If you caught the final presidential debate, you heard Donald Trump describe himself as “the least racist person in the room.” The president wasn’t aware that this type of antiquated statement now serves as a red flag, waived by its claimant, to nullify such description.
A scholar and activist, not yet forty years of age, can claim chief responsibility for delegitimizing such statements that come from people, like the president, who attempt to distance themselves from the ugliness of racism.
Ibram Kendi’s How To Be an Antiracist hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list this past summer. Interest in his book and others like White Fragility and Me and White Supremacy peaked after the murder of George Floyd and the shooting of Breonna Taylor. Over one million copies of Anti-Racist are now in print. Kendi is a renown writer and thinker – his earlier book, Stamped From the Beginning, won the 2016 National Book Award for Non-Fiction.
Kendi raises the bar for those truly concerned about the prolonged effect racism continues to wield in this society. For someone to assert “I’m not a racist” no longer suffices according to Kendi and he admonishes such a person to self-identify as an antiracist and to act as one. Some will dismiss Kendi’s ideas as reeking of politically correct wokeness, but I disagree. Kendi has obliterated what previously passed as acceptable, as did US track athlete Dwight Stones in 1973 when he used a new technique – the Fosbury Flop – to set the world record for the high jump. No world-class high jumper has since used the previously preferred Straddle Style technique.
2020 marks new territory – for better and for worse – as concerns racial matters in the US. The Trump administration’s and the president’s permissiveness, in particular, with white supremacist groups has sullied the racial environment. According to a recent Gallop poll, fewer than half of Americans say race relations between Blacks and whites are good – its lowest rate in twenty years. The racially and ethnically diverse demonstrations this past summer in the wake of the Floyd and Taylor killings, however, and the expanding conversation on the history and continuing effects of racism in America tell a different story. There’s regression and advance at the same time for Americans in their understandings about race.
Is there systemic racism in the US? Consider the yay and nay responses to this question in today’s America, mirroring the cultural and political identities that divide so many in this society.
Kendi offers a different response to the question. He writes that “institutional” or “systemic racism” are terms that are too vague. Rather he points to racist policies: decades-long redlining practices that have produced segregated housing markets; 1990s-era crack cocaine criminalization that has contributed to the current mass incarceration of Blacks; standardized testing and its results used by groups to focus on “achievement” gaps rather than opportunity gaps; voter ID laws, many of which are current-day manifestations of Jim Crow-era restrictions.
Kendi says he learned from a young age the stock creed that racist ideas cause racist policies. He no longer stands by this creed and its implication that moral persuasion is the best practice to mitigate racism and its effects. His research showed him that self-interest, more so than ignorance and hate, is the fueler of racism. “Racist power produces racist policies out of self-interest and then produces racist ideas to justify those policies” (pgs. 129-30).
An antiracist, according to Kendi, works to create and support policy that reduces racial inequities. Activists, he writes, do more than just preach, teach, protest, or write op-eds or books. True activists successfully change policy.
Like many of his classmates at Florida A&M University, Kendi was a first-time voter on November 7, 2020. He writes that he and many of his friends at the Historically Black University voted for Al Gore, in opposition not only to George W. Bush but also to Bush’s brother and Florida governor, Jeb, who had gutted many of the state’s affirmative action programs the previous year.
In the weeks after the election, Kendi heard anecdotal reports from numerous classmates that their Black relatives’ and friends’ votes in Florida were either nullified, denied or not counted. Eventually, George Bush was declared Florida’s winner by a mere 537 votes which clinched him the national electoral vote. Florida invalidated close to 180,000 ballots and more than half of these were from Black voters. Overall, Black voter ballots were invalidated at a rate ten times that of white voter ballots in Florida in 2000.
That’s racism in action – policy, practice, payoff.
Is it any wonder that in the two decades since Florida 2000, hundreds of new voter restriction measures have been implemented in dozens of states?
As of this writing, Donald Trump still pretends to have won the 2020 election. A deeply narcissistic self-interest propels Trump’s fantasies as his campaign actively tries to eliminate votes from Detroit, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Atlanta where Blacks are most populous. As for Phoenix, which only has a 6 percent Black population, the Trump campaign has been comparably silent about their loss in Arizona.
As the president desperately tries to subvert the results of the election, a recent FBI report named 2019 the worst year for hate crimes in the thirty years that such records have been kept. The report labels white supremacy the main culprit.
Kendi’s book is timely. Like me, you might not agree with everything Kendi writes in the book. Countering racists and racism in America is now a full-time job for many of us – Kendi’s main and crucial point. The bar has been raised, and conversation with Kendi is a necessary part of the antiracist’s job training.
T. Carlos “Tim” Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of a dozen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin, Texas. I’m the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, 2019). Readers describe it as “compelling,” “inspiring,” and “well written.”
I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (ACTA-Chicago, 2014), which traces the history of economic inequality in American society. Reviewing Just a Little Bit More, journalist Sam Pizzigati says, “Anderson, above all, writes with a purpose. He’s hoping to help Americans understand that an egalitarian ideal helped create the United States. We need that ideal, Anderson helps us see, now more than ever.”