I can already hear you saying to yourself, “Really? You’re going to talk about race, gender, and Identity? Are you crazy? I thought you avoided discussing politics on your blog?” I hear you, and I assure you I am not changing my policy. The problem is that moral issues often become politicized, so that political lines get drawn between partisans based on their stances on moral issues. Since Christianity cannot surrender its moral teaching to the secular order without denying that God is the author of the universal moral law, Christians cannot remain silent on moral issues even if those topics are also matters of partisan political disputes. My discussions of moral issues on this blog will remain apolitical in this sense: I will not argue on theological or rational grounds for a secular public policy. However I would be a faithless theologian, a thoughtless Christian, and a cowardly blogger if I surrendered morality to individual choice or political deliberation.
As I promised in my previous post “What A Year It Has Been,” I want to share my reflections on three books I read this year. Ibram Kendi, How To Be An Antiracist, Willie James Jennings, After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging, and Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsey, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity—And Why This Harms Everybody. I do not plan on doing full reviews of these books. Perhaps I will do that later. I want, rather, to set before you the central arguments of each and then reflect theologically on the issues raised.
Ibram Kendi, How To Be An Antiracist
How To Be An Antiracist is a rhetorically brilliant book. The point of each chapter is woven in and around a compelling autobiographical story. The story draws the reader into the narrative that produces the knowledge claim of the chapter. This technique, I think, fuels the persuasive power of the book. However I found myself needing to disengage my emotions from Kendi’s enthralling story to examine his argument rationally.
The book aims to teach readers “how to be an antiracist.” In the minds of most people racism is one of the ugliest character traits imaginable and racist individuals are rightly discredited from public respectability. So, the average reader opens the book with the expectation of agreeing with the author. After all, how could a person who repudiates the ugly doctrine of racism not also wish to be an anti-racist? As you begin reading the introduction and the first chapter, however, you realize that you and Kendi are working with different definitions of racism. Most people think of racism as a conscious attitude of animus toward a particular racial group and a racist as an individual who harbors such attitudes. A person who does not harbor racial animus and attempts to treat all people regardless of race with equal dignity and fairness is not a racist. This is the common sense view.
Kendi includes the common understanding of racism and the racist character type within his definition of racism, but he expands his definition to include unconscious attitudes and seemingly innocent actions and inactions. For Kendi, racism is the hidden, implicit ideology that justifies the interlocking system of public policies and practices that creates and sustains inequity—that is, unequal possession of life’s (mostly material) goods—between racial groups. A racist is someone who by what they do or what they neglect to do supports this system of policies. An antiracist is someone who refuses to support and actively resists the racist system of policies.
In this way, Kendi shifts the locus of racism from self-conscious attitudes of individual racists to the unconscious system of values, policies, and practices that structures American society. These values and practices include the free market economy, meritocracy, color blindness, and mere equality before the law. All these values tend to perpetuate the status quo and, hence, are racist, according to Kendi’s definition. The evidence for systemic racism is the de facto inequity in income, housing, education, health care, and other measures of wellbeing between white people as a whole and people of color as a whole. Even if no one harbored conscious racist feelings or exhibited commonly identified racist behaviors, this lack would not disprove the racism of the system and those who participate in it. Your feelings of goodwill toward all people do not prove that you are not a racist. Only your active support for public policies that promote equity and your active resistance to policies that sustain inequity qualify you as an antiracist. There is no neutral ground such as might be designated by the term “not-racist.”
In Kendi’s lexicon, racism’s center of gravity has shifted from the moral core of the individual to a diffuse socio-political order. Yet he retains the emotionally loaded moral terms “racism” and “racist” to describe the character of this order. The effect is to make it grossly immoral not to support the political policies that Kendi thinks will best ameliorate the inequities among the races or to lend support to policies and values that Kendi thinks will perpetuate the status quo. Kendi is a bit coy about stating his antiracist political policies in clear terms, but I think we can infer from his criticisms of the free market economy, meritocracy, color blindness, and mere equality before the law that he would favor policies designed to achieve greater material equity among the races even if it means abandoning these principles.
Don’t miss this shift: policy differences arise not simply from different rational conclusions about what means will best achieve agreed upon goals but from profound differences in moral character. To support traditional liberal policies—free markets, merit-based reward systems, individualism, and so on—is a racist act, whereas to support policies designed to produce equity—equality of outcomes—is an antiracist act. The first is morally wrong and the second is morally right. The categories by which to evaluate public policy shift from sound or flawed reasoning to good or evil motives.
I will save my theological assessment of How To Be An Antiracist until I have summarize the other two books.
I was indeed surprised when I read that you would be engaging with Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to be an Antiracist!” Professional obligation or no, I am glad the year has given an occasion for many faculty members in diverse fields to engage with racial justice scholarship who might not have otherwise. Unfortunately, the ways in which race shapes academia has too long been a blind spot in many scholarly disciplines — including my own.
I, too, have read Kendi for an upcoming book project, and I am excited to dialogue about this work one your response post comes around. I’ll bracket off the other two books, as I have not read them.