejecting racism necessarily means rejecting capitalism and vice-versa.
  • The book often attempts to disprove stereotypes by using questionable cherry-picked statistics.
    • Kendi argues that contrary to stereotypes about black dependence on welfare, the majority of welfare recipients are non-black.
      • Obviously, the majority are non-black because only 13% of the US population is black. The relevant statistic would be whether there’s a disproportionate dependence on welfare.
    • Kendi claims that black people are not inherently more violent because black residents in high-income areas commit fewer violent crimes than black residents in low-income neighborhoods.
      • The relevant statistic would be to compare crime rates across races controlling for factors like income and educational levels.
    • Kendi asserts that it’s illogical and racist for white people to avoid high-crime black neighborhoods.
      • His justification is that burglary and robbery account for only $4B in losses per year, whereas white-collar crimes account for $300-600B.
  • Kendi acknowledges that there are genetic differences between ethnic groups but dismisses as a racist any scientist who explores those differences.
  • Kendi fundamentally misunderstands the plot of the 1988 film Coming to America.
    • The audience is not supposed to empathize with Lisa’s obnoxious boyfriend!

Key Takeaways ๐Ÿ”—︎

Usually, the “Key Takeaways” section summarizes the lessons from the book that I’m applying to my life.

This book is different in that I disagree with many of the author’s points, but I find them helpful to keep in mind as another perspective to consider or to understand terms when reading about race theory elsewhere.

Racist vs. antiracist ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • It’s impossible to be “not racist.”
    • In other words, you can’t be “neutral” in the fight for racial equality.
    • Doing nothing tacitly endorses the status quo, so to do nothing in the fight for racial justice is to be racist.
  • Many racists describe themselves as “not racist,” so we need a word that more clearly identifies racists.
    • Specifically, the word can’t depend on private motivations because it’s impossible for others to know someone’s true intentions.
  • Antiracists actively fight to achieve racial equity. Everyone else is a racist.
    • Antiracists are judged based on outcomes, not intentions.
    • If you do something with antiracist intentions, but it fails to achieve greater racial equity, your action was racist, and you were racist in the moment of committing that action.
  • Calling a person or action racist is not a moral judgment but a statement of fact.
    • It’s similar to calling a law progressive or regressive based on which social classes benefit from the law.
  • People are not permanently racist or antiracist.
    • Whether or not a person is racist depends on their behavior in that moment.
    • The author admits that he is often racist and tries to reduce instances of such behavior.

Racist policy ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • Any policy that produces or sustains racial inequity between groups is racist.
    • This is true even if the policymakers had antiracist intentions. All that matters is the outcome.
  • Other race theory writers use terms like “institutional racism,” “systemic racism,” or “structural racism.”
    • Kendi rejects these terms because they are redundant.
      • Racism is systematic, institutional, and structural.
    • “racist policy” has a more obvious meaning to people who haven’t studied race theory.

Racial discrimination ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • “Racial discrimination” has a negative connotation, but it’s not inherently racist.
  • If discrimination promotes racial equity, it is antiracist.
    • It’s impossible to rectify racial injustices without taking into account race.

You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, โ€œyou are free to compete with all the others,โ€ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.

-Lyndon B. Johnson, Howard University Commencement Address, 1965

Racist ideas ๐Ÿ”—︎

A racist idea is any idea that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way.

An antiracist idea is any idea that suggests the racial groups are equals in all their apparent differences โ€” that there is nothing right or wrong with any racial group.

Color blindness ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • Color/race blindness is not a solution to racism.
  • Without being able to see race, we wouldn’t be able to see racial inequity, so we wouldn’t be able to fix racial policies.
  • Color blindness is the last phase of eliminating racism, not the first.

Ebonics ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • Languages naturally evolve, and people generally accept new dialects as a natural evolution, but white people hold biases against black dialects.
  • Many people view dialects like Ebonics as “broken” English or Haitian Creole as “improper” French, but they don’t dismiss dialects that are popular among white speakers.

Behavioral racism ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • Behavioral racism refers to criticizing the behavior of a racial group.
    • e.g., “Blacks should stop wearing baggy jeans and listening to violent rap music.”
  • Suggesting that a racial group behaves differently than another is behavioral racism.
    • e.g., the statement “blacks are more religious than whites” is racist.
  • During slavery and the abolitionist movement in the US, there was fierce public debate over whether slavery made blacks seem inferior or whether blacks were inherently inferior and slavery was helping to civilize them.

Standardized tests ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • There are many similarities between taking standardized tests and weightlifting.
    • The people who can lift the heaviest weights aren’t necessarily the strongest, but rather the people who combine strength with proper form.
    • Students who score well on standardized tests are not necessarily the smartest, but rather the ones who combine their intelligence with skill at taking standardized tests.
  • Blacks have unequal access to test prep for standardized tests.
    • This makes standardized tests racist.
    • Discussing a black/white achievement gap based on standardized test scores is racist.

Colorism ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • Within minority ethnic groups in the US, darker-skinned people tend to earn less money and face more severe discrimination than lighter-skinned members of the same racial group.
    • Applies to blacks, Latinos, Philipinos, and others.
  • Colorism dates back to the age of slavery when slaveowners ascribed higher intelligence to and paid more for lighter-skinned slaves.

American Negroes recognize no color line in or out of the race, and they will in the end punish the man who attempts to establish it.

W.E.B. DuBois, The Crisis (1920)

  • Kendi feels that DuBois was guilty of colorism and focused too much on lifting up light-skinned blacks at the expense of dark-skinned blacks.

Anti-white racism ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • It’s important not to conflate hatred for racist policymakers with hatred toward white people in general.
  • Kendi disagrees with the popular notion that black people “can’t be racist” because racism requires power.
    • This idea devalues the achievements of black people in positions of power.

Class ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • Inequity from racism is interrelated with inequity from capitalism.
    • We need both antiracism and anti-capitalism to eliminate racial and class inequity.

Segregationism vs. assimilationism vs. separatism ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • Assimilationists view disadvantaged racial groups as children who need an education in proper behavior.
  • Segregationists view disadvantaged racial groups as animals that can be trained in limited ways but can’t function in a civilized society.
  • During The Civil War, Garrison Frazier, spokesperson for black leaders, asked that freed blacks live separately from whites due to racism.
    • General Sherman honored the request and issued a special field order granting blacks “40 acres and a mule” from Confederate land.
    • Esteemed newspaper editor Horace Greeley opposed black separation because he felt it deprived blacks of positive influence from whites.
  • Black separatism is different from white segregation.
    • Black separatism is about escaping racism, whereas white segregation is about distancing from races perceived as inferior.
  • White integrationists perceive black separatism as movement away from whites as opposed to solidarity among blacks.
  • The white integrationist’s dream is for every space’s demographic makeup to match the US population as a whole. This would unfairly favor whites.
    • At 13% of the population, a black person wouldn’t encounter another black person until meeting roughly eight non-black people.
    • At 60% of the population, whites would dominate every space whose racial makeup matches the overall racial shares in the US.

Gender racism ๐Ÿ”—︎

Women are a race gender. Black people are a race. When we identify black women, we are identifying a race-gender. A sexist policy produces inequities between women and men. A racist policy produces inequities between racial groups. When a policy produces inequities between race-genders, it is gendered racism, or gender racism for short.

To be antiracist is to reject not only the hierarchy of races but of race-genders. To be feminist is to reject not only the hierarchy of genders but of race-genders. To truly be antiracist is to be feminist. To truly be feminist is to be antiracist.

Ideas follow policy ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • Antiracist policies must be put in place before they achieve popular support.
    • Before a policy goes into effect, policymakers will stoke racist fears about the policy to discourage voters from supporting it.
    • After the policy is in place, people will support it because they see it benefits them and that their racist fears failed to materialize.

Results-based activism ๐Ÿ”—︎

What if we measure the radicalism of speech by how radically it transforms open-minded people, by how the speech liberates the antiracist power within? What if we measure the conservatism of speech by how intensely it keeps people the same, keeps people enslaved by their racist ideas and fears, conserving their inequitable society?

  • Activists often invest in activities that have no real impact but make participants feel involved.
    • e.g., marches, protests, educational programs
    • Real change happens only when policies change.
    • Activists should be judged based on how effectively they’ve influenced policy.
    • It doesn’t matter how radical an activist’s ideas or how passionate their rhetoric is if they don’t influence policy.