Racial injustice has become an unavoidable topic for American Christianity. It challenges all levels of relational unity, from large ecclesial networks to personal friendships. When relational unity is challenged and fractured, we naturally search for the source of the problem, and critique it. Our critiques, when done well, are helpful for relational unity, but when they are done poorly they distract from and undermine unity.
Our criticisms must demonstrate that we understand and are familiar with what we are criticizing. And those criticisms should criticize the best of what we are criticizing, without which, our critiques will be truncated and less intelligible to those we are critiquing. Such care is especially necessary for addressing highly polarizing topics like race.
But recent criticism of social justice advocacy and the Black Lives Matter movement has failed to criticize the best of antiracist thinking, and is much the lesser for it. This is particularly true when that criticism does not engage seriously with the work of Ibram X. Kendi.
Kendi is arguably the most prolific and influential of antiracist thinkers alive today. He is the youngest recipient of the National Book Award for his historical survey of racism, Stamped From the Beginning. A recent abridged version of that book was a #1 New York Times bestseller. How To Be An Antiracist has been a #1 New York Times bestseller, and has remained on the bestseller list for months. Kendi received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2019 and recent interviews have been virtually ubiquitous across media outlets. But I would argue (and hope to demonstrate in this review), that the best evidence of placing him as the top antiracist thinker today is the content of his book, How To Be An Antiracist.
In this review, I will cover five reasons that Christians should like How To Be An Antiracist, along with five areas of disagreement. In the end, I hope it is evident that interacting with Kendi’s work is necessary if we are to offer helpful Christian critiques of antiracism and the Black Lives Matter movement.
5 Reasons to like How To Be An Antiracist
Compatibility with a Biblical Doctrine of Sin
One of the most common critiques of antiracist thinking is that it is not compatible with a biblical doctrine of sin, but that critique does not stand for How To Be An Antiracist. There are two particular questions to consider: whether Black people can commit racism, and whether Kendi adequately treats racism as the sin that it is.
Can Black People Be Racist?
A number of proponents of antiracist ideas (likely led by James Baldwin in his 1972 book, No Name in the Street) have denied that Black people can be racist, because, they argue, racism is power plus prejudice, and black people do not have power. While it must be said that understanding power is absolutely necessary for understanding racism, racism is very much a sin, and it is unbiblical to categorically deny that a people group can commit a sin.
Kendi does not have a biblical worldview, but in regard to this concern his ideas are compatible with a biblical worldview because he does not at all deny that Black people can act in a racist manner. He admits to and laments his own racial hypocrisy frequently, saying, for example, “How many times did I have a bad experience at a Black business and then walk away complaining about not the individuals involved but Black businesses as a whole?” (p172-173).
And he confronts the idea that black people don’t have power: “Powerless Defense: The illusory, concealing, disempowering and racist idea that Black people can’t be racist because Black people don’t have power” (p136).
Further, he is careful to be clear about how White people are affected by racism:
To be antiracist is to never conflate racist people with White people, knowing there are antiracist Whites and racist non-Whites. To be antiracist is to see ordinary White people as the frequent victimizers of people of color and the frequent victims of racist power. (p128-129).
Thus it should be more than clear to Christians that Kendi’s ideas are compatible with a biblical doctrine of sin. But the powerless defense is not the only concern some Christians have raised.
Softening the Sin of Racism?
Kendi’s ideas have been critiqued by some Christians as incompatible with a biblical understanding of sin, because he does not speak of racism in as pernicious a tone as some believe he should. This accusation is especially made for how he speaks of what it looks like to be racist and antiracist:
“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 (p23).
In speaking this way, Kendi appears to downgrade the seriousness of racism, and he appears to be treating racism as something that is not sin.
But Kendi is not wrong to speak in the manner that he does. It is common among critics of social justice to speak of racism as a sin of commission that can only be committed consciously, and this is a significant error that Kendi helps us correct. The truth is that we can commit sin, including the sin of racism, at varying degrees of self-awareness. Racism exists not simply as intentional acts against others but also as a false and unbiblical view of the world, a “diseased social imagination” as Willie James Jennings put it, which we can be taught and accepted uncritically. False teaching can be – and often is – received and passed on by people without due inspection, so we should not be surprised that this would be true of a racialized worldview. Paul teaches that we ought to “take every thought captive” (2 Cor. 10:5), so it is right for Kendi to call us to persistent self-examination. His thinking here is compatible with Scripture.
It is true that Kendi is not a Christian, and it is true that some of his ideas are not compatible with a biblical worldview. Jonathan Leeman is right to point out that advocates of justice, including Kendi, often have a ‘sin list’ that is different than the Bible’s; Kendi’s thinking in toto is not biblically compatible. But antiracism’s critics must acknowledge that there is significant compatibility between Kendi’s ideas and the descriptions we find of depravity in God’s Word, which points to the second reason for Christians to like Kendi’s book: he exposes the deceitfulness of racism.
Exposing the Deceitfulness of Our Depravity
One reason that it is hard to accept the critiques of antiracism is that Kendi does a better job at exposing the deceitful tendencies of racism in America than the Christian critics of antiracism do. In How To Be An Antiracist, Kendi doggedly exposes all the ways in which Americans veil a false belief that Black people are inferior. His chapters on behavioral racism, cultural racism, biological racism, and space racism, among others, diagnose the harmful imaginations of so many people, including myself. It should not be that a non-Christian has shown me my sin better than Christians have, but sadly, that is the case.
Consider how Kendi defines behavioral racism:
Behavioral Racist: One who is making individuals responsible for the perceived behavior of racial groups and making racial groups responsible for the behavior of individuals.
Behavioral Antiracist: One who is making racial group behavior fictional and individual behavior real (p92).
As a teacher in Philadelphia, it grieves me to think of how often I failed my students by racializing their behavior. And, sadly, I can testify that behavioral racism is very common among teachers and non-teachers alike. Kendi’s critique, while painful, ought to be welcomed by Christians; Christ died for us, and we honor him by opening our hearts to the light of critique.
Kendi’s explanation of behavioral racism is also illuminating for Christians because he utilizes the concept of imputation (without, of course, using the word itself):
How do we think about my young self, the C or D student, in antiracist terms? The truth is that I should be critiqued as a student–I was undermotivated and distracted and undisciplined. In other words, a bad student. But I shouldn’t be critiqued as a bad Black student. I did not represent my race any more than my irresponsible White classmates represented their race. It makes racist sense to talk about personal irresponsibility as it applies to an entire racial group. Racial-group behavior is a figment of the racist’s imagination. Individual behaviors can shape the success of individuals. But policies determine the success of groups. And it is racist power that creates the policies that cause racial inequities.
Making individuals responsible for the perceived behavior of racial groups and making whole racial groups responsible for the behavior of individuals are the two ways that behavioral racism infects our perception of the world (p94).
Though he does not use the word imputation, he is using the concept, and it helps us to see the anti-gospel nature of racism. Where Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the many by the grace of God (Rom. 5:19), we are tempted to impute the failings of poorly behaved Black individuals to all Black people. The antiracist approach, and what we should call the biblical approach, is to no longer racialize the negative behavior of some. Adam represents us in our sin, and Christ represents his people in righteousness; making anyone else representative of their people group is to distort biblical revelation.
There are many other examples where Kendi helpfully exposes racial deceitfulness, that can point Christians towards a greater knowledge of ourselves. I’ll give one more example, which is arguably a sin of omission: the problem of White people denying their Whiteness, to gain the advantages that come from this denial:
Some White people do not identify as White for the same reason they identify as not-racist: to avoid reckoning with the ways that Whiteness–even as a construction and mirage–has informed their notions of America and identity and offered them privilege, the primary one being the privilege of being inherently normal, standard, and legal (p38).
Of all people, Christians should know the impact of self-perception on how we live. Worldly identities frequently impinge upon our awareness of all that it means to be in Christ, and even if we don’t think we are guilty of accepting Whiteness as a means of escaping responsibility for pursuing justice, we can certainly welcome warnings of such threats.
Racism is destructive, and our hearts are deceitful. I’m grateful that Kendi exposes this.
Clarity and Simplicity
There are some books on racism that are, to varying degrees in various ways, difficult to read. Sometimes this is warranted, for a destructive ideology that spans centuries and nations will not always be easy to describe in simple terms. But How To Be An Antiracist cannot be accused of being hard to read or unclear. Kendi is committed to explaining all of his ideas, and committed to defining everything he says in a clear manner, so that even if, at times, his definitions can seem robotic or simplistic, he cannot be legitimately accused of academic hubris.
Consider Kendi’s view of the phrase, ‘systemic racism’. While I’m not convinced that it’s necessary to lay that particular phrase aside, Kendi makes a strong argument to that effect, specifically for the sake of clarity:
Racist policies have been described by other terms: “institutional racism,” “structural racism,” and “systemic racism,” for instance. But those are vaguer terms than “racist policy.” When I use them I find myself having to immediately explain what they mean. “Racist policy” is more tangible and exacting, and more likely to be immediately understood by people, including its victims, who may not have the benefit of extensive fluency in racial terms. “Racist policy” says exactly what the problem is and where the problem is. “Institutional racism” and “systemic racism” are redundant. Racism itself is institutional, structural, and systemic.
Kendi also helpfully speaks about complex ideas in a simple manner. The problem of understanding racial identity as a myth, for example, is difficult because race is a social construct: it is not a legitimate part of God’s original creation, but it has become a reality in our world that we cannot ignore. Kendi’s explanation of how to address this paradox is helpfully sequential:
Assimilationists believe in the post-racial myth that talking about race constitutes racism, or that if we stop identifying by race, then racism will miraculously go away. They fail to realize that if we stop using racial categories, then we will not be able to identify racial inequity. If we cannot identify racial inequity, then we will not be able to identify racist policies. If we cannot identify racist policies, then we cannot challenge racist policies. If we cannot challenge racist policies, then racist power’s final solution will be achieved: a world of inequity none of us can see, let alone resist. Terminating racial categories is potentially the last, not the first, step in the antiracist struggle (p53-54).
Other examples of clarity and simplicity in How to be an Antiracist abound.
Today, churches and Christians are fighting to stay united; using simple language is essential for communication that facilitates unity. Kendi’s commitment to clear and unencumbered writing can help Christians communicate about race in helpful ways.
Unity and Mutual Benefit
One of the most practically helpful concepts for racial justice that Kendi writes about, is how antiracism is beneficial for everyone, including white people. His argument is not a passionate call for unity without substance, which many well-intentioned people tend towards, but is historically informed and biblically compatible. George Yancey has critiqued antiracism as seemingly unaware of the sociology of group interest, but How To Be An Antiracist generally, and Kendi’s chapter, ‘White’, in particular, significantly undermines Yancey’s critique. Consider what Kendi says about the benefits of antiracism for White people:
To be antiracist is to never mistake the global march of White racism for the global march of White people. To be antiracist is to never mistake the antiracist hate of White racism for the racist hate of White people. To be antiracist is to never conflate racist people with White people, knowing there are antiracist Whites and racist non-Whites. To be antiracist is to see ordinary White people as the frequent victimizers of people of color and the frequent victims of racist power. Donald Trump’s economic policies are geared toward enriching White male power–but at the expense of most of his White male followers, along with the rest of us.
We must discern the difference between racist power (racist policymakers) and White people. For decades, racist power contributed to stagnating wages… and steering funding for schools into prison and military budgets, policies that have often drawn a backlash from some White people…
Of course, ordinary White people benefit from racist policies, though not nearly as much as racist power and not nearly as much as they could from an equitable society, one where the average White voter could have as much power as superrich White men to decide elections and shape policy (p128-129).
Many of the values of the world involve grasping for power and privilege over others. This is how disunity is perpetuated. But the best of antiracist thinking necessarily calls everyone to pursue the mutual benefit of all.
When Christians label antiracism as ‘anti-gospel’ or ‘Marxist’ we are illegitimately totalizing antiracist thinking; we err when we impute the problems of a thinker and a book to the entirety of their thinking. Unity, and seeking the good of all, are Christian values, so when they are also significant values of the best of antiracist thinking, we must engage with it, not reject it outright. It is a demonstration of Christian discernment and confidence in our faith to read Kendi’s work and find helpful paths towards unity.
Personable and Humble
The fifth reason for Christians to like How To Be An Antiracist is that it is very personable, replete with examples of humility on Kendi’s part. The book is semi-autobiographical, with Kendi’s life experiences, good, bad and ugly serving as illustrations for each chapter’s topic. Kendi tells of the burdens he carried as a youth that no young person should have to carry:
The responsibility of keeping myself safe followed me like the stray dogs in my neighborhood, barking fear into my consciousness. I never wanted to arrive home to my parents with empty pockets and no shoes, with a leaking, beaten body like the Indian kid. Or worse, no arrival at all, only a letter from the police reporting my murder…
I believed that violence didn’t define just Smurf but all the Black people around me, my school, my neighborhood. I believed it defined me–that I should fear all darkness, up to and including my own Black body (p77)
This burden was not one that came only or primarily from those with antipathy towards Black people but also from those who were well meaning:
Generations of Black bodies have been raised by the judges of “uplift suasion.”… I felt the burden my whole Black life to be perfect before both White people and the Black people judging whether I am representing the race well. The judges never let me just be, be myself, be my imperfect self (p203)
Kendi frequently confesses a failure to see racism in his heart and failure to treat others as he would want to be treated:
When I lashed out at well-meaning people who showed the normal impulse of fear, who used the incorrect terminology, who asked the incorrect question–oh, did I think I was so radical. When my… scorched-earth writings sent readers fleeing, oh, did I think I was so radical. When, in fact, if all my words were doing was sounding radical, then those words were not radical at all (p212).
Similar confessions abound throughout the book.
Kendi’s humility is refreshing and it serves as a caution. It cautions antiracist zeal that may at times destroy those who could be won over as allies by mercy. And it corrects white moderates who primarily see cancel culture in zealous antiracist advocates. It is a reminder of the need we all have for grace, even though, sadly, Kendi does not point to that grace. But his example is still highly commendable and useful for us to follow in the midst of any disagreement:
When our vicious attacks on open-minded consumers of racist ideas fail to transform them, we blame their hate rather than our impatient and alienating hate of them. When people fail to consume our convoluted antiracist ideas, we blame their stupidity rather than our stupid lack of clarity. When we transform people and do not show them an avenue of support, we blame their lack of commitment rather than our lack of guidance. When the politician we supported does not change racist policy, we blame the intractability of racism rather than our support of the wrong politician (p213)
Kendi’s personal openness and humility makes How To Be An Antiracist appealing and accessible for all people. And for Christians, Kendi demonstrates a humility that we can commend and learn from.
Christians should like How To Be An Antiracist, because it is generally compatible with a doctrine of sin, it exposes the deceitfulness of racism, it is written in a clear and simple manner, orienting antiracism to the unity of mutual benefit, and it is personable and humble.
But there are some ideas in the book that Christians will, and should, disagree with.
Five Areas of Disagreement
The problems in How To Be An Antiracist are not at all enough to recommend against reading and learning from it, but they are important to note, for Christian discernment is not legitimately exercised by virtue signaling but by thoughtful engagement. And Kendi writes in a manner that invites dialogue; it is a manner that is gracious and firm in agreement and disagreement. So I note these areas of disagreement, not for the sake of maintaining some abstract ideal of balance but because wisdom and unity are cultivated by thoughtful disagreement.
The most significant problem for Christians in How To Be An Antiracist is Kendi’s uncompromising stance on supporting LGBTQ identities. Given that Kendi is not a Christian and that we cannot expect non-believers to always espouse Christian ideas, it might be tempting to overlook this area of disagreement. But we should expect Kendi to be consistent in his principles and ideas, and Kendi is not consistent in his anthropology. Consider his explanation of the ‘performance’ of masculinity:
I assumed Black gay men performed femininity. I did not know that some gay men, like Weckea, perform masculinity and actually prefer gay men who perform femininity for partners. I did not know… about gender being an authentic performance; that the ways men and women traditionally act are not tied to their biology; that men can authentically perform femininity as effectively as women can authentically perform masculinity. Authentically, meaning they are not acting, as the transphobic idea assumes (p196).
Kendi’s thinking here is not consistent. If there is an authentic masculinity that can be performed, what is authentic masculinity? And how can a performance of it be authentic? Is a performance not an imitation rather than the real thing?
A whole host of questions follow this, related to authority, the role of biology, and treating all that feels natural as inherently good. It is likely that Kendi would appeal to individual autonomy and self-determinism as authoritative, but this is still not consistent and clear, for Kendi believes in the authority of principles over the autonomy of racists. He believes that biology authoritatively proves race to be a myth, no matter what any racist individual feels is real. He believes in the authority of moral principles over individual assimilationist intent. Phenomenology cannot rule over ontology and biology at some times and not others. Treating individuality as authoritative may sound philosophically consistent, but it cannot consistently be treated as authoritative.
None of this is at all to say that great care and attention must not be given to those who identify as LGBTQ. They are made in the image of God, just as all of us are. As Kendi notes, transgender people in particular face great challenges:
All Black lives include those of poor transgender Black women, perhaps the most violated and oppressed of all the Black intersectional groups. The average U.S. life expectancy of a transgender woman of color is thirty-five years (p197).
Christians have to be willing to look at such a statistic and not simply shrug our shoulders. The murders of trans-identifying people is an act of direct opposition to the truth that they are made in the image of God. Caring for trans-people is challenging, because of how our culture demands that we affirm their identity, and because no other Christians in history were in a position of trying to imagine what that care looks like for someone who denies their biological sex. But that does not excuse turning a blind eye to murders, nor does it excuse the tendency of too many Christians who, after hearing about trans- and gay issues immediately and unnecessarily pivot to defending religious liberty. It is absolutely true that homosexual and transgender rights are used as a tool to abuse religious liberty, but part of how Christians lost credibility on this is through how badly we have understood race AND how rarely we have even attempted to care for LGBTQ people.
Christians must be antiracist AND seek to care for those who call us phobic AND be proponents of God’s Word. Sadly, Kendi makes no space for this:
Queer antiracism is equating all the race-sexualities, striving to eliminate the inequities between the race-sexualities. We cannot be antiracist if we are homophobic or transphobic. We must continue to “affirm that all Black lives matter,” as the co-founder of Black Lives Matter, Opal Tometi, once said (p197).
As Christians, we live between the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’, which means that we live aware of the great difference between how God intended to create the world and how the world actually is. Thus we know that it is not hateful to warn trans-identifying people against dismissing their biological sex, even if they tell us that it is. It is also how we know that it is not hateful to warn gay people against rejecting the complementarity of male and female bodies. Clear anthropology would help to move forward in this conflict, and Kendi, lamentably makes no effort in this direction.
How To Be An Antiracist is a book full of optimism, despite the fact that Kendi is clear about how hard it is to fight racism. His own personal story of learning and changing is what gives hope throughout the book, and at the end, after comparing racism to cancer, Kendi says, “Racism has always been terminal and curable. Racism has always been recognizable and mortal (p223). He later adds, “Racism is not even six hundred years old. It’s a cancer that we’ve caught early. But racism is one of the fastest-spreading and most fatal cancers humanity has ever known (p238).
Initially, Kendi sounds correct here. He has great hope, while aware that fighting racism is hard. Christians certainly can and should get behind this combination of seeking hope and acknowledging hardship. But our differences with Kendi here are worth clarifying.
Christians have more than six hundred years of history to prove how hard it is to fight racism. The incident between Peter and Paul in Galatians 2, and the conflict surrounding Moses’ Cushite wife in Numbers 11 are merely two examples among many others in Scripture, of racism in religious seed form. And given the deceitfulness of sin (Jer. 17:9), we can easily imagine that racism may take other veiled forms in the future, perhaps along the lines of political ideology.
Christians have also had more than six hundred years to know how strong sin is, and we have more than six hundred years to see how great the Spirit of God is, in sanctifying his people. We have God’s Word informing us that the fight is hard but that the hope for change is real.
Kendi does not see and speak of sin and grace as the biblical witness does, which means that I am concerned that there will come a day where he despairs of the lack of change in America in fighting racism. I hope that he will turn outside of himself for answers if that happens. So, while Kendi is good at seeing the hope for change and the challenges ahead for fighting racism, he presents what is ultimately a too-superficial understanding of history and eschatology that is caught up in the immanent frame.
One manifestation of this kind of difference can be seen in Kendi’s methodology for fighting racism. He is opposed to what he calls moral and educational suasion:
Moral and educational suasion focus on persuading White people, on appealing to their moral conscience through horror and their logical mind through education. But what if racist ideas make people illogical? What if persuading everyday White people is not persuading racist policymakers? What if racist policymakers know about the harmful outcomes of their policies? (p205-206).
His skepticism is absolutely reasonable. History, as his book, Stamped From the Beginning ably demonstrates, bears out the reality that racist power is behind racist policies and racist ideas. It’s only logical then, to seek and use power for the sake of creating antiracist policies as the easiest way to pursue change.
But the pursuit of power creates an identity issue for Christians that we have been learning the hard way for centuries. Christians cannot be politically powerful as a people without troubling consequences, and God is not interested in rubber-stamping our desires for worldly strength. When Christians are placed in positions of power – and inevitably we are to various degrees, whether that is within the church or in government or our daily work – we must work for the antiracist good of all. But to get behind the paradigm shift that Kendi desires, Christians can never give up efforts to persuade people through education and moral example for the sake of taking power. As with other problems in the book, Kendi’s diagnosis of the problem is excellent, but his solutions fall short because they are constrained by the immanent frame.
One of the topics that Kendi addresses is what he calls ‘singular-race makers’ or ‘one-race makers’:
Christian fundamentalist Ken Ham, the co-author of One Race One Blood, asked in an op-ed in 2017. “For one, point out the common ground of both evolutionists and creationists: the mapping of the human genome concluded that there is only one race, the human race.”
Singular-race makers push for the end of categorizing and identifying by race. They wag their fingers at people like me identifying as Black–but the unfortunate truth is that their well-meaning post-racial strategy makes no sense in our racist world. 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 (p53-54).
Kendi is right to address anyone who is attempting to imagine away the problem of racism. It is pure foolishness to think that a particular sin or problem cannot exist simply because God did not originally make the world as such. Ontological reality does not eliminate phenomenology.
But we must also say that it is precisely the reality that God made one race, the human race, that exposes the sin and failed imagination of racist thinking for what it is. God did not create the racial divide, fallen humanity did. So Kendi is right to say that race is a mirage, and he is right to also say that humanity has organized itself around race in very real ways; we must hold both of these truths in tension.
So Kendi is undermining his own argument by speaking pejoratively of ‘one-race makers’. In one sense this is a semantic complaint, but it is more than that. Kendi believes, as he should, that identifying racism accurately is key to rooting it out. As such, there needs to be a better way to identify people who are saying the right thing but doing the wrong thing. ‘One-race makers’ would be better replaced by a phrase speaking to the attempt to imagine away sin; to speak of ‘race-dismissers’ or ‘colorblindness advocates’ would be more accurate.
In How To Be An Antiracist, Kendi addresses the intersection of race and class, and his arguments are helpful insofar as he exposes the manner in which people today continue to racialize class differences. He asks good questions about capitalism, demonstrating the importance of having a historically informed understanding of capitalism:
Since the dawn of racial capitalism, when were markets level playing fields? When could working people compete equally with capitalists? When could Black people compete equally with White people? When could African nations compete equally with European nations? When did the rules not generally benefit the wealthy and White nations? Humanity needs honest definitions of capitalism and racism based in the actual living history of the conjoined twins (p162)
These are good and necessary questions. But Kendi categorically rejects capitalism, and while I don’t agree with such a conclusion, his manner of argumentation in getting there leaves something to be desired. As with other objections I’ve raised, the problem isn’t necessarily with his idea per se, but with the logic that underlies it. Consider his argument:
I use “anticapitalist” because conservative defenders of capitalism regularly say their liberal and socialist opponents are against capitalism. They say efforts to provide a safety net for all people are “anticapitalist.” They say attempts to prevent monopolies are “anticapitalist.” They say efforts that strengthen weak unions and weaken exploitative owners are “anticapitalist.” …In doing so, these conservative defenders are defining capitalism. They define capitalism as the freedom to exploit people into economic ruin (p161).
These are powerful accusations. But defining an economic system by the failings of it’s progenitors is not a logical way to come to a definition. Defining any broad system of thought by the failings of politicians and money-makers who implement that system will never adequately illumine all the rights and wrongs of that system.
Kendi does acknowledge that there is a more common and idealized definition of capitalism, but much like the ‘one-race makers’ he does not effectively distinguish phenomenology from abstract ideas, in this case, economic philosophy:
Either the new economic system will not be capitalist or the old system it replaces was not capitalist. They cannot both be capitalist.
When Senator Warren and others define capitalism in this way–as markets and market rules and competition and benefits from winning–they are disentangling capitalism from theft and racism and sexism and imperialism. If that’s their capitalism, I can see how they can remain capitalist to the bone. However, history does not affirm this definition of capitalism. Markets and market rules and competition and benefits from winning existed long before the rise of capitalism in the modern world. What capitalism introduced to this mix was global theft, racially uneven playing fields, unidirectional wealth that rushes upward in unprecedented amounts (p162)
Defining what an ideology is, by what it does, is wrong. There will always be a difference between the aspirations of a system of thought and the actual results of that system of thought. Knowing what an ideology is, as both the idea and the results of that idea is of critical importance, but it is a critical distinction that Kendi does not allow here. Given Kendi’s openness to critique and reevaluation, it would not surprise me if, in a few years, he acknowledges this as a procedural failing, even if his conclusions about capitalism remain the same.
Immanence and Legalism
The fifth problem to consider with How To Be An Antiracist, is the legalism that naturally stems from only thinking within the immanent frame. Without the gospel, advocacy for justice will always fall short in some way, and legalistic calls to ‘do more’ and ‘be better’ inevitably result. Kendi is not a Christian, but he is a very thoughtful man, and it is not wrong to expect him to see some of the potential shortcomings of his thinking, especially when it comes to advocacy. For instance, consider how Kendi describes his own failings:
I feel free to move in my imperfections. I represent only myself. If the judges draw conclusions about millions of Black people based on how I act, then they, not I, not Black people, have a problem. They are responsible for their racist ideas; I am not. I am responsible for my racist ideas; they are not. To be antiracist is to let me be me, be myself, be my imperfect self (p205).
Kendi is absolutely right to not accept the banner that racists would place over him as a Black man. He is not beholden to their false representation of him. But he is not free to move in his imperfections – none of us are – and it is not right for us to describe our failings as mere imperfections. Our failings are far worse than imperfections. We do wrong to God and to others, we harm them. Racism, as Kendi has shown, should not be an indelible mark on someone’s life, but neither should it be spoken of as less than harmful.
Kendi is so good at describing the harm of racism, and describing the hypocrisy and immorality of it, but his framing and vocabulary does not help him to consistently comprehend how bad we all are as human beings. Though Kendi would not use words like sin and heresy, it is not wrong to expect him to consistently use words with equivalent weight. Thought patterns bound within the immanent frame cannot give a full account of our experience of the world.
There is so much to like about Kendi’s How To Be An Antiracist. His influence makes him important for Christians to be aware of in and of itself, but the compatibility of his thinking with Scripture’s portrayal of sin, along with his thorough, humbling and irenic exposure of the deceitfulness of racism make for significant reasons to like his most recent bestseller. The book’s intelligibility and personable tone make it readable and useful for clear communication about justice among believers.
The book sadly does fail on a number of counts, including its uncompromising stance on LGBTQ identity, some inconsistent logic, and a restricted imagination bound by the immanent frame. These failings are, in one sense, unsurprising, for Kendi’s unbelief is not something he hides, but they are failings nonetheless.
Noting Kendi’s achievements and failings is not to idolize moderation and balance, which are too often a means of undermining the importance of social justice. Rather, in so doing we develop our discernment and more helpfully open ourselves and others to that which can be gained by reading Kendi’s work.
To wade thoughtfully into debates about justice in a polarized world feels like an exercise in futility, for it is virtually impossible to avoid the appearance of affirming what is wrong on one side when we criticize what is wrong on the other. But thoughtfully speaking into the problems of justice in our age is not an option, and Kendi’s How To Be An Antiracist helps us to do so.
I this this is a pretty good review and I appreciate the charitable reading. I do think some of your critiques do have problems though.
For instance when he critiques the “one race” advocates he is not debating the biological reality. He is pointing out that biological reality doesn’t trump sociological reality. Both exist even if the sociological reality is a construction. There are many things that have a sociological constriction that are not biologically (or physically) real. Paper money for instance has a social reality that says that a $1 bill is worth significantly less than and $100 bill even though they are fundamentally physically the same. We cannot be either/or here. We have to appreciate the reality of a single race while admitting the sociological reality. As a Christian it is a escatalogical reality that we are Unified as a church, but not completely.
The “biological reality” group in the church often uses that true biological reality to suggest that any pointing out of the sociological reality is a violation of the biological reality. The truth, albeit partial, of the biological reality is used as a weapon to counter act the also real sociological reality instead of acknowledging the sociological reality as a means to counter it and being about actual unity.
I think even in the more difficult LGBTQ area which the church as a whole is not going to agree with him, there can be some agreement in that there should not be homophobic opposition to real people that are LGBTQ. While most christians do not now advocate punishment for being gay, there are some that still do and many that have moved away from that have relatively recently moved away from that.
Kendi is not going to be a 100% Christian approach. But I think this is easier to read through Christian eyes than a number of books in the Christian tradition that advocate segregation or slavery.
Hey Adam! Thanks for sharing. I’m actually with you on seeing the difference between biology and sociology, and that Kendi sees the difference between them as well. My issue with his approach to ‘one-race makers’ is that it is not a helpful designation to make the argument that he is making.
And I’m with you on LGBTQ issues. There is absolutely room for agreement between both sides. My issue with Kendi is that his anthropology is inconsistent, and that his approach makes no space for pursuing areas of agreement.
Those critiques are certainly not major. The benefits from reading Kendi very much outweigh the areas of disagreement.
[…] Yes? “[Kendi’s] book[ is] useful for clear communication about justice among believers.” — Mere Orthodoxy’s antiracist Bill Melone […]
[…] Book Review: How to be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi(Bill Melone, Mere Orthodoxy): “But recent criticism of social justice advocacy and the Black Lives Matter movement has failed to criticize the best of antiracist thinking, and is much the lesser for it. This is particularly true when that criticism does not engage seriously with the work of Ibram X. Kendi.” […]
[…] and “White Privilege.” This move is by no means unique to CNN and MSNBC. A recent article at Mere Orthodoxy managed to review Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be An Antiracist without ever […]
[…] Fragility” and “White Privilege.” This move is by no means unique to CNN and MSNBC. A recent article at Mere Orthodoxy managed to review Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be An Antiracist without ever […]