I recently finished Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be An Antiracist. Usually found right at the top of the list of recommended works to read in order to understand the systemic racism in our country and how best to respond, the book is both powerful and challenging. It is one I wish I could discuss with my father.
I find myself following my late father’s footsteps more and more these days. That rare breed of Southern, evangelical liberal, Tom Brown bucked the typical tendency to become more conservative as he grew older. Instead, he became much more progressive and outspoken, engaging with a wide and diverse group of acquaintances through the years. A voracious reader, he used what he learned to bring disparate views together to make a cogent point. Like Daddy, I find myself becoming more progressive with age, working to read and understand a variety of sometimes new and challenging viewpoints. I relish the journey, mind you, but take what follows with that context in mind.
I’ll return to Kendi’s ideas in due time. But like the three-part sermons of my Baptist youth, I want to begin with thoughts about the recent presidential election. Then I will tie Kendi’s book into some of the reactions resulting from the election. Finally, I’ll end with a story that may help some readers better understand Kendi’s thesis. That’s a lot to ask of one blog post, but here goes.
Part one: people of color saved democracy, so the least white people can do is work to end white supremacy
President-elect Biden has said that even in those moments when his campaign was at its lowest, the African American community stood up for him. He’s right, of course. But I’d like to respectfully suggest that Black Americans in particular, all people of color in general, and a large younger, multicultural generation of citizens, many casting a ballot for the first time, stepped up to save our democracy.
They did so by voting overwhelmingly against the racism, misogyny, incompetence, and voter suppression that defines today’s Trump-led Republicans. That is sad to say about a once-great political party that in its past supported emancipation of the slaves, civil rights for women and minorities, and — under Teddy Roosevelt — even progressive labor laws.
If we want to keep moving in the direction of democracy, it is time for white Americans to fully commit to the hard, antiracist work to repudiate white supremacy and the corresponding minority rule that is a feature of that vile belief system. It is necessary before white supremacy is allowed to return to center stage — perhaps under a more effective leader than Donald Trump — and kill our multicultural future with its foundation of diverse voices who believe in a common good that uplifts all. In other words, before it kills democracy.
Some would see that statement as hyperbole. Others call for policies that go against those supported by the young voters and communities of color who brought Joe Biden to victory. In fact, no sooner was the election called than we heard from some centrists that the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and the killing of people of color for an alleged $20 counterfeit bill “were not helpful.” A former Republican governor even pressed the narrative that Biden needs to listen to Republicans, as opposed to the “far-left,” when it comes to policy and getting things done. What both groups are saying, essentially, is to put aside the needs of those who saved democracy and, instead, listen to the whims of the country’s shrinking yet still privileged white population.
Excuse me. The Biden-Harris ticket won the election with 75 million ballots — more than any presidential candidate in history — and their lead of 4 million votes is likely to grow substantially. Former Republican governor John Kasich, who made those remarks, did not deliver Ohio to the Democrats. When considering Kasich’s pull to the political right, we should recall, as columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr. writes, that “Republicans have won the popular vote only once in the last 28 years. The country is changing in ways profoundly challenging to the GOP and the right. They’re the ones who should start worrying about being out of touch.” Republicans, current and former, are good at crafting narratives, but many are just not true. Here’s a counter-narrative that may be difficult for some to swallow, which suggests to me that it may have more than the ring of truth to it.
“Moderate white Democrats need to understand, immediately, that they’re part of a party that is simply not competitive nationally or even in most statewide races without people of color….
The statement above was made by Elie Mystal, justice correspondent for The Nation, who notes that when many whites have a choice between Trumpism and rational, compassionate white candidates, the Trump-like candidate wins. Mystal goes on to say,
The way forward for the Democratic Party is through the vision and leadership of minority communities, most especially the Black women leaders among our ranks. The quicker moderate white Democrats realize that, the more successful the party will be. The quicker they realize Stacey Abrams is the future, the less time they’ll spend getting their lunch money stolen by Mitch McConnell.
If you question that reading of the recent election and the future of our country, consider the challenges if we do not change our systems to support a more open democracy. Some of those challenges are laid out in a long piece in the Financial Times by Edward Luce. In that article he quotes Norman Ornstein of the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, who “points out that within 20 years, 30 percent of the US will elect 70 of its 100 senators.” Another commentator adds, “The US Senate is an affirmative-action programme for white, rural, Christian conservatives, who have an increasingly powerful veto over America.” Luce returns to ask the question, “Are we, as a country, able to debate whether we can change our furniture? Or has our constitution become a secular religion — too sacralised even to go there?” History should teach us, Luce notes, that nothing lasts for ever.
If we don’t consider what history has to tell us, then the U.S. could follow the historical precedent of the Ottoman empire. Politicians learn to accommodate themselves to a stagnation that saps the once-great strength and energy of a country. Eventually — as Luce, Mystal, and so many other commentators note — that which doesn’t bend, breaks.
Part two: which brings me back to Ibram X. Kendi’s important book.
If we are to defeat white supremacy, we need to understand racism. Kendi has written a work that challenges assumptions and rationalizations we all make to assure ourselves and others that we are “not racist.” What could be wrong with not being a racist? Kendi makes the argument right up front that there is “no neutrality in the racism struggle.” After 2020, I believe we all have to acknowledge that perspective as we consider how best to fight the scourge of white supremacy.
Denial is “the heartbeat of racism,” Kendi writes, and the opposite of racist isn’t “not racist.” It is “antiracist.” In slightly more than 200 pages, Kendi takes a systematic, probing, and personal approach to this question. In the very first chapter he demonstrates his own personal introduction to racism, when he acted out his racist feelings and beliefs as a teenager. In each subsequent chapter he begins with a personal story or reflection which morphs into a larger discussion about some aspect of racism and the antiracist response — ethnicity, color, class, space, gender — and comes back around to his personal story. The book ends with a deeply moving chapter that pulls his stories and the thesis together.
Throughout, Kendi notes that “being an antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.” That’s the message at the heart of this timely work. We may want to do the right thing here and there, but we become uncomfortable having to commit to persistent and never-ending awareness and examination. Yet, as Rebecca Solnit has written, “Comfort is often a code word for the right to be unaware, the right to have no twinges of one’s conscience, no reminders of suffering, the right to be a ‘we’ whose benefits are not limited by the needs and rights of any of ‘them.’” Comfort allows us to say, “I didn’t come from a slave-owning family” or “that injustice is hundreds of years old, can’t we just move along and work together?”
Part three: why am I responsible for racism?
Perhaps you are white and, believing that you are not a racist, want to push back against the ongoing persistent work that antiracism calls us to do. If so, you may benefit from reading an essay I came across in The Bitter Southerner. Nashville writer Rachel Louise Martin’s Owning Up, with its story about a high school experience and a corresponding lesson from the Biblical Book of Daniel, may seem far-fetched as a way to understand the lifetime of action, discomfort, failure, and trying again required of antiracists. But she feels the lesson she learned is fit for today, and my Baptist, Southern sensibilities understand her perspective.
Martin relates that after an incident at school, her father had her read part of the biblical story where Daniel, a man who pursued godliness even when it meant almost certain death, asks for repentance for himself and his people. (Chapter 9, starting with verse 3 for my evangelical friends.) Why? “We are all part of the world around us,” her father said. Martin writes,
“Daniel was a part of his society, and so am I. I am responsible for the institutions around me, for the systemic racism that governs the United States. I helped create this world through my choices, my preferences, my assumptions, my prejudices. I have been part of this racist structure.”
“My silence makes me part of the problem,” Martin writes. She quotes Isabel Wilkerson: “Evil asks little of the dominant caste other than to sit back and do nothing, All that it needs from bystanders is their silent complicity in the evil committed on their behalf.”
“But Daniel wasn’t only confessing to and repenting from what happened during his lifetime. He took responsibility for what the generations that had come before him had done….Daniel’s example forces me to deal with a truth I find hard to accept: we both have built better lives for ourselves because of our ancestors’ sins, and we’ve both profited from others’ pain.”
Frederick Douglass once said of Black Americans that “While a slave there was a mountain of gold on his breast to keep him down, now that he is free there is a mountain of prejudice to keep him down.” What Ibram X. Kendi, Rachel Louise Martin, and so many more are telling me is that I continue to benefit today from that mountain of gold and the mountain of prejudice. And it is up to me, as it is to each and every one of us, to own up to our culture in order to undertake the life-long antiracist work needed to change it for the better.
More to come…