Meet Your New Commissar

Meet Your New Commissar

Black Studies star Ibram X. Kendi has plans for you.

Bruce Bawer

Among the byproducts of the worldwide mayhem and destruction carried out in solemn memory of career criminal George Floyd is that books on racism are selling almost as briskly as guns. As I write this, the #3 bestseller on Amazon is something called How to Be an Antiracist by one Ibram X. Kendi.

This book is Kendi’s third. The first was The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965–1972 (2012); the second, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (2016), won the National Book Award, led to a Guggenheim Fellowship, and propelled Kendi, three years ago, from a low-level teaching job at the University of Florida to a position as full professor and head of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University.

Next month, in a further move up the academic ladder, Kendi, age 37, will take up a plum post as director of the brand-new Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. He’ll also publish Antiracist Baby, a “board book” for very young children (already #15 on Amazon) “that introduces the youngest readers and the grown-ups in their lives to the concept and power of anti-racism.”

But we’re here to talk about How to Be an Antiracist, in which Kendi frames his life story as an account of how he came to understand race properly. Born Ibram Henry Rogers in Queens, N.Y., Kendi was raised by liberationist Christians who encouraged him to be a rebel. But he soon got out of hand even for them. By seven years old he had become a veritable Greta Thunberg of race, challenging the only black teacher at a school in which his parents were thinking of enrolling him:

“Are you the only Black teacher?”

“Yes, but—”

I cut her off. “Why are you the only Black teacher?”…

“Why are you asking that question?” she asked nicely.

“If you have so many Black kids, you should have more Black teachers,” I said.

“The school hasn’t hired more Black teachers.”


“I don’t know.”

“Why don’t you know?” 

Smart kid? Not exactly. In high school, Kendi tells us, his “SAT score barely cracked 1000,” so he thought he was “too dumb for college.” He now believes that “intelligence is as subjective as beauty” and that he’d been wrong to use “‘objective’ standards, like test scores and report cards, to judge myself.” As a teen, we learn, he “hated what they called civilization” and “was an intuitive believer in multiculturalism.” As an undergrad at Florida A&M, he decided that white people were space aliens. (Yes, literally.)

He went on to Temple University, where he received a doctorate in African American Studies, which, like all “identity studies” disciplines, is a load of hogwash designed for people who are otherwise, yes, too dumb for college. Never having encountered a real idea, they’re presented with a handful of simple statements about group identity and oppression and are told that they’re in the presence of sophisticated theories. Meanwhile, on the other side of campus, people their age are learning how to build skyscrapers, perform brain surgery, and cure diseases.

If you doubt this, then by all means read Kendi’s book, because it’s proof positive of just how dumb African American Studies is. Kendi paints a human race divided neatly into racists and antiracists and dreams of a golden future time in which everyone will be antiracist, and where everything, consequently, will be just dandy. It’s not enough, mind you, to be non-racist; no, if you’re not actively struggling against racism you’re a part of the problem.

And what a problem it is! In an interview this month, the black author Shelby Steele told Mark Levin: “Blacks have never been less oppressed than they are today. Opportunity is around every corner.” Contrast this with Kendi, who maintains: “Our world is suffering from metastatic cancer. Stage 4. Racism has spread to nearly every part of the body politic, intersecting with bigotry of all kinds.” What, he asks, “if we treated racism in the way we treat cancer?” He elaborates:

Saturate the body politic with the chemotherapy or immunotherapy of antiracist policies that shrink the tumors of racial inequities, that kill undetectable cancer cells. Remove any remaining racist policies, the way surgeons remove the tumors. Ensure there are clear margins, meaning no cancer cells of inequity left in the body politic, only the healthy cells of equity. Encourage the consumption of healthy foods for thought and the regular exercising of antiracist ideas, to reduce the likelihood of a recurrence. Monitor the body politic closely, especially where the tumors of racial inequity previously existed. Detect and treat a recurrence early, before it can grow and threaten the body politic.

If Kendi is preoccupied with cancer, it’s because, as he recounts in this book, he was recently cured of stage-4 colon cancer – very much against the odds – by six months of chemotherapy followed by an operation. This is a man who considers affirmative action obligatory in every sector: “The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.” But would Kendi really want to be treated by oncologists and surgeons who barely cracked 1000 on the SATs and who got into med school – and got hired by some hospital – only because of their race?

How does Kendi define anti-racism? “To be antiracist,” he argues, “is to reject cultural standards and level cultural difference.” In her recent book The Diversity Delusion, Heather Mac Donald examines the vexing fact that black students consistently score far lower on standardized tests than members of other groups. This can’t be blamed on poverty or racism: even well-off black kids routinely do worse than, say, South Asians from poor families. It’s impossible not to look to cultural factors: fatherless families, for example, and communities that encourage criminality and that mock studiousness.

But Kendi isn’t having it. In his view, it’s racist to measure the performance of young blacks and to compare it to that of kids from other groups. Yes, he says, if some individual black kid does poorly in school, it’s OK to try to deal with his problem; but to notice that black kids as a group do poorly, and to try to figure out why and to address it responsibly? No. Because then you’re indicting black culture. And culture is not to be questioned or criticized.

The same goes for black crime. To agonize over “black on black crime,” or to suggest that it’s unhealthy for black kids to grow up in neighborhoods dominated by drug dealers and heroin addicts and rampant gun violence, or to worry aloud about those kids being caught up in bad habits and losing their chances for a better future – all this is racist. And if blacks express concern about such matters, well, they’re guilty of having bought into the rhetoric of white racists.

Quoting Mac Donald’s 2016 statement that “[t]he core criminal-justice population is the black underclass,” Kendi responds: “This is the living legacy of racist power, constructing the Black race biologically and ethnically and presenting the Black body to the world first and foremost as a ‘beast,’ to use Gomes de Zurara’s term, as violently dangerous, as the dark embodiment of evil.”

Also racist, according to Kendi, is the contention by black Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Riley that high rates of black imprisonment aren’t the fault of racism but of “black behavior.” Antiracists, Kendi explains, know that “there is no such thing as racial behavior….Black behavior is as fictitious as Black genes.”  Oh, and just so you know: to “set the Black criminal alongside the White racist as the enemies of the people” is also racist. So is referring to somebody as “playing the race card.”

For Kendi, even Barack Obama is a racist, because his Race to the Top and Common Core initiatives were founded on a belief in the “achievement gap” between black and white students. Kendi acknowledges that these initiatives may have been well meant. “But what if, all along, these well-meaning efforts at closing the achievement gap have been opening the door to racist ideas? What if different environments lead to different kinds of achievement rather than different levels of achievement? What if the intellect of a low-testing Black child in a poor Black school is different from – and not inferior to – the intellect of a high-testing White child in a rich White school?” Is this really Kendi’s response to the reality of high-school seniors who can’t write a simple sentence or add a column of figures, but who’ve already fathered children out of wedlock and committed armed robberies?

Not that Kendi exempts himself from criticism. “Those of us Black writers who grew up in ‘inner city’ Black neighborhoods too often recall the violence we experienced more than the nonviolence. We don’t write about all those days we were not faced with guns in our ribs. We don’t retell all those days we did not fight, the days we didn’t watch someone get beaten in front of us.” This is like Jeffrey Daumer saying: “But what about all the guys I didn’t rape, kill, and eat?” Society today, Kendi asserts, is awash in racism, but racists deny it because “racism is steeped in denial.” I would submit that his own refusal to face up to the chronic problems of the black American subculture is a textbook case of denial.

In a long passage about America before, during, and after the Civil War, Kendi refers to white Southern slaveowners as “enslavers.” Yes, he admits, the slaves they owned were actually turned into chattel by fellow blacks back in Africa, but somehow that’s not so terrible because these Africans didn’t have a twenty-first-century concept of race. Even as he plays down the transgressions of those black enslavers, Kendi smears abolitionists for being insufficiently woke and deep-sixes the more than 350,000 white Union soldiers who died to free black slaves.

For Kendi, the paramount task of humankind is to join in one great movement of antiracist instruction and persuasion, in which antiracists continuously refine their methods until they finally succeed in ushering in a “world of equity” – that is, not equality of opportunity but equality of outcome. Kendi’s call for mass indoctrination brings to mind the Chinese Cultural Revolution, during which doctors, lawyers, and other professionals were shipped to the countryside to be “re-educated” by peasants. It’s rigid, humorless, and deeply disturbing. At the very end of the book he says that his goal is a world in which we can be “forever free,” but his notion of freedom is not yours or mine or that of the Founding Fathers.  

And he hates capitalism. “To love capitalism,” he declares, “is to end up loving racism. To love racism is to end up loving capitalism. The conjoined twins are two sides of the same destructive body.” He looks up to W.E.B. Du Bois and to Martin Luther King, Jr., but the Du Bois whom he admires is the late-period Du Bois, who’d become a Communist, and the King he admires is the late-period King, who was starting to sound like one. (Oh, and there’s also a lot of the usual stuff here about intersectionality: “We cannot be antiracist if we are homophobic or transphobic.”)

Bottom line: this book is thin gruel. Kendi’s “ideas” about changing the world wouldn’t pass muster with a middle-school kid with a basic knowledge of history. There’s more insight into race on a page of Shelby Steele or Thomas Sowell than in this whole book. But of course Kendi’s book is not meant to bring insight. It’s a hustle – period. And it’s gotten Kendi to the top of the heap. In return for his book-long whine about wealth, power, and authority, Kendi’s been amply rewarded with wealth, power, and authority. It’s depressing to see. Even more depressing is the thought of all those students in Kendi’s classrooms – and all the purchasers of his book – who think they’re acquiring wisdom from him when in fact they’re being brainwashed by a would-be commissar into a facile and dangerous ideology.

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Photo credit: Montclair Film