US author Kendi sees war against racism in black and white

The author of 'How to be an Antiracist' defines racial inequity as the result of bad policy rather than bad people

US President Donald Trump speaks during a "Keep America Great" campaign rally at the SNHU Arena in Manchester, New Hampshire, on August 15, 2019. (Photo by Nicholas Kamm / AFP)
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"I'm not a racist," the 45th president of the United States declared last year. It wasn't the first time he'd had to set the record straight. Only two years earlier he had tried to make his position clear to a reporter using a sweeping statement. "I am the least racist person you've ever met." With some people still unconvinced, Donald Trump hit back in July with his most grandiose claim to date: "I am the least racist person there is anywhere in the world."

One man who thinks Trump doth protest too much is American writer and historian Ibram X Kendi. In his latest book, the follow-up to 2016's Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which won the National Book Award that year, Kendi argues "denial is the heartbeat of racism". For him, it is not enough to be "not racist". That signifies neutrality in the war against racism. Instead, to win the battle, it is necessary to be "antiracist".

'How to be an Antiracist' by author Ibram X Kendi. Penguin Books
'How to be an Antiracist' by author Ibram X Kendi. Penguin Books

How to be an Antiracist shows us how to transform ourselves. In the book, Kendi says we must recognise and define racism, and understand that racial inequity is a problem of bad policy rather than bad people. We must also acknowledge that we may well harbour racist beliefs.

Kendi admits that he was once racist and gradually learnt the error of his ways. His latest book traces his journey, encompassing his missteps growing up and his sure-­footedness as a prominent scholar of race. Along the way, he rigorously examines racism in all its insidious guises and expands on the measures required to both challenge it and eradicate it.

Each chapter opens with a flashback from Kendi's past – an anecdote from his childhood, a sketch from his schooldays, a snapshot from his time at university – all of which comprise an important stage in his development. Kendi uses each story as a springboard to explore a connected racial issue. The relayed memory of Kendi's white third-grade teacher and her bias against a black pupil leads to a discussion on biological racism. The description of his move to Philadelphia and the time he spent living in a poor and supposedly dangerous neighbourhood paves the way for scrutiny of class racism and the hierarchy in which "ghetto blacks" and "white trash" (always capitalised in the book) languish at rock-bottom.

Author Ibram X Kendi. Penguin Books
Author Ibram X Kendi. Penguin Books

Kendi's account of a brutal act carried out by a gun-toting African-American teenager leads to a study of racial violence and the revelation that researchers have found a stronger correlation between violent crime and unemployment than between violent crime and race. Here and elsewhere, Kendi shatters preconceptions and debunks myths. In the chapter on behaviour he scoffs at the notion of black genes or black behavioural traits. Behaviour, he concludes, "is something humans do, not races".

In his chapter on class, he even takes issue with an assertion made by Barack Obama in a 2008 presidential campaign speech that young, impoverished black men and women on street corners or in prisons face bleak futures. "This stereotype of the hopeless, defeated, unmotivated poor black is without evidence," Kendi says. "Recent research shows, in fact, that poor blacks are more optimistic about their prospects than poor whites are."

Kendi's life trajectory proves absorbing. He relives his upbringing at the hands of parents committed to black liberation theology and recalls the pivotal moment at the age of seven, when he "began to feel the encroaching fog of racism overtaking my dark body". His struggles as a black teenager reach a crisis point when George W Bush is elected as president (or when a disputed election result allows him to "steal the presidency"). Kendi says that, for a while, "white people became devils to me". 

Education and relationships make him the man he is today – as has a cancer scare last year, another event that Kendi uses as a link to an aspect of racism. In his view, treating ignorance and hate and expecting racism to shrink is akin to treating a cancer patient's symptoms and expecting their tumour to shrink. Only by introducing antiracist policies can we tackle the underlying cause and eliminate a disease that has ravaged almost every part of the body politic.

The book's autobiographical elements bring us closer to the author. However, it is Kendi's arguments and analyses that give the book its substance. Whether we are looking at racism with regards to colour, culture, gender, ethnicity or power, Kendi ­consistently informs and impresses. He makes bold, even provocative claims, such as his assertion that do-nothing climate policy and capitalism are racist. He is often uncompromising – he insists that "what other people call racial micro-aggressions I call racist abuse" – but is always eloquent and persuasive.

Occasionally, Kendi repeats himself as he reinforces a line of reasoning. Otherwise it is hard to fault his vital and insightful book, one that is part memoir, part manual for necessary change.