Read How to Be an Antiracist Online

Authors: Ibram X. Kendi

How to Be an Antiracist (14 page)

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, destroying unions, deregulating banks and corporations, and steering funding for schools into prison and military budgets, policies that have often drawn a backlash from some White people. White economic inequality, for instance, soared to the point that the so-called “99 percenters” occupied Wall Street in 2011, and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders ran a popular presidential campaign against the “billionaire class” in 2016.

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. Where their kids’ business-class schools could resemble the first-class prep schools of today’s superrich. Where high-quality universal healthcare could save millions of White lives. Where they could no longer face the cronies of racism that attack them: sexism, ethnocentrism, homophobia, and exploitation.

Racist power, hoarding wealth and resources, has the most to lose in the building of an equitable society. As we’ve learned, racist power produces racist policies out of self-interest and then produces racist ideas to justify those policies. But racist ideas also suppress the resistance to policies that are detrimental to White people, by convincing average White people that inequity is rooted in “personal failure” and is unrelated to policies. Racist power manipulates ordinary White people into resisting equalizing policies by drilling them on what they are losing with equalizing policies and how those equalizing policies are anti-White. In 2017, most White people
identified anti-White discrimination as a serious problem. “If you apply for a job, they seem to give the Blacks the first crack at it,” said sixty-eight-year-old Tim Hershman of Ohio to an NPR reporter. African Americans are getting unfair handouts, “and it’s been getting worse for Whites,” Hershman said. Hershman was complaining of losing a promotion to a Black finalist, even though it was actually another White person who got the job.

Claims of anti-White racism in response to antiracism are as old as civil rights. When Congress passed the (first) Civil Rights Act of 1866, it made Black people citizens of the United States, stipulated their civil rights, and stated that state law could not “deprive a person of any of these rights on the basis of race.”
President Andrew Johnson reframed this antiracist bill as a “bill made to operate in favor of the colored against the white race.” Racist Americans a century later framed supporters of affirmative action as “
hard-core racists of reverse discrimination,” to quote former U.S. solicitor general Robert Bork in
The Wall Street Journal
in 1978. When
Alicia Garza typed “Black Lives Matter” on Facebook in 2013 and when that love letter crested into a movement in 2015, former New York City mayor Rudy
Giuliani called the movement “inherently racist.”

White racists do not want to define racial hierarchy or policies that yield racial inequities as racist. To do so would be to define their ideas and policies as racist. Instead, they define policies not rigged for White people as racist. Ideas not centering White lives are racist. Beleaguered White racists who can’t imagine their lives not being the focus of any movement respond to “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter.” Embattled police officers who can’t imagine losing their right to racially profile and brutalize respond with “Blue Lives Matter.”

Ordinary White racists function as soldiers of racist power. Dealing each day with
these ground troops shelling out racist abuse, it is hard for people of color not to hate ordinary White people. Anti-White racist ideas are usually a reflexive reaction to White racism. Anti-White racism is indeed the hate that hate produced, attractive to the victims of White racism.

And yet racist power thrives on anti-White racist ideas—more hatred only makes their power greater. When Black people recoil from White racism and concentrate their hatred on everyday White people, as I did freshman year in college, they are not fighting racist power or racist policymakers. In losing focus on racist power, they fail to challenge anti-Black racist policies, which means those policies are more likely to flourish. Going after White people instead of racist power prolongs the policies harming Black life. In the end, anti-White racist ideas, in taking some or all of the focus off racist power, become anti-Black. In the end, hating White people becomes hating Black people.

hating Black people becomes hating White people.

On October 15, 2013, workers unveiled a twelve-by-twenty-four-foot sign near a major roadway in Harrison, Arkansas, known in those parts as Klan territory. The same sign showed up on billboards overlooking major roadways from Alabama to Oregon. Passing drivers saw
bold black letters against a yellow background:

Robert Whitaker, who ran for vice president of the United States in 2016 on the American Freedom Party’s ticket, popularized this declaration in a 2006 piece called “The Mantra.” This mantra has become scripture to the self-identified “swarm” of White supremacists who hate people of color and Jews and fear the “ongoing program of genocide against my race, the white race,” as Whitaker claimed.

History tells a different story. Contrary to “the mantra,” White supremacists are the ones supporting policies that benefit racist power against the interests of the majority of White people. White supremacists claim to be pro-White but refuse to acknowledge that climate change is having a disastrous impact on the earth White people inhabit. They oppose affirmative-action programs, despite White women being their primary beneficiaries. White supremacists rage against Obamacare even as
43 percent of the people who gained lifesaving health insurance from 2010 to 2015 were White. They heil Adolf Hitler’s Nazis, even though it was the Nazis who launched a world war that
destroyed the lives of more than forty million White people and ruined Europe. They wave Confederate flags and defend Confederate monuments, even though the Confederacy started a civil war that ended with
more than five hundred thousand White American lives lost—more than every other American war combined. White supremacists love what America used to be, even though America used to be—and still is—teeming with millions of struggling White people. White supremacists blame non-White people for the struggles of White people when any objective analysis of their plight primarily implicates the rich White Trumps they support.

White supremacist is code for anti-White, and White supremacy is nothing short of an ongoing program of genocide against the White race. In fact, it’s more than that: White supremacist is code for anti-human,
a nuclear ideology that poses an existential threat to human existence.

White hate into my sophomore year, as anti-Muslim and anti-Arab hate filled the American atmosphere like a storm cloud after 9/11. Many Americans did not see any problem with their growing hate of Muslims in the spring of 2002. And I did not see any problem with my growing hate of White people. Same justifications. “They are violent evildoers.” “They hate our freedoms.”

I kept reading, trying to find the source of White evil. I found more answers in Senegalese scholar Cheikh Anta
Diop’s two-cradle theory, long before I learned about his antiracist work on the African ancestry of the ancient Egyptians. Diop’s two-cradle theory suggested the harsh climate and lack of resources in the northern cradle nurtured in Europeans barbaric, individualistic, materialist, and warlike behaviors, which brought destruction to the world. The amenable climate and abundance of resources in the southern cradle nurtured the African behaviors of community, spirituality, equanimity, and peace, which brought civilization to the world.

I blended Diop’s environmental determinism with Michael
Bradley’s version of the same, his theory in
The Iceman Inheritance
that the White race’s ruthlessness is the product of its upbringing in the Ice Age. But I still felt thirsty for biological theories. How we frame the problem—and who we frame as the problem—shapes the answers we find. I was looking for a biological theory of why White people are evil. I found it in
The Isis Papers
by psychiatrist Frances Cress Welsing.

The global White minority’s “profound sense of numerical inadequacy and color inferiority” causes their “uncontrollable sense of hostility and aggression,” Welsing wrote. White people are defending against their own genetic annihilation. Melanin-packing “color always ‘annihilates’…the non-color, white.” Ironically, Welsing’s theory reflects fears of genetic annihilation that White supremacists around the Western world have been expressing these days in their fears of “white genocide”—an idea with a deep history, as in the work of eugenicists like Lothrop Stoddard and his 1920 bestseller,
The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy

I devoured Welsing, but later, when I learned melanin did not give me any Black superpower, I felt deflated. It turns out, it’s the racist one-drop rule that made Black identity dominant in biracial people, not any genetic distinction or melanin superpower. My search continued.

knock on Clarence’s door that day to discuss Welsing’s “color confrontation theory.” Or Diop’s two-cradle theory. He had snickered at those theories many times before. I came to share another theory, the one that finally figured White people out.

“They are aliens,” I told Clarence, confidently resting on the doorframe, arms crossed. “I just saw this documentary that laid out the evidence. That’s why they are so intent on White supremacy. That’s why they seem to not have a conscience. They are aliens.”

Clarence listened, face expressionless.

“You can’t be serious.”

“I’m dead serious. This explains slavery and colonization. This explains why the Bush family is so evil. This explains why Whites don’t give a damn. This explains why they hate us so damn much. They are aliens!” I’d lifted off the doorframe and was in full argumentative mode.

“You really are serious about this,” Clarence said with a chuckle. “If you’re serious, then that has got to be the dumbest thing I ever heard in my life! I mean, seriously, I can’t believe you are that gullible.” The chuckle turned to a grimace.

“Why do you spend so much time trying to figure out White people?” he asked after a long pause. Clarence had asked this question before. I always answered the same way.

“Because figuring them out is the key! Black people need to figure out what we are dealing with!”

“If you say so. But answer me this: If Whites are aliens, why is it that Whites and Blacks can reproduce? Humans can’t reproduce with animals on this planet, but Black people can reproduce with aliens from another planet? Come on, man, let’s get real.”

“I am being real,” I replied. But I really had no comeback. I stood and turned around awkwardly, walked to my room, plopped down on my bed, and returned to staring at the ceiling. Maybe White people were not aliens. Maybe they became this way on earth. Maybe I needed to read more Frances Cress Welsing. I looked over at
The Isis Papers
on my nightstand.

of 2003, Clarence had graduated and I decided to share my ideas with the world. I began my public writing career on race with a column in FAMU’s student newspaper,
The Famuan
. On September 9, 2003, I wrote a piece counseling Black people to stop hating Whites for being themselves. Really, I was counseling myself. “I certainly understand blacks who have been wrapped up in a tornado of hate because they could not escape the encircling winds of truth about the destructive hand of the white man.” Wrapped in this tornado, I could not escape the fallacious idea that “Europeans are simply a different breed of human,” as I wrote, drawing on ideas in
The Isis Papers
. White people “make up only 10 percent of the world’s population” and they “have recessive genes. Therefore they’re facing extinction.” That’s why they are trying to “destroy my people,” I concluded. “Europeans are trying to survive and I can’t hate them for that.”

The piece circulated widely in Tallahassee, alarming White readers. Their threats hit close to home. My new roommates, Devan, Brandon, and Jean, half-jokingly urged me to watch my back from the Klan. FAMU’s new president, Fred Gainous, called me into his office to scold me. I scolded him back, calling him Jeb’s boy.

The editor of the
Tallahassee Democrat
summoned me to his office, too. I needed to complete this required internship to graduate with my journalism degree. I walked into his office in fear. It felt like walking into a termination, the termination of my future. And, indeed, something would be terminated that day.


The illusory, concealing, disempowering, and racist idea that Black people can’t be racist because Black people don’t have power.

office. Every time I looked at Mizell Stewart, the
Tallahassee Democrat
editor, in the autumn of 2003, I saw the tall, slim, light-skinned actor Christopher Duncan. His tense energy reminded me of Braxton, Duncan’s character on
The Jamie Foxx Show.

I sat down. He swiveled back in his chair. “Let’s talk about this piece,” he said.

He darted from critique to critique, surprised at my defenses. I could debate without getting upset. So could he. Black people were problematic to me, but he realized White evil ached in the forefront of my mind.

He became quiet, clearly mulling something over. I was not going to confront him, just defend myself as respectfully as I could. He held my graduation in his hands.

“You know, I have a nice car,” he said slowly, “and I hate it when I get pulled over and I’m treated like I am one of them niggers.”

I took a deep inaudible breath, turned my lips inside, licked them, and mentally ordered my silence. “Them niggers” hung in the air between our probing eye contact. He waited for my response. I stayed silent.

I wanted to stand up and point and yell, “Who the fuck do you think you are?” I would have cut off his answer: “Clearly you don’t think you are a nigger! What makes them niggers and you not a nigger? Am I one of ‘them niggers’?” My air quotes struck the air over his head.

He separated himself from “them niggers,” racialized them, looked down on them. He directed his disdain not toward the police officers who racially profiled him, who mistreated him, but to “them niggers.”

this racial construct of “them niggers” quite like comedian
Chris Rock in his 1996 HBO special,
Bring the Pain
. Rock began the show on an antiracist note, mocking reactions among White people to the O. J. Simpson verdict. He then turned to talk about Black people and “our own personal civil war.” He picked a side: “I love Black people, but I hate niggers.” It was a familiar refrain for me—my own dueling consciousness had often settled on the same formula, adding after the 2000 election: “I love Black people, but I hate niggers and White people.”

While hip-hop artists recast “nigga” as an endearing term, “nigger” remained a derisive term outside and inside Black mouths. Rock helped Black people remake the racial group “niggers” and assigned qualities to this group, as all race makers have done. “Niggers” always stop Black people from having a good time, Rock said. Niggers are too loud. Niggers are always talking, demanding credit for taking care of their kids and staying out of prison. “The worst thing about niggers is that they love to not know,” Rock teased. “Books are like Kryptonite to a nigger.” He rejected the antiracist claim that “the media has distorted our image to make us look bad.” Forget that! It was niggers’ fault. When he’d go to get money, he wasn’t “looking over my shoulders for the media. I’m looking for niggers.”

We were laughing as Chris Rock shared the great truth that the nigger is not equal to the Black man (a remix of “
the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man,” expressed by Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens in 1861). Racist Whites had schooled us well in generalizing the individual characteristics we see in a particular Black person. We were not seeing and treating Black people as individuals, some of whom do bad things: We created a group identity, niggers, that in turn created a hierarchy, as all race making does. We added the hypocritical audacity of raging when White people called all of us niggers (Chris Rock stopped performing this routine when he saw White people laughing too hard).

We did not place loud people who happened to be Black into an interracial group of loud people—as antiracists. We racialized the negative behavior and attached loudness to niggers, like White racists, as Black racists. We did not place negligent Black parents into an interracial group of negligent parents—as antiracists. We racialized the negative behavior and attached negligent parenting to niggers, like White racists, as Black racists. We did not place Black criminals into an interracial group of criminals—as antiracists. We racialized the negative behavior and attached criminality to niggers, like White racists, as Black racists. We did not place lazy Blacks into an interracial group of lazy people—as antiracists. We racialized the negative behavior and attached laziness to niggers, like White racists, as Black racists.

And after all that, we self-identified as “not-racist,” like White racists, as Black racists.

Chris Rock met Black Americans where all too many of us were at the turn of the millennium, stationed within the dueling consciousness of assimilationist and antiracist ideas, distinguishing ourselves from them niggers as White racists were distinguishing themselves from us niggers. We felt a tremendous antiracist pride in Black excellence and a tremendously racist shame in being connected to them niggers. We recognized the racist policy we were facing and were ignorant of the racist policy them niggers were facing. We looked at them niggers as felons of the race when our anti-Black racist ideas were the real Black on Black crime.

In 2003, as I sat in the Black editor’s office,
53 percent of Black people were surveyed as saying that something other than racism mostly explained why Black people had worse jobs, income, and housing than Whites, up from 48 percent a decade earlier. Only 40 percent of Black respondents described racism as the source of these inequities in 2003. By 2013, in the middle of Obama’s presidency, only 37 percent of Black people were pointing to “mostly racism” as the cause of racial inequities. A whopping 60 percent of Black people had joined with the 83 percent of White people that year who found explanations other than racism to explain persisting racial inequities. The internalizing of racist ideas was likely the reason.

Black minds were awakened to the ongoing reality of racism by the series of televised police killings and flimsy exonerations that followed the Obama election, the movement for Black Lives, and the eventual racist ascendancy of Donald Trump. By 2017,
59 percent of Black people expressed the antiracist position that racism is the main reason Blacks can’t get ahead (compared to 35 percent of Whites and 45 percent of Latinx). But even then, about a third of Black people still expressed the racist position that struggling Blacks are mostly responsible for their own condition, compared to 54 percent of Whites, 48 percent of Latinx, and 75 percent of Republicans.

Clearly, a large percentage of Black people hold anti-Black racist ideas. But I still wanted to believe Stewart’s “them niggers” comment was abnormal. The truth is, though, Stewart had put up a mirror. I had to face it. I hated what I saw. He was saying what I had been thinking for years. He had the courage to say it. I hated him for that.

How was his criticism of Black people different than my criticism of Black people when we blamed them for their own votes being stolen or accused them of lethargy and self-sabotage? How was our criticism of Black people any different from the anti-Black criticism of White racists? I learned in that office that day that every time I say something is wrong with Black people, I am simultaneously separating myself from them, essentially saying “them niggers.” When I do this, I am being a racist.

White people could be racist and that Black people could not be racist, because Black people did not have power. I thought Latinx, Asians, Middle Easterners, and Natives could not be racist, because they did not have power. I had no sense of the reactionary history of this construction, of its racist bearing.

This powerless defense, as I call it, emerged in the wake of
racist Whites dismissing antiracist policies and ideas as racist in the late 1960s. In subsequent decades, Black voices critical of White racism defended themselves from these charges by saying, “
Black people can’t be racist, because Black people don’t have power.”

Quietly, though, this defense shields people of color in positions of power from doing the work of antiracism, since they are apparently powerless, since White people have all the power. This means that people of color are powerless to roll back racist policies and close racial inequities even in their own spheres of influence, the places where they actually do have some power to effect change. The powerless defense shields people of color from charges of racism even when they are reproducing racist policies and justifying them with the same racist ideas as the White people they call racist. The powerless defense shields its believers from the history of White people empowering people of color to oppress people of color and of people of color using their limited power to oppress people of color for their own personal gain.

Like every other racist idea, the powerless defense underestimates Black people and overestimates White people. It erases the small amount of Black power and expands the already expansive reach of White power.

The powerless defense does not consider people at all levels of power, from policymakers like politicians and executives who have the power to institute and eliminate racist and antiracist policies, to policy managers like officers and middle managers empowered to execute or withhold racist and antiracist policies. Every single person actually has the power to protest racist and antiracist policies, to advance them, or, in some small way, to stall them. Nation-states, sectors, communities, institutions are run by policymakers and policies and policy managers. “Institutional power” or “systemic power” or “structural power” is the policymaking and managing power of people, in groups or individually. When someone says Black people can’t be racist because Black people don’t have “institutional power,” they are flouting reality.

The powerless defense strips Black policymakers and managers of all their power. The powerless defense says the more than
154 African Americans who have served in Congress from 1870 to 2018 had no legislative power. It says none of the thousands of state and local Black politicians have any lawmaking power. It says U.S. Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas never had the power to put his vote to antiracist purposes. The powerless defense says the
more than seven hundred Black judges on state courts and
more than two hundred Black judges on federal courts have had no power during the trials and sentencing processes that built our system of mass incarceration. It says the
more than fifty-seven thousand Black police officers do not have the power to brutalize and kill the Black body. It says the
three thousand Black police chiefs, assistant chiefs, and commanders have no power over the officers under their command. The powerless defense says the
more than forty thousand full-time Black faculty at U.S. colleges and universities in 2016 did not have the power to pass and fail Black students, hire and tenure Black faculty, or shape the minds of Black people. It says the world’s
eleven Black billionaires and the 380,000 Black millionaire families in the United States have no economic power, to use in racist or antiracist ways. It says the
sixteen Black CEOs who’ve run Fortune 500 companies since 1999 had no power to diversify their workforces. When a Black man stepped into the most powerful office in the world in 2009, his policies were often excused by apologists who said he didn’t have executive power. As if none of his executive orders were carried out, neither of his Black attorneys general had any power to roll back mass incarceration, or his Black national security adviser had no power. The truth is: Black people can be racist because Black people do have power, even if limited.

Note that I say
Black power rather than no power. White power controls the United States. But not absolutely. Absolute power necessitates complete control over all levels of power. All policies. All policy managers. All minds. Ironically, the only way that White power can gain full control is by convincing us that White people already have all the power. If we accept the idea that we have no power, we are falling under the sort of mind control that will, in fact, rob us of any power to resist. As Black History Month father Carter G. Woodson once wrote: “
When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it.”

Racist ideas are constantly produced to cage the power of people to resist. Racist ideas make Black people believe White people have all the power, elevating them to gods. And so Black segregationists lash out at these all-powerful gods as fallen devils, as I did in college, while Black assimilationists worship their all-powerful White angels, strive to become them, to curry their favor, reproducing their racist ideas and defending their racist policies.

Aside from Justice Clarence Thomas’s murderous gang of anti-Black judgments over the years, perhaps the most egregious Black on Black racist crime in recent American history decided the 2004 presidential election. George W. Bush narrowly won reelection by taking Ohio with the crucial help of Ohio’s ambitious Black Secretary of State, Ken Blackwell, who operated simultaneously as Bush’s Ohio campaign co-chair.

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