Book Review: How To Be An Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi

user image 2020-07-27
By: Robert Francis
Posted in: Reflections and Ideas

Ibram X. Kendi, How To Be An Anti-Racist

Most of us in the ABCD world might consider ourselves pretty advanced in the world of anti-racism but I came away from reading How to be an Anti-Racist with my eyes open to new ways of thinking about racism This  is one of the most important books I’ve ever read for it attacks one of the most prevailing problems the United States faces, and it addresses that problem with vison, personal humility on Kendi’s part, and practicality on how difficult it will be to move from being racist to anti-racist. Fortunately, his path and therefore our paths are hopeful.

Kendi goes far beyond Black/White and White Privilege and White Supremacy and explores several forms of racism including Black on Black and Black on White.  I thought often of my own history of thinking in an assimilationist manner – thinking that certain traits were unique to different races and they could be fixed through education and behavioral change. Assimilationist means that problems are rooted in groups of people, not in individuals. For example, Blacks are; Jews are; White people are; Native Americans are; Women are; gay people are; etc.

 What is racism? Kendi posits that anytime you make a negative comment about another racial or ethnic group that makes that group inferior, that is racist. He defines anti-racism as focusing on power rather than people; on changing policies rather than groups of people. Being anti-racist is learned behavior. It takes education, it takes research, it takes personal soul searching; it takes an understanding of white privilege and how deeply you believe in the superiority of one race over another. It takes work!

 Kendi talks about several forms of racism:

  • Biological – assigning various biological traits to different racial groups. By the way, no matter what your racial or ethnic group we are all 98.6% biologically the same;
  • Ethnicity – collection of racist policies that lead to inequity between racial groups;
  • Bodily – perceiving one racial group as more violent, more deviant than others. The Black body is a crime in America;
  • Cultural – imposing a cultural hierarchy between people of various cultures;
  • Behaviorally – assigning the actions of one person to an entire group;
  • Color – policies based on color – light/dark among Blacks with one another – lighter is better; same distinction among whites – Black is bad; white good!
  • White – classifying white or European as inferior;
  • Black – the illusory thought that Black people can’t be racist because they don’t have the power. In fact, some Blacks have power and there are also white people with very little power;
  • Class – categorizing people by class as superior/inferior; a very common phenomena in America;
  • Space – Because a certain action is predominant in a particular neighborhood, that neighborhood gets classified in terms of safety and other forms of dysfunction;
  • Gender – bias both within and across races; and
  • Sexuality – bias toward whites and Blacks regarding sexual orientation both within and across races.

A true anti-racist is to be anti-racist in all of these areas. When we look at healthcare, housing, employment, education, the environment, law enforcement, etc., to be anti-racist, all policies must be of equal benefit for all, not just a particular race or group. Policies that benefit one group over another are racist. Healthcare policy in the United states is a racist policy. The only healthcare policy that is not racist is universal healthcare. Housing policy is racist since it does not give people an equal opportunity to live where they want. Clean water and clean air are not available for everyone. Do you think the people in Grosse Point, Michigan have the same amount of lead in their water as the people of Grand Rapids? Do you think the children who attend many urban schools in America have the same resources as children in suburban schools? A racist policy is any policy that does not apply universally in equal doses for all regardless of race, gender, neighborhood, class, culture or sexual orientation. To be anti-racist is to work for policies that benefit everyone in all of these areas.

 What will success look like. Kendi talks about racist polices moving to the margins and anti-racist policies moving front and center. People will stop blaming other people for their misfortune and instead, blame policies for societal problems. America would become a place where anti-racist ideas are common sense, just like racist ideas are today. What will America look like with anti-racist policies?

 White people do not benefit equally from racist policies. Rich whites not only oppress Blacks, they oppress white people as well. Most economic policies such as tax shelters, capital gains, exclusive housing, education policies that benefit private schools, bankruptcy laws, and crime policies that punish rich people for embezzling millions much more leniently than poor people selling two ounces of marijuana. Benefits fall very unequally to the rich to the exclusion of poorer people.

 We must remember that the source of racist policies does not come from ignorance and hate, but from self interest and then producing racist ideas to defend and rationalize the inequitable effects of their policies, while everyday people consume these ideas which spark ignorance and hate. It started with slavery. Slavery was a policy that paid great economic benefits to Southern slaveowners but also Northern bankers and wealthy people who sold their cotton and agricultural goods to Europe at reduced prices. If you don’t have to pay your workers, you gain a great economic benefit. 

 Kendi ends with what can we do to become more anti-racist?

  • First, we have to admit racial inequity is a problem of bad policy, not bad people. Each policy needs to have an anti-racist lens placed on it and it needs to be changed to apply equally for all;
  • We can join an anti-racist organization and protest current policies;
  • We can donate time and money to anti-racist organizations;
  • We can examine the intersections of where racism is mixed with other bigotries or ism’s and seek to change our ideas;
  • We can join the struggle by tracking where we personally stand on racist polices from which we benefit and develop anti-racist approaches to these policies;
  • We can monitor ourselves about anytime we make a comment about another racial group that is negative and makes people feel inferior. This one is hard because it assumes assimilationist thinking that assigns problems to groups and doesn’t separate the majority of people in that group that do not have that problem;
  • Stop using terms like colorblind. To be colorblind is blind and is racist;
  • Stop inviting Black people, women, gay, immigrants to your meetings and ask them to represent their race, gender, sexual preference, etc.;
  • Invent or find anti-racist policy that can eliminate racial inequity;
  • Figure out which groups have the power to institute anti-racist policy and focus your efforts there;
  • Disseminate information about the uncovered racist policies in your community as well as the anti-racist correctives;
  • Work with anti-racist power groups to drive from authority the unsympathetic racist policymakers in order to effect anti-racist policy;
  • Monitor the new policies closely to assure the anti-racist policies actually eliminate racial inequity;
  • When policies fail, do not blame people. Start over and tweak your policies so they work; and
  • Monitor very closely to ensure new racist policies from being instituted.

 We lost a great champion of that philosophy this past week in John Lewis. I believe he said it best – “You must be bold, brave and courageous. You must find a way to get in the way!” We must all stand together to keep John’s flame for justice burning.

 Kendi and his wife Sadiqa both had metastatic cancer and he proposes that we treat racism like cancer. Saturate the body politic with chemotherapy of anti-racist policies that shrink the tumors of racial inequity. Remove any remaining active cells the way surgeons do with cancer patients. Check out and treat the margins to make sure you got all of it. Always remember that racism is the fastest spreading and most fatal cancer humanity has ever known. Believe in the power that the cancer will not return just as the racist policies do not return. We can never lose hope.

 Today we stand at a crossroads. With the senseless murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, America’s Blacks and Whites for the first time appear to be joining together. It is not a time to rest but to capitalize on the national unrest and turn over every racist rock in America and begin to institute anti-racist polices in their place.


Robert Francis




Robert Francis
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Group facilitation, program and strategy development, community organizing, understanding implicit bias, youth development, juveniel and adult criminal justice reform

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