What is racism and what is antiracism?
Within the past three years Professor Ibram X. Kendi, director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, has written two path breaking and controversial books addressing these questions. Professor Kendi defines a racist idea as “any idea that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way.” He defines a racist policy as “any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups.”
Racism, according to Professor Kendi, is “a marriage of racist policies and racist ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequities.”
Antiracism is the opposite of racism. Kendi defines an antiracist idea as “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.” Antiracism is “is a powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to racial equity and are substantiated by antiracist ideas.”
Professor Kendi claims there is no middle ground between racism and antiracism. Every policy pertaining to race is either racist or antiracist. The claim that a race-relevant policy is neutral or nonracist is merely a cover for racism. Moreover, Kendi argues that racial discrimination can be a good thing. Discrimination that produces racial inequality is racist and bad.
But discrimination that fosters racial equity is antiracist and therefore positive. In fact equity-generating racial discrimination is essential to overcome the long history of policies that induce racism.
The history of racism in the United States has focused on black people and has involved conflict between three different approaches: segregation, assimilation, and antiracism. The segregationist approach considers black people inherently inferior to white people. Thus racial equality between blacks and whites is both undesirable and impossible to achieve.
The assimilationist approach, by contrast, denies that black people are inherently inferior to white people. However, assimilationists maintain that the history of racial oppression has generated certain pathological patterns in black culture and black behavior. Racial equality can be achieved only if these pathological patterns are overcome and black people assimilate to white society.
Many important black leaders, including Barack Obama and W.E.B. Du Bois (for most of his life), have been assimilationists. Professor Kendi considers both the segregationist and the assimilationist approaches to be forms of racism. The assimilationist approach is racist because it implies that something is wrong with black people and that the black group is currently inferior to the white group.
The antiracist approach has always existed, but has usually been a small minority. The antiracist approach stresses racial equality and denies that there is anything pathological about black culture or anything wrong with black people considered as a group. Racial policies, not racial groups, can be pathological. Individuals of all racial groups sometimes behave badly, but bad behavior does not characterize the groups to which they belong.
The three approaches, Kendi emphasizes, are not static. They have evolved over time while maintaining their essential character. The segregationist approach, for example, is manifest in the racial policies and rhetoric of Donald Trump.
Professor Kendi regards racism and capitalism as “conjoined twins”. He writes that “Capitalism is essentially racist; racism is essentially capitalist. They were birthed together from the same unnatural causes, and they shall one day die together from unnatural causes.” Racism, therefore, cannot be abolished without abolishing capitalism and, conversely, capitalism cannot be terminated without terminating racism.
Toward the end of his most recent book, How to Be an Antiracist (2019), Professor Kendi reveals he is suffering from colon cancer, but has been treated with apparent success. He concludes the book by making an analogy between cancer and racism: “racism is one of the fastest-spreading and most fatal cancers humanity has ever known.”
And he suggests that racism might be excised were it combatted with the collective energy and acumen that have animated the treatment of cancer.
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