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Ibram X. Kendi on Race Relations in America: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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In a matter of five years, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi (born Ibram Henry Rogers, 1982) has emerged as one of the most celebrated and decorated scholars of race in America. His published works have received numerous awards and are New York Times bestsellers. Less than a decade after earning his Ph.D. in African American Studies at Temple University, Kendi attained the rank of full professor and an endowed chair (He is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University). In addition, Boston University recently established the Center for Antiracist Research and appointed Kendi as its first director. Dr. Kendi appears frequently in popular media, both on television and in print outlets such as The Atlantic. In 2020, Time magazine listed him as one of the top 100 most influential people in the world.

Dr. Kendi’s sudden rise to scholarly stardom is founded on the publication of his 2016 book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which won the National Book Award. Kendi followed up Stamped’s success with the 2019 publication of How to be an Antiracist. Since then, Kendi has published numerous spin-offs, including (but not limited to) Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You (2020), Stamped (for Kids) (2021), Antiracist Baby (2021), and How to Raise an Antiracist (2022). All told, Kendi has sold more than 3 million books since 2016.[i]

Kendi’s works are widely read, celebrated, and are no doubt quite influential. One perplexing thing about this situation, though, is that there are few critical, scholarly examinations of Kendi’s works, especially of his foundational work: Stamped from the Beginning. While each of the few published academic reviews quibble with parts of Stamped, they are overwhelmingly positive towards the book.[ii] Such a state of affairs is alarming considering the many significant problems that are present in Stamped.

Kendi peppers his book with divisive, partisan, and inflammatory statements that needlessly aggravate the already heighted racial tensions that plague 21st century America.

The Good

Certainly, Stamped is not all bad. It has many redeeming qualities, which helps to account for the many gushing reviews in newspapers, blogs, and popular journals. The first chapters of the book, which trace racist (and antiracist) ideas from Ancient Greece to colonial America, are mostly clear, informative, and balanced. While the first part of the book is generally critical towards Christianity (Part 1 is entitled “Cotton Mather” because it focuses on the Puritans’ complicity in racial slavery), Kendi nonetheless credits two Christians, Lactantius and Augustine, as being the earliest known “antislavery and egalitarian champions” in the world (18). He also acknowledges that the first antislavery crusaders in England and America were Quakers. Likewise, he places much of the blame for the rise of hardcore racist ideas on Enlightenment and secular writers and figures (84-85). Kendi must also be given credit for clearly exposing the hypocrisy and irrationality of the racist ideas espoused by some of Europe and America’s most noted thinkers, while also telling the story of American slavery from the oft-neglected perspective of an African American. One example of this is Kendi’s examination of early American stereotypes of African Americans. As he put it, African American slaves were put in a no-win situation: “If they did not clamor for freedom, then their obedience showed [in the minds of whites that] they were naturally beasts of burden. If they…resisted enslavement…[then it confirmed in white minds that] they were barbaric murderers” (70).

The most praiseworthy aspect of Stamped, however, stems from one of Kendi’s main arguments in the book. That argument is that Blacks are humans, just like any and all other humans. As he memorably states it, “Black is beautiful and ugly, intelligent and unintelligent, law-abiding and law-breaking, industrious and lazy – and it is those imperfections that make Black people human, make Black people equal to all other imperfectly human groups” (505). Throughout Stamped Kendi rails against the tendency of non-Blacks to magnify problems when they are associated with African Americans while minimizing those same or similar problems when they are associated with non-Blacks. It is this perceived bias that leads him to conclude Stamped by predicting “there will come a time when Americans will realize that the only thing wrong with Black people is that they think something is wrong with Black people” (511).

The Bad

The problems in Stamped start when Kendi seemingly contradicts his assertion on page 505 (quoted above) that Blacks are imperfect. To be fair, Kendi never asserts that Blacks are indeed perfect. But what Kendi clearly does is assert is that any problems that African Americans face cannot be attributed to those imperfections. This assertion serves as the primary thesis and framework for Stamped (and his subsequent books). Kendi starts Stamped by asserting that when it comes to the matter of Blacks and racism, all Americans (really, all people) fall into one of three categories or groups. The first group he identifies are the segregationists, who “blame Black people themselves for…racial disparities” (2). The second group, the assimilationists, say “that Black people and racial discrimination [are] to blame for racial disparities” (2). The final group, in which Kendi places himself, and hails as the heroes in American history, are the Antiracists, who “have long argued that racial discrimination was stamped from the beginning of America, which explains why racial disparities have existed and persisted” (4). Thus, for antiracists like Kendi, virtually all problems faced by blacks are solely the result of racial discrimination. In their view, racial disparities in poverty, low graduation rates, and high rates of incarceration, for example, can only be attributed to past and present racial discrimination.

This assessment is the fatal flaw in Kendi’s argument. This is where he seemingly fails to grasp – or at least consistently apply – what we as evangelical Christians understand as the fallen nature of human beings. Although he acknowledges that Blacks (like all other people groups) can be unintelligent, lawbreakers, and lazy, he refuses to concede that such vices can account for any racial disparities. Such disparities can only be the result of racial discrimination. This is the antiracist position. The fallaciousness of this explanation of the origins and nature of racial disparities is clearly revealed when applied to other races. If the disparities between Blacks and whites can only be explained by racial discrimination, then the disparities between whites and Indians or whites and Asians must also be explained solely by racial discrimination. But no one asserts that the reason whites lag behind Indians and Asians in education, literacy, income, etc. is because of the racial discrimination that whites in America have experienced as the hands of Indians and/or Asians in America. It is universally accepted, rather, that these disparities stem from things such as more whites being lazy than Indians or Asians. Or to put it differently, some of the disparities between Asians and Indians on one hand, and whites on the other, stem from the fact that more of the former have a high work ethic than do the latter.

Applying this logic to the disparities between Blacks and whites does not mean one must conclude that racial discrimination has absolutely nothing to do with such disparities. Most open-minded white Americans acknowledge that actual racial discrimination, or the indirect ramifications of past racial discrimination, account for some of the plight that many Blacks find themselves in. But they also acknowledge that some of these less-than-ideal circumstances for Blacks are also attributable to the unwise decisions and actions of Blacks themselves. This is, in short, the position that Kendi identifies as assimilationist. But it is a position that he considers to be little, if any, better than that of the segregationists. In fact, it can be said that the purpose of Stamped is not only to expose and reveal the irrationality of segregationist (racist) arguments, but also to show that assimilationists have led many of the efforts to aid Blacks in America, and that those efforts have failed. Therefore, if true equality is to be achieved between Blacks and whites in America, the country must embrace antiracism. Therefore, Kendi denounces “assimilationists” such as Booker T. Washington, Bill Cosby, and John McWhorter, who have called upon Blacks to make wise decisions and to take steps to improve their lot in life. In Kendi’s view, such calls imply that there is something wrong with Blacks.

The fact that Kendi refuses to consistently apply the idea that Blacks (like all human beings) have a fallen, sinful nature, is most explicitly evidenced in his treatment of the the phrase “personal responsibility,” which he dismisses as “a racist slur” (502). He views the phrase as one that was ignobly conjured up by racist politicians in order to further secure the white vote. According to Kendi,

  • The term “personal responsibility” had been playing minor roles for some time. In 1994, Georgia representative Newt Gingrich and Texas representative Richard Armey, the main authors of the “Contract with America,” brought the term to prime time – to the lexicon on millions of American racists – targeting not just Black welfare recipients. The mandate was simple enough: Black people, especially poor Black people, need to take “personal responsibility” for their socioeconomic plight and racial disparities, and stop blaming racial discrimination for their problems, and depending on government to fix them. The racist mandate of “personal responsibility” convinced a new generation of Americans that irresponsible Black people caused the racial inequalities, not discrimination – thereby convincing a new generation of racist Americans to fight against irresponsible Black people. (457-458)

In contrast to Kendi’s assertion, it is safe to say that both the concept of personal responsibility, as well as the phrase itself, has been used by men and women, of all races, from the birth of human civilization. To dismiss it as an idea that was only recently crafted by racists as a code word and mere political slogan leads one to wonder whether Kendi believes that people can and do make choices, and that those choices have consequences, both for good and ill. For Kendi, it appears that if anything bad happens to a Black person it cannot be the fault of that person, but rather of the forces of racism. It’s as if, in Kendi’s mind, Blacks are the only humans that are not fallen and sinful; they don’t make unwise choices or take self-defeating actions. Rather, their problems stem solely from the racist actions of others.

An example of this seen in Kendi’s handling of a report that showed that the murder rate for Black teens had increased 300% between 1985 and 1992 (six times the rate of white teens during the same period). In the end, Kendi could not allow any of the blame for this tragic development to fall on Blacks. Rather, the blame fell squarely on “drug enforcement units [who] were disproportionately mass incarcerating young Black drug dealers, in some cases knowing full well that the consequence of breaking up a drug ring was a violent struggle for control of the previously stabilized market” (462). Such a situation was clearly a problem in need of a solution. The assimilationist solution, presumably, would be to try keeping Black teens from dealing drugs. But in Kendi’s mind, that is a preposterous, even racist, approach to the problem. Rather, one can seemingly conclude from what Kendi wrote that the antiracist solution would be either for drug enforcement units to stop breaking up drug rings, or for them to at least break up as many white drug rings as black so as to eliminate the racial disparity in the increased murder rates and make them equally horrific. The problem stemmed not from the fact that some Blacks chose to deal drugs, but rather from the actions of racist drug enforcement units.

Another problem in Stamped is the fact that Kendi makes numerous claims, some of them quite dubious, without providing adequate citations or evidence to substantiate them. For instance, in the quote just cited, Kendi provides no evidence that drug enforcement units were disproportionately mass incarcerating Blacks. What does he mean by “disproportionately”? Is he asserting that those leading these units are turning a blind eye to white drug dealers and out of racism primarily targeting Blacks? If so, this serious charge would presumably necessitate evidence of intent, not the mere existence of a racial disparity in the number of those arrested. In another example, Kendi refers to the “disproven racist theory of ‘the erosion of black families’” (492), but provides no citation, nor any evidence to dispute the fact that at present about seven out of every ten Black babies born in America have single mothers. On page 130 he asserts that “in the Christian world, sexuality was believed to be the animal trait of humans,” which is completely contrary to the biblical view of sex. Likewise, Kendi mentions “the exploding fury of hate attacks on Black people” in the weeks after Barack Obama’s election as President, but again provides no citation or evidence of such attacks, or, more importantly, that such attacks reached the level of accurately being described as an exploding fury (496). And finally, some of Kendi’s claims are simply wrong. An example of this stems from his examination of Thomas Jefferson. After (accurately) painting Jefferson as a racist, Kendi implies that white Americans were racist because “white male voters” put Jefferson and his party into power (130). However, it could also, of course, be said that white male voters voted against Jefferson and his party (and thus were not racist). That is because when Jefferson was elected President the only voters in America, with few exceptions, were white males. The most egregious error, however, made by Kendi appears in his subtitle, where he proclaims Stamped to be “The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.” The notion that his work (or any work for that matter) would be final word on the history of racism in America flies in the face of historical scholarship, which recognizes that interpretations of the past change over time and from the emergence of different perspectives and previously unknown or under-utilize sources.

Noble goals will never be attained by means of a campaign based on historical errors, faulty thinking, and partisan hyperbole.

The Ugly

Regrettably, the problems with Stamped are not limited to the problems mentioned above. Unfortunately, Kendi peppers his book with divisive, partisan, and inflammatory statements that needlessly aggravate the already heighted racial tensions that plague 21st century America. Most of these statements are found at the end of the book, in Part 5. Kendi names this section for Angela Davis, whom Kendi holds up as a model antiracist. This alone is problematic in light of the fact that Davis is an advocate of Black militancy and a defender of the so-called Soledad Brothers, who killed a prison guard and a judge (the latter with a weapon provided to them by Davis) in the early 1970s. Kendi agreed with her statement in a 1990 speech in which she proclaimed “African Americans are suffering the most oppression since slavery” (444). While the late 1980s and early 1990s in America were not free of racism, it seems disingenuous and irresponsible to proclaim 1990 as more oppressive to blacks than during the overthrow of Reconstruction or the so-called “Nadir” of the early 20th century, when thousands of Blacks were lynched, massacred, and subjected to the brutalities of the convict leasing systems of the South. Likewise, Kendi defends Sister Souljah’s statement in the wake of the Rodney King riots, in which she said that “if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” (451)

Kendi not only goes to great lengths to defend some African Americans, but also to shame some of them. On pages 472 and 473 Kendi engages John McWhorter, a Black professor of Linguistics at Columbia University, who is the author of numerous books, including Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America and Essays for the Black Silent Majority. After dismissing McWhorter’s concerns about Ebonics and instances of Black children ridiculing other Blacks for “acting White” by doing well in school, Kendi then needlessly and recklessly impugns his motives. Kendi said “For many of these Black racists,” as Kendi calls McWhorter and the Black Silent Majority referred to in one of his book titles, “their expressions may have been deeply political: they may have been cunningly reciting racist talking points in order to receive financial and occupational favor” (474). So, while Kendi does not come out and directly accuse McWhorter of being motivated solely by financial gain, he lets his readers know that it is at least a viable possibility.

As mentioned earlier, Kendi shows little regard for Christianity in Stamped. This manifests itself in the latter part of the book when, for instance, he states that “a truly multicultural nation ruled by multiculturalists would not have Christianity as its unofficial standard religion” (469). While on its face this does not appear to be an egregious, direct assault on Christianity, it nevertheless implies that Christianity is part of the problem. Kendi asserts that all antiracists want America to become a true multicultural nation. But if such a nation cannot exist with a vibrant, popular Christianity, then to reach that goal Christianity obviously must be made to disappear or somehow be relegated to a point of insignificance. It is patently false that a truly multicultural nation can’t have Christianity as its unofficial standard religion, as he puts it, and it is needlessly offensive to assert as much.

While Kendi is unfair to Black thinkers who don’t embrace his brand of antiracism, and to Christianity, he exhibits unbridled hostility towards those he sees as being on the other side of the partisan divide. In his section dealing with the presidency of George W. Bush, Kendi depicts Hurricane Katrina not as a natural disaster, but a conspiracy by the wealthy to further enrich themselves. First, he says, “Ignoring the warnings [that a direct hit by a hurricane might overwhelm the levees around New Orleans], it was almost as if politicians were hoping for a destructive hurricane to occur so that what Naomi Klein termed “disaster capitalism” could follow it.” Lacking the evidence to support such a monstrous accusation, Kendi resorts to citing hearsay, saying “It was rumored that the Bush administration directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to delay its response in order to amplify the destructive reward for those who would benefit” (484). In turning his attention to the historic 2008 U.S. Presidential Election, Kendi asserts that Republicans were so desperate to keep a black man (Obama)from winning the presidency, that they asserted “that only real Americans, who were White like McCain, could live in the White House of the United States” (494). The reader simply has to guess who these Republicans were who were saying that only Whites could live in the White House, because Kendi does not identify them or provide any citations. As for McCain’s running mate, Kendi asserts that “Sarah Palin [held] virtual Klan rallies where spectators shouted, ‘Kill him’ [Obama]” (497). Even if some attendees at a rally had said this, it is insulting and inflammatory to equate this to holding virtual Klan rallies. A US Secret Service report disproved the claim that any one at the rally in question shouted “Kill him.”[iii]  Finally, on page 498 he lumps the Tea Party movement in with “geneticists, Klansman, anonymous Internet racists…and other segregationists,” despite that movement’s focus on economic policies (The “Tea” in Tea Party stood for “Taxed Enough Already”).

Finally, in light of the events of January 6, 2021, which Kendi has (rightly) denounced, it is worth noting that Kendi actually encouraged his antiracist readers to engage in “insurrection.” At the end of his book he urges antiracists not to give up the fight to end racism. He tells them, “It all starts with one person, or two people, or tiny groups…engaging in energetic mobilization of antiracists into organizations; and chess-like planning and adjustments during strikes, occupations, insurrections, campaigns, and fiscal and bodily boycotts; among a series of other tactics to force power to eradicate racist policies” (510, emphasis added). It is not only hypocritical for him to identify insurrection as a legitimate tactic for antiracists to utilize, but also disconcerting and alarming.

Conclusion

Kendi provides a good, engaging, and necessary account of racist ideas in America. A proper understanding of this history on the part of whites is necessary if America is ever going to enjoy relative harmony between Blacks and whites. Whites should be cognizant of the Black experience in America from colonial times to the present, and should understand that the long-term reverberations of enslavement, oppression, exploitation, and discrimination, over the course of generations, can and does continue to affect many African Americans. It is therefore clear that what Kendi identifies as the segregationist view (that past or present discrimination has nothing to do with the plight of Blacks) is unfounded. But equally invalid, and even dangerous, is the antiracist assertion that past or present discrimination is solely to blame for the problems that some Blacks experience. If the antiracist view prevails, it will send the message to Blacks that there is nothing they can do in and of themselves to improve their lot in life. All people, particularly in America, should be encouraged to make wise decisions, to practice virtue, to get educated, and to do all the things that Kendi dismisses as “uplift suasion” (12) in order to improve their chances of flourishing in this life. Such things do not guarantee flourishing will result, but they certainly improve the chances of such results, especially in contrast to imbibing a defeatist mentality that Blacks cannot succeed until racial discrimination is thoroughly eradicated. The goals of racial harmony, equality, and flourishing are noble ones, and Kendi would no doubt claim they fuel his activism. But it must be pointed out that those noble goals will never be attained by means of a campaign based on historical errors, faulty thinking, and partisan hyperbole. Such tactics are illegitimate in their own right, but more practically will engender greater division in an already dangerously fractured and partisan American society.

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[i] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/15/books/race-antiracism-publishing.html

[ii] Matthew Frye Jacobson of Yale University levels some criticisms of Stamped but concludes that it is “epic” and “deserves a broad general audience” in his review of the book in the Journal of American History (June 2017, pages 165-166). Orville Vernon Burton, of Clemson University, is likewise critical at times, but concludes his review by saying “This book excels as a grand sweep of historical ideas pertaining to race and how these ideas are transmitted…This book is compelling in its examination of how the public learns about race.” See Journal of Southern History (August 2018, pages 698-701). Justin Gomer, of California State University-Long Beach, says Stamped “is, in fact, definitive” and concludes his review by saying “That the work recently won the National Book Award comes as no surprise….” See Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, (Summer 2017), 421-424.

[iii] https://www.salon.com/2008/10/16/kill_him_2/

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Brent Aucoin

Dr. Aucoin is a Professor of History at Southeastern Seminary. He also serves as the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the College at Southeastern.

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