Fear and violence directed against “the other” are as old as humanity itself. Antisemitism with its two thousand-year-old history may be the most ancient large-scale manifestation of “otherism” in a form widely recognized today. And racism, as we know it in the West, appears to have originated in the fifteenth century when Portuguese raiders first captured and sold West Africans as slaves, excusing the practice by questioning their humanity. With both antisemitism and slavery, untold millions have been robbed of their dignity, their culture, their livelihood, and all too often their lives. Today, few Jews are killed for being Jewish, but racism still kills.
Racism can only be addressed by uprooting its legal and political basis
However, what we view in the US today as racism has for the most part gone underground, its outward and most violent expressions widely discouraged. But if racism is more polite today than under slavery and Jim Crow, it is little less pervasive. Racism is deeply embedded in the infrastructure of American society—what so many call “structural” or “institutional racism”—and it cannot be successfully addressed without uprooting the legal and political basis on which it rests. Lynching is an artifact of the past, but racism still kills, shortening the lives of Black and Brown people not just through occasional official violence but on a large scale through inequities in healthcare, housing, criminal justice, and tax policy. That’s the central message of historian Ibram Kendi’s groundbreaking book, How to Be an Antiracist.
How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi (2019) 320 pages @@@@ (4 out of 5)
At the outset, Kendi explains that it’s not enough to be “not racist.” What’s the problem, he asks? “It is a claim that signifies neutrality . . . But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘antiracist.'” And “to be antiracist is to let me be me, be myself, be my imperfect self.”
Racism still kills
“The construct of race neutrality actually feeds White nationalist victimhood,” Kendi asserts, “by positing the notion that any policy protecting or advancing non-White Americans toward equity is ‘reverse discrimination.'”
Kendi goes on to argue that “There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy. Every policy in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity between racial groups.” And this book explains just exactly how and why that is the case.
Imagining away the existence of races is like denying that of classes
There is, of course, just one race—the human race. But racism is a reality, nonetheless. “Race is a mirage but one that humanity has organized itself around in very real ways. Imagining away the existence of races in a racist world is as conserving and harmful as imagining away classes in a capitalistic world—it allows the ruling races and classes to keep on ruling.” And racism still kills.
Racism is grounded in the self-interest of racist power
Traditionally, scholars and political commentators have argued that racist ideas generate ignorance and hate and thus are the source of racism. Kendi argues otherwise. “That gets the chain of events exactly wrong,” he writes. “The root problem—from Prince Henry [the Navigator] to President Trump—has always been the self-interest of racist power. Powerful economic, political, and cultural self-interest—the primitive accumulation of capital in the case of royal Portugal and subsequent slave traders—has been behind racist ideas.” And in today’s America racism obscures the upward migration of the nation’s wealth into the hands of an ever-smaller minority of investors, corporate managers, and the beneficiaries of hereditary fortunes. In doing so, racism still kills.
There is no achievement gap, only an opportunity gap
Chapter by chapter, Kendi analyzes racism through the lenses of power, biology, ethnicity, culture, behavior, color, class, gender, sexuality, and other concepts. In each of these short chapters, he dispels popular misconceptions such as that “Blacks cannot be racist” and “the achievement gap.” For example, he explains, “the racial problem is the opportunity gap,” not the achievement gap.
Internalized racism is the real Black on Black crime
How to Be an Antiracist is one man’s story of his protracted and hard-fought evolution toward an understanding of racism grounded in history and a sophisticated grasp of public policy. “It is hard for me to believe,” he notes, “I finished high school in the year 2000 touting so many racist ideas. . . Internalized racism is the real Black on Black crime.” Experience, and a ready willingness to listen carefully, helped him root out those ideas. It’s incumbent on all the rest of us to join that struggle.
About the author
Ibram Xolani Kendi (né Henry Rogers) has carried the national dialogue about racism into new territory with his bestselling books, Stamped from the Beginning, which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction, and, now, How to Be an Antiracist. He holds a professorship of history at Boston University and serves as director of its Center for Antiracist Research. Previously Kendi worked as an assistant professor of African-American studies at several universities, including Brown and the University of Florida.
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