A lot of racist tropes and ideas seem to be swirling around at a dizzying pace lately. In particular are multiple politicians displaying blackface in their yearbooks or elsewhere and famous actors promoting their latest movie by “coming clean” about seeking a black man to kill as revenge for the sexual assault of a close friend.
I’m reminded of a guest seminar I attended near the end of last year. Here, Dr. Ibam X. Kendi, the youngest person to win the National Book Award for Nonfiction for his work “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America”, lectured to a willing audience on how to be an antiracist. I had not read the book prior to the lecture but I was somewhat familiar with Dr. Kendi’s writing through the more buzzworthy articles he published in prominent outlets like the Washington Post and New York Times. I also didn’t know what to expect; at the time I recently attended lectures featuring world-renowned economists and high-profile writers for the aforementioned institutions and left feeling disappointed at the lack of substance and the vague and superficial talking points I was given.
Refreshingly, Dr. Kendi’s lecture was laser-focused and highly academic, yet incredibly compelling. For me, seemingly simple and direct statements were able to completely change how I looked and approached ideas on racism. “The heartbeat of racism itself is the denial of racism itself. The true opposite of a racist, is to be an antiracist”. To be a racist, or its antithesis the antiracist, is distilled into a simple definition: to support a racist policy or a racist idea makes you, quite simply and plainly, a racist. This definition is important because being a racist is not a fixed category but depends on what you are saying or doing at a given time. Dr. Kendi also understands very well that people are complex, convoluted, and hypocritical and therefore are capable of supporting both racist and antiracist ideas simultaneously. These two ideas taken together are why having an agreed-upon definition is paramount to combating racism. A fluid definition that constantly changes allows supremacists and racists to exonerate themselves from past or current ideas. To define a policy as racist, it must have operationally created a racist outcome regardless of its intention, whereas an antiracist policy is one that yields racial equity.
These ideas plainly spelled out and the others that followed in the lecture helped crystallize in my mind a rational and straightforward structure on the racist/antiracist dynamic. Many racist ideas on black neighborhoods, employment, crime, and family are derived from racist ideas pinning the source on the people, not the policies that drove the outcomes. As a sidenote, this is not to excuse or reject the agency and free will of individuals, but simply to state that the overwhelming driving force behind negative outcomes on black communities is due to racist policies (perhaps in a future blog post I might talk about how a long history of racist pseudoscience has been used to justify negative outcomes, or spell out the long list of studies showing outcome disparities for minorities in just about every sector you can think of).
There are three more things I’d like to point out from Dr. Kendi’s lecture among the many I took away. First, despite conventional thinking that ignorance and hate fuel racist ideas which are then codified into policy, the opposite is actually true. Economic, cultural, and political policies are produced out of self-interest and, to advance them, employ racist ideas to support them. Historically, we can find that the producers of racist policies did not believe they were racist because they were simply following the scientific idea that black people were closer to animals than humans (presuming biological distinctions between races and using race as a cudgel for segregationist ideas, in particular related to intelligence and violent tendencies is actually quite unscientific, irrational, and racist). Second, to practice as an antiracist is also to engage in inter-sectionalism. Being an antiracist also makes difficult to be an anti-feminist, homophobic, or elitist. Applying antiracist thinking can and should spill over into fighting other prejudices as well. Lastly, the racist struggle is a power struggle at its core. We must challenge power to create equity.