Authors: Ibram X. Kendi
The racist champions of racist discrimination engineered to maintain racial inequities before the 1960s are now the racist opponents of antiracist discrimination engineered to dismantle those racial inequities. The most threatening racist movement is not the alt right’s unlikely drive for a White ethnostate but the regular American’s drive for a “race-neutral” one. The construct of race neutrality actually feeds White nationalist victimhood by positing the notion that any policy protecting or advancing non-White Americans toward equity is “reverse discrimination.”
That is how racist power can call affirmative action policies that succeed in reducing racial inequities “race conscious” and standardized tests that produce racial inequities “race neutral.” That is how they can blame the behavior of entire racial groups for the inequities between different racial groups and still say their ideas are “not racist.” But there is no such thing as a not-
racist idea, only racist ideas and antiracist ideas.
So what is a racist idea? A racist idea is any idea that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way. Racist ideas argue that the inferiorities and superiorities of racial groups explain racial inequities in society. As Thomas Jefferson suspected a decade after declaring White American independence: “
The blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”
An antiracist idea is any idea that suggests the racial groups are equals in all their apparent differences—that there is nothing right or wrong with any racial group. Antiracist ideas argue that racist policies are the cause of racial inequities.
Understanding the differences between racist policies and antiracist policies, between racist ideas and antiracist ideas, allows us to return to our fundamental definitions. Racism is a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas. Antiracism is a powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to racial equity and are substantiated by antiracist ideas.
NCE WE HAVE
a solid definition of racism and antiracism, we can start to make sense of the racialized world around us, before us. My maternal grandparents, Mary Ann and Alvin, moved their family to New York City in the 1950s on the final leg of the
Great Migration, happy to get their children away from violent Georgia segregationists and the work of picking cotton under the increasingly hot Georgia sun.
To think, they were also moving their family away from the effects of climate change. Do-nothing climate policy is racist policy, since the predominantly
non-White global south is being victimized by climate change more than the Whiter global north, even as the Whiter global north is contributing more to its acceleration. Land is sinking and temperatures are rising from Florida to Bangladesh. Droughts and food scarcity are ravishing bodies in Eastern and Southern Africa, a region already containing 25 percent of the world’s malnourished population. Human-made environmental catastrophes disproportionately harming bodies of color are not unusual; for instance, nearly four thousand U.S. areas—mostly poor and non-White—have
higher lead poisoning rates than Flint, Michigan.
I am one generation removed from picking cotton for pocket change under the warming climate in Guyton, outside Savannah. That’s where we buried my grandmother in 1993. Memories of her comforting calmness, her dark green thumb, and her large trash bags of Christmas gifts lived on as we drove back to New York from her funeral. The next day, my father ventured up to Flushing, Queens, to see his single mother, also named Mary Ann. She had the clearest dark-brown skin, a smile that hugged you, and a wit that smacked you.
When my father opened the door of her apartment, he smelled the fumes coming from the stove she’d left on, and some other fumes. His mother nowhere in sight, he rushed down the hallway and into her back bedroom. That’s where he found his mother, as if sleeping, but dead. Her struggle with
Alzheimer’s, a disease more prevalent among African Americans, was over.
There may be no more consequential White privilege than life itself. White lives matter to the tune of
3.5 additional years over Black lives in the United States, which is just the most glaring of a host of health disparities, starting from infancy, where
Black infants die at twice the rate of White infants. But at least my grandmothers and I met, we shared, we loved. I never met my paternal grandfather. I never met my maternal grandfather, Alvin, killed by cancer three years before my birth. In the United States,
African Americans are 25 percent more likely to die of cancer than Whites. My father survived prostate cancer, which kills twice as many Black men as it does White men.
Breast cancer disproportionately kills Black women.
Three million African Americans and four million Latinx secured health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, dropping uninsured rates for both groups to around 11 percent before President Barack Obama left office. But a staggering
28.5 million Americans remained uninsured, a number primed for growth after Congress repealed the individual mandate in 2017. And it is becoming harder for people of color to vote out of office the politicians crafting these policies designed to shorten their lives.
Racist voting policy has evolved from disenfranchising by Jim Crow voting laws to disenfranchising by mass incarceration and voter-ID laws. Sometimes these efforts are so blatant that they are struck down: North Carolina enacted one of these targeted voter-ID laws, but in July 2016 the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit struck it down, ruling that its various provisions “
target African Americans with almost surgical precision.” But others have remained and been successful.
Wisconsin’s strict voter-ID law suppressed approximately two hundred thousand votes—again primarily targeting voters of color—in the 2016 election. Donald Trump won that critical swing state by 22,748 votes.
We are surrounded by racial inequity, as visible as the law, as hidden as our private thoughts. The question for each of us is: What side of history will we stand on? A racist is someone who is supporting a racist policy by their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea. An antiracist is someone who is supporting an antiracist policy by their actions or expressing an antiracist idea. “Racist” and “antiracist” are like peelable name tags that are placed and replaced based on what someone is doing or not doing, supporting or expressing in each moment. These are not permanent tattoos. No one becomes a racist or antiracist. We can only strive to be one or the other. We can unknowingly strive to be a racist. We can knowingly strive to be an antiracist. Like fighting an addiction, being an antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.
Racist ideas have defined our society since its beginning and can feel so natural and obvious as to be banal, but antiracist ideas remain difficult to comprehend, in part because they go against the flow of this country’s history. As Audre Lorde said in 1980, “
We have all been programmed to respond to the human differences between us with fear and loathing and to handle that difference in one of three ways: ignore it, and if that is not possible, copy it if we think it is dominant, or destroy it if we think it is subordinate. But we have no patterns for relating across our human differences as equals.” To be an antiracist is a radical choice in the face of this history, requiring a radical reorientation of our consciousness.
One who is expressing the racist idea that a racial group is culturally or behaviorally inferior and is supporting cultural or behavioral enrichment programs to develop that racial group.
One who is expressing the racist idea that a permanently inferior racial group can never be developed and is supporting policy that segregates away that racial group.
One who is expressing the idea that racial groups are equals and none needs developing, and is supporting policy that reduces racial inequity.
Y PARENTS HAD
not seen each other since the bus ride to Urbana ’70. Christmas approached in 1973. Soul Liberation held a concert at the iconic Broadway Presbyterian Church in Harlem that turned into a reunion of sorts for the New York attendees of Urbana ’70. Dad and Ma showed up. Old friends beckoned, and something new. After the chords of Soul Liberation fell silent, my parents finally spoke again and a spark finally lit.
Days later, Dad called. He asked Ma out. “I’ve been called to the mission field,” Ma responded. “Leaving in March.”
Ma and Dad persevered, even after Ma left to teach in a rural Liberian village outside Monrovia for nine months. Eight years later they were married, daring to name me, their second son, “exalted father” when I arrived in a world not in the practice of exalting Black bodies. Just before that arrival, as my pregnant mother celebrated her thirty-first birthday on June 24, 1982, President Reagan declared war on her unborn baby. “
We must put drug abuse on the run through stronger law enforcement,” Reagan said in the Rose Garden.
It wasn’t drug abuse that was put on the run, of course, but people like me, born into this regime of “stronger law enforcement.” The stiffer sentencing policies for drug crimes—not a net increase in crime—caused the
American prison population to quadruple between 1980 and 2000. While violent criminals typically account for about half of the prison population at any given time,
more people were incarcerated for drug crimes than violent crimes every year from 1993 to 2009.
White people are more likely than Black and Latinx people to sell drugs, and the races consume drugs at similar rates. Yet African Americans are far more likely than Whites to be jailed for drug offenses.
Nonviolent Black drug offenders remain in prisons for about the same length of time (58.7 months) as violent White criminals (61.7 months). In 2016,
Black and Latinx people were still grossly overrepresented in the prison population at 56 percent, double their percentage of the U.S. adult population. White people were still grossly underrepresented in the prison population at 30 percent, about half their percentage of the U.S. adult population.
Reagan didn’t start this so-called war, as
historian Elizabeth Hinton recounts. President Lyndon B. Johnson first put us on the run when he named 1965 “
the year when this country began a thorough, intelligent, and effective war on crime.” My parents were in high school when Johnson’s war on crime mocked his undersupported war on poverty, like a heavily armed shooter mocking the underresourced trauma surgeon. President Richard
Nixon announced his war on drugs in 1971 to devastate his harshest critics—Black and antiwar activists. “
We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news,” Nixon’s domestic-policy chief, John Ehrlichman, told a
reporter years later. “Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Black people joined in the vilification, convinced that homicidal drug dealers, gun toters, and thieving heroin addicts were flushing “down the drain” all “
the hard won gains of the civil rights movement,” to quote an editorial in
in 1981. Some, if not most, Black leaders, in an effort to appear as saviors of the people against this menace, turned around and set the Black criminal alongside the White racist as the enemies of the people.
Seemingly contradictory calls to lock up and to save Black people dueled in legislatures around the country but also in the minds of Americans. Black leaders joined with Republicans from Nixon to Reagan, and with Democrats from Johnson to Bill Clinton, in calling for and largely receiving more police officers, tougher and mandatory sentencing, and more jails. But they also called for the end of police brutality, more jobs, better schools, and drug-treatment programs. These calls were less enthusiastically received.
By the time I came along in 1982, the shame about “Black on Black crime” was on the verge of overwhelming a generation’s pride about “Black is beautiful.” Many non-Black Americans looked down on Black addicts in revulsion—but too many Black folk looked down on the same addicts in shame.
Both of my parents emerged from poor families, one from Northern urban projects, one from Southern rural fields. Both framed their rise from poverty into the middle class in the 1980s as a climb up the ladder of education and hard work. As they climbed, they were inundated with racist talking points about Black people refusing to climb, the ones who were irresponsibly strung out on heroin or crack, who enjoyed stealing and being criminally dependent on the hard-earned money of climbing Americans like them.
In 1985, adored civil-rights lawyer Eleanor Holmes Norton took to
The New York Times
to claim the “
remedy…is not as simple as providing necessities and opportunities,” as antiracists argued. She urged the “overthrow of the complicated, predatory ghetto subculture.” She called on people like my parents with “ghetto origins” to save “ghetto males” and women by impressing on them the values of “hard work, education, respect for family” and “achieving a better life for one’s children.” Norton provided no empirical evidence to substantiate her position that certain “ghetto” Blacks were deficient in any of these values.
But my parents, along with many others in the new Black middle class, consumed these ideas. The class that challenged racist policies from the 1950s through the 1970s now began challenging other Black people in the 1980s and 1990s. Antiracism seemed like an indulgence in the face of the self-destructive behavior they were witnessing all around them. My parents followed Norton’s directive: They fed me the mantra that education and hard work would uplift me, just as it had uplifted them, and would, in the end, uplift all Black people. My parents—even from within their racial consciousness—were susceptible to the racist idea that it was laziness that kept Black people down, so they paid more attention to chastising Black people than to Reagan’s policies,
which were chopping the ladder they climbed up and then punishing people for falling.
The Reagan Revolution was just that: a radical revolution for the benefit of the already powerful. It further enriched high-income Americans by cutting their taxes and government regulations, installing a Christmas-tree military budget, and arresting the power of unions. Seventy percent of middle-income Blacks said they saw “a great deal of racial discrimination” in 1979, before Reagan revolutionaries rolled back enforcement of civil-rights laws and affirmative-action regulations, before they rolled back funding to state and local governments whose contracts and jobs had become safe avenues into the single-family urban home of the Black middle class. In the same month that Reagan announced his war on drugs on Ma’s birthday in 1982, he cut the safety net of federal welfare programs and Medicaid, sending more low-income Blacks into poverty. His “stronger law enforcement” sent more Black people into the clutches of violent cops, who killed twenty-two Black people for every White person in the early 1980s. Black youth were four times more likely to be unemployed in 1985 than in 1954. But few connected the increase in unemployment to the increase in violent crime.
Americans have long been trained to see the deficiencies of people rather than policy. It’s a pretty easy mistake to make: People are in our faces. Policies are distant. We are particularly poor at seeing the policies lurking behind the struggles of people. And so my parents turned away from the problems of policy to look at the problems of people—and reverted to striving to save and civilize Black people rather than liberate them. Civilizer theology became more attractive to my parents, in the face of the rise of crack and the damage it did to Black people, as it did to so many children of civil rights and Black power. But in many ways, liberation theology remained their philosophical home, the home they raised me in.
EEP DOWN, MY
parents were still the people who were set on fire by liberation theology back in Urbana. Ma still dreamed of globetrotting the Black world as a liberating missionary, a dream her Liberian friends encouraged in 1974. Dad dreamed of writing liberating poetry, a dream Professor Addison Gayle encouraged in 1971.
I always wonder what would have been if my parents had not let their reasonable fears stop them from pursuing their dreams. Traveling Ma helping to free the Black world. Dad accompanying her and finding inspiration for his freedom poetry. Instead, Ma settled for a corporate career in healthcare technology. Dad settled for an accounting career. They entered the American middle class—a space then as now defined by its disproportionate White majority—and began to look at themselves and their people not only through their own eyes but also “through the eyes of others.” They joined other Black people trying to fit into that White space while still trying to be themselves and save their people. They were not wearing a mask as much as splitting into two minds.
This conceptual duple reflected what W.E.B. Du Bois indelibly voiced in
The Souls of Black
in 1903. “
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others,” Du Bois wrote. He would neither “Africanize America” nor “bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism.” Du Bois wished “to be both a Negro and an American.” Du Bois wished to inhabit opposing constructs. To be American is to be White. To be White is to not be a Negro.
What Du Bois termed double consciousness may be more precisely termed
consciousness. “One ever feels his two-ness,” Du Bois explained, “an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” Du Bois also explained how this war was being waged within his own dark body, wanting to be a Negro and wanting to “escape into the mass of Americans in the same way that the Irish and Scandinavians” were doing.
These dueling ideas were there in 1903, and the same duel overtook my parents—and it remains today. The duel within Black consciousness seems to usually be between antiracist and assimilationist ideas. Du Bois believed in both the antiracist concept of racial relativity, of every racial group looking at itself with its own eyes, and the assimilationist concept of racial standards, of “looking at one’s self through the eyes” of another racial group—in his case, White people. In other words, he wanted to liberate Black people from racism but he also wanted to change them, to save them from their “
relic of barbarism.” Du Bois argued in 1903 that racism and “the low social level of the mass of the race” were both “responsible” for the “Negro’s degradation.” Assimilation would be part of the solution to this problem.
Assimilationist ideas are racist ideas. Assimilationists can position any racial group as the superior standard that another racial group should be measuring themselves against, the benchmark they should be trying to reach. Assimilationists typically position White people as the superior standard. “
Do Americans ever stop to reflect that there are in this land a million men of Negro blood…who, judged by any standard, have reached the full measure of the best type of modern European culture? Is it fair, is it decent, is it Christian…to belittle such aspiration?” Du Bois asked in 1903.
HE DUELING CONSCIOUSNESS
played out in a different way for my parents, who became all about Black self-reliance. In 1985, they were drawn to Floyd H. Flake’s Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in Southside Queens. Flake and his equally magnetic wife, Elaine, grew Allen into a megachurch and one of the area’s largest private-sector employers through its liberated kingdom of commercial and social-service enterprises. From its school to its senior-citizen housing complex to its crisis center for victims of domestic abuse, there were no walls to Flake’s church. It was exactly the type of ministry that would naturally fascinate those descendants of Urbana ’70. My father joined Flake’s ministerial staff in 1989.
My favorite church program happened every Thanksgiving. We would arrive as lines of people were hugging the church building, which smelled particularly good that day. Perfumes of gravy and cranberry sauce warmed the November air. The aromas multiplied in deliciousness as we entered the basement fellowship hall, where the ovens were. I usually found my spot in the endless assembly line of servers. I could barely see over the food. But I strained up on my toes to help feed every bit of five thousand people. I tried to be as kind to these hungry people as my mother’s peach cobbler. This program of Black people feeding Black people embodied the gospel of Black self-reliance that the adults in my life were feeding me.