The beginning of June seems a lot further away than four months. My world has shrunk. I don’t go anywhere; most traditional holiday celebrations were cancelled; my social interactions are confined to narrow rectangles on my computer screen; my weeks follow a consistent schedule which is equally comforting and monotonous. With few events to mark the passing of the days, weeks, and months, time no longer seems to pass. The present seems eternal, the past a fable, the future an empty promise. I remember writing about the Black Lives Matter protests on a day that seemed like yesterday but feels like years ago.
One hundred and twenty one (and yes, spelling out the number as you’re supposed to at the beginning of a sentence makes the span seem longer than the numerals 121) days ago, I wrote about getting my head out of the sand and facing the reality of systemic racism. Reading Ibram X. Kendi’s 2019 book seemed like a good way to begin the education I’d been putting off.
The book is structured as two parallel narratives, one being the author’s personal journey from childhood to the present day and the other a historical and sociological analysis of racism. The former shows how Kendi’s views on racism have evolved over his life and makes for an engaging story. Unfortunately it doesn’t combine well for the academic, methodical, and often dry prose in his analysis. The idea was sound, but the execution was off, resulting in a book that feels like two separate texts, forced together in an arranged literary marriage.
Although the autobiographical portion was engaging, I was primarily interested in the analysis and the challenge it presented. Reading about racism invites an us-them mentality, where we can easily envisage a Klansman or slumlord, someone foreign to us, some Other rather than ourselves. But as Kendi writes, “being an antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.” Seeing myself as part of the problem seems the only way to become part of the solution, so I critiqued myself as I read, looking for passages that identified my current or previous beliefs.
And there were a few, such as his observation that progressive Americans may have abandoned biological, ethnic, and cultural racism, but many still clung to behavioral racism — in a nutshell, the belief that a member of a racial group behaves in some way because “those people always act like that.” I don’t like to admit it, but I’ve fallen into this line of thinking too many times, and I needed someone like Kendi to refute it in simple terms: “Behavior is something humans do, not races do.”
I’ve also at times identified myself as “not racist,” “race neutral,” or “color-blind,” but Kendi is right to call each of these terms “a mask for racism.” A person may not be bigoted, but can still support policies that do harm to racial groups other than their own. Kendi cares far more about power than prejudice (I doubt he has any use for Facebook arguments), about what people do rather than what they believe. Antiracism is about fighting policies that perpetuate racial inequality, and supporting policies that promote racial equity.
There’s plenty of material here to offend the Fox News crowd, such as the assertion that capitalism is essentially racist. But Kendi’s emphasis on changing policy rather than hearts and minds will likely appeal to anyone who believes this country can do better.