Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

How to Be an Antiracist
by ibram x. kendi
one world, 320 pages, $27


White Fragility:
Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

by robin diangelo
beacon, 192 pages, $16

Having fallen away from both Christianity and American civil religion, liberals in the United States are looking for something to believe in. The death of George Floyd on May 25 occasioned a religious awakening. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, Americans took to the streets by the tens and hundreds of thousands to demand police reform and more. They painted “Black Lives Matter” on city streets and blanketed neighborhoods with BLM yard signs. Universities issued statements of solidarity with Black Lives Matter and pledged anew to “do the work” of racial justice. The country’s leading newspapers and magazines purged dissenters and even those who tolerated the dissent of others. “Antiracism” became liberal America’s new fighting faith.

Libraries and booksellers were quick to distribute canonical texts to the neophytes. Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist and Robin ­DiAngelo’s White Fragility became instant bestsellers. In a single week in mid-June, each sold more than 100,000 copies. By mid-August, DiAngelo had sold 678,000 copies in 2020 to date, and Kendi had sold 521,000. Not to be outdone, Kendi diversified his brand by publishing young adult (Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You) and toddler (Antiracist Baby) versions of his work so that all could receive the message of antiracism.

Many have compared antiracism to religion. This is not just an analogy. Antiracism has its own mythology, professions of belief, liturgies of purgation, and promises of redemption. Since it is a political religion, the redemption it promises is this-worldly and accomplished through the state. It entails strict equality of material and social outcomes across racial groups. Yet its instruments are race consciousness, racialized spaces on campus, preferential funding of public schools by race, racial hiring quotas, a Black New Deal, and the elimination of universal norms and standards. Colorblind policies, assimilation to middle-class values, and “not racist” personal beliefs are proscribed. Americans could be forgiven for confusing antiracism with racism itself.

Through its short and turbulent fame, antiracism has already caused considerable harm. Its moral imagination is stunted. Its sense of justice is racialist and divisive. Its policies are recklessly utopian. Americans need better, and deserve better, than antiracism.

Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be An Antiracist is part catechism, part Bildungsroman. Kendi recounts his personal journey from racism to antiracism while instructing his readers in the antiracist faith. Most chapters begin with a vocabulary lesson and continue with dogmatic formulations interspersed with tales of awakening, from Kendi’s youth to his adulthood. The transformation is symbolized by the names Kendi gives himself and his family. Born Ibram Henry Rogers, he dropped Henry for Xolani (Zulu for “peace”) and upon his marriage changed Rogers to Kendi (Meru for “beloved”). He named his only child Imani (Swahili for “faith”).

The first precept of antiracism is that “racial groups are equals and none needs developing.” This is not a socioeconomic observation. Some racial groups are indeed wealthier, healthier, more educated—in short, more “developed”—than others. One may be tempted to read Kendi here as simply asserting a common humanity. That would be a grave misreading. The heart of antiracism is multiculturalist relativism fused with racialism. Kendi’s real meaning here is that every race is culturally equal, for “to be antiracist is to reject cultural standards and level cultural difference.” Yet if every ­race-culture is equal to every other race-culture, why are the races—which Kendi also calls “racialized cultural groups”—materially and socially unequal? Enter the second precept of antiracism (best stated in Kendi’s earlier volume, Stamped From the Beginning): “Racial discrimination is the sole cause of racial disparities in this country and in the world at large.” Kendi does not even try to prove this claim. Why would he? Though expressed as a sociological observation, it is in fact a dogmatic assertion introduced to save Kendi’s racialized multiculturalism from untoward conclusions. If the Light of Truth (race equity) cannot shine in the world, some Cloud of Darkness (“racist ­power”) must be obscuring it. QED.

Into this fallen world, Kendi places “six races—at least in the American context.” This, too, is a dogmatic assertion. Kendi makes no effort to demonstrate that these races exist as cognitive or social categories. Nor does he show that they are the real fault lines of American inequality. Kendi’s even bigger problem is that his conceptualization of race is incoherent. Of his six races, black, white, and “Indigenous” are at least races per common American usage. However, “Latinx” (Kendi refuses to use the preferred “Hispanic”) is a cultural-geographic mélange of several races and cultures, and “Asian” and “Middle Eastern” are neither races nor cultures but simply world regions.

Kendi asserts that these six “races” are hierarchically organized in America, with whites on top. He freely uses terms such as “White power,” claims that “the American body is the White body,” and insists that in America “it is a racial crime to be yourself if you are not White.” Yet he never offers a moment of careful sifting and ­weighing of racial hierarchy in America. His evidence, such as it is, consists of simple descriptive data and citations of cherry-­picked studies. Kendi’s reader is never told that Asians as a whole surpass non-Hispanic whites on any number of socio-economic measures. They enjoy the highest incomes, the most educational attainment, the best health, the most stable families, the lowest arrest and incarceration rates. Nor would the reader appreciate the significant internal diversity within each “race,” precisely along lines of inequality. This is true even within Kendi’s own racial group. Today, some one in five black Americans are not the descendants of American slaves, and income inequality among blacks far exceeds that among non-Hispanic whites.

To be fair, Kendi’s primary interest is not material inequality, anyway. His book has nothing concrete to offer by way of antiracist policy, apart from a potted critique of “racial capitalism.” His autobiographical journey in How to Be an Antiracist is not about political struggle but about shedding judgment and embracing cultural relativism. Kendi condemns “any idea that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way.” Equal esteem is his true “policy” goal.

Kendi’s embrace of intersectionality extends “antiracist” sentiment to color, ethnicity, class, sex, sexuality, and gender identity. This extension forces him into any number of howlers. To be antiracist requires one to see as sexist “notions of men as more naturally dangerous than women” and to accept that “men can authentically perform femininity as effectively as women can authentically perform masculinity.” On matters of crime, Kendi is particularly militant in his relativism. He laments that

people steer away from and stigmatize Black neighborhoods as crime-ridden streets where you might have your wallet stolen. But they aspire to move into up-scale White neighborhoods, home to white-collar criminals and “banksters” . . . who might steal your life savings.

He marvels that

Black people seemed to be more worried about other Black people killing them in drug wars or robberies by the thousands each year than about the cancers, heart diseases, and respiratory diseases killing them by the hundreds of thousands each year.

To teach standard English in schools, to speak of an academic achievement gap, to promote marriage over single parenthood, and to speak of assimilation is necessarily intertwined with judgment, and thus by Kendi’s lights inherently racist. To suggest that any group makes any independent contribution to its own successes and failures threatens the antiracist edifice and thus is placed under taboo.

Kendi hopes to comfort the afflicted by afflicting those he deems comfortable. In December 2019, New York Times columnist Bret ­Stephens published a controversial op-ed suggesting that some combination of culture, history, and perhaps even genes accounts for the remarkable track record of “Jewish brilliance.” Kendi offered a vicious response. He condemned, by tweet, “Bret’s bigoted op-ed that places Jews at the top of an intellectual hierarchy” and further suggested that any attempt to measure and rank intelligence was genocidal. But consider the alternative, antiracist explanation of Jewish success in America: If “internal” or “cultural” qualities are forbidden from playing any role because all “racial groups are equals,” then the cause can be nothing other than Jewish political power and economic exploitation through racial capitalism. If Jews as a group are no more intelligent or creative or hardworking than any other group, they must instead be masters of “­racist power.” Ponder that “antiracist” teaching.

If Kendi has written antiracism’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Robin DiAngelo has written its Chick tract. White Fragility is the condensed wisdom of a corporate diversity trainer who has gotten rich by telling white people they are indelibly racist. DiAngelo insists that, due to “white privilege,” only white people can be racist. Unlike every other racial group, they possess a wholly negative identity defined in and through racism. She asserts that “anti-blackness is foundational to our very identities as white people,” a kind of reverse Curse of Ham. She urges all white people to “strive to be ‘less white’” for “to be less white is to be less racially oppressive.” This is the “training” for which Amazon, ­Unilever, the Seattle Public Schools, and the United Methodist Church pay tens of thousands of dollars.

White Fragility offers a radically simplified version of standard antiracist doctrine. It asserts a two-race ­hierarchy in America, with whites above and “people of color” below. Whites are a homogenous group, which DiAngelo repeatedly denominates “the white collective.” This monolith establishes all social norms and enforces a sociology of dominance in order to maintain “white racial control” throughout society. DiAngelo attacks pernicious ideologies of racism, such as individualism, objectivity, meritocracy, color-blindness, capitalism, and democracy that support America’s “system of racism.” Through these “ideologies,” Americans of every race are socialized into a system that justifies inequality on the “assumed superiority of people defined and perceived as white.”

DiAngelo’s real contribution to antiracist thought is her accent on the therapeutic. Kendi emphasizes group self-esteem and describes his antiracist journey as “growing myself into a better self.” But therapeutic language and practice are the entirety of White ­Fragility. ­DiAngelo’s intended ­audience is “white progressives [who] cause the most daily damage to people of color.” She encourages these readers to embark on a lifelong practice of racialized therapeutic atonement and personal debasement. Unlike the licensed therapist whose task is to relieve psychological suffering, ­DiAngelo the corporate trainer inflicts it. The very purpose of her training sessions is to “unsettle the racial status quo” by cultivating a highly racialized identity in her white trainees and then pathologizing it. This procedure inevitably triggers the psychological phenomenon that has made DiAngelo rich and famous: white fragility. This is “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress in the habitus becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves” including crying, emotional withdrawal, argumentative outburst, and even physical flight. After fostering white racial identity and triggering an emotional reaction against it, DiAngelo urges her trainees to “interrupt our white fragility,” undermine “white solidarity,” “educate ourselves,” “follow the leadership on antiracism from people of color,” and ultimately become “less white.”

Given that DiAngelo is a self-­described “educator” pitching a ­self-help book, it is remarkable that none of her subjects ever seems to get any better. Her book provides one example after another of trainees rejecting her therapy by exhibiting “white fragility.” DiAngelo is not merely unbothered by her failures. She is emboldened. A particularly revealing incident involves a female trainee who became so upset over “sensitive and diplomatic feedback” (the trainee seems to have considered it a false accusation of racism) that she left ­DiAngelo’s workshop and returned to her desk. The woman’s colleagues soon notified DiAngelo that they feared the woman, who was in poor health, “might be having a heart-attack.” This news directed all sympathetic attention away from the “people of color” in the workshop and onto the departed young white woman. DiAngelo offers this as a signal instance of “white fragility” and condemns the woman’s aggressive exercise of “white racial control and the protection of white ­advantage.”

Though DiAngelo is certainly correct to see the reaction of this young woman and her colleagues as overwrought, she is oblivious to what the incident reveals about the therapeutic practices of her own social justice work. DiAngelo’s diversity training workshops are designed to cultivate and manipulate emotions. The problem here was not the young woman’s emotional reaction so much as ­DiAngelo’s failure to control the woman through it. In ­DiAngelo’s radical form of antiracism, only “people of color” are allowed to be victims. Yet in a therapeutic society where victimhood is the coin of the realm, the public performance of mental affliction, frailty, and fear is the most effective way for the weak to exercise power. DiAngelo denies whites this form of power and reserves it for revolutionary purposes alone, but no weapon of war—even tears—can be effectively provided to one side and denied to the other.

Antiracists are racialists. They believe that race is the prime matter of human society, the font of social and political identity, and the origin of political struggle. Their belief in the centrality of race dedicates them to heightening racial identity and urging that every social interaction be viewed first and foremost through the lens of race. Antiracists are particularly concerned to convince whites, far and away the least race-conscious group in ­America, to understand themselves racially. The ubiquity of antiracist terminology and slang today—“whiteness,” “white privilege,” “white supremacy,” “white nationalism,” “white fragility,” “white tears,” even “Karen” as a racial slur—shows that they are succeeding.

Though white Americans in general have not embraced this assigned identity, liberal white Americans and the educational, corporate, governmental, media, social, and cultural institutions they control certainly have. It is ironic to see a group that throughout the Obama years praised itself for its enlightened post-racial attitudes now embracing racialism. It is even more ironic to see liberal white managers and professionals marching under the banner of racial equity, a spectacle of the rich condemning riches and the powerful condemning power. More, it is the spectacle of a social class denouncing its own defining class norms and values, habits and modes of thought, as the oppressive culture of “whiteness.”

Zachary Goldberg, a PhD candidate in political science at Georgia State University, has found that over the last ten years, white liberals have become so progressive (or “woke”) on matters of race that they are now considerably more antiracist than their black counterparts. This reflects a fact that is also illustrated by the widespread success of Kendi and DiAngelo with elite white audiences. Wokeness is now part of “whiteness,” as central an element of white culture, white privilege, and white supremacy as anything identified by formal wokeademics, wokeaucrats and wokeultants.

Since the 1960s, America’s elite has legitimized its status on the grounds of superior merit demonstrated through success in elite schools, elite universities, elite corporations, and elite professions. Yet the goodness of meritocracy lies not in its members’ SAT scores but in the degree to which the talents of the talented are harnessed for the common good. On this measure, American meritocrats’ track record is poor indeed. They lead, govern, manage, and mold a country that is increasingly rancorous, divided, and decadent. Their policy prescriptions respond little if at all to changing contexts. Twenty years ago, columnist David Brooks observed that America’s “organization kids,” the country’s elites-in-formation, seemed to lack a moral gravity, an interest in virtue, a project of character. This spiritual v­acuum helps explain why a class whose power and prestige are founded on claims to expertise has embraced a faith so threadbare in both logic and evidence. Everything from the popularity of the New York Times’s 1619 Project, to the toleration (and often support) of iconoclastic mobs, to the 1.6 million total sold copies of White Fragility shows the death of elite moral self-confidence. They no longer believe in their history, their institutions, their culture, or themselves.

Antiracists reply that this elite malaise is well-earned. At least here, we can agree. Yet antiracism offers no positive response to this illegitimacy. Rather than solve problems, antiracism proposes to aggravate them by defunding the police, abolishing prisons, and legalizing drugs and prostitution. Rather than bind the country’s wounds, antiracism inflames them through racialism. In place of a common moral project, antiracism proposes the glove of moral relativism over the fist of Ibram Kendi’s federal Department of Antiracism—

comprised of formally trained experts on racism . . . empowered with disciplinary tools to wield over and against policymakers and public officials who do not voluntarily change their racist policy and ideas.

America not only needs better than antiracist “equity.” It deserves better. It deserves a project of transcendence, of moral and material uplift based on neither racist nor antiracist but non-racialist values, which elevate the human spirit and human society. Beauty, Goodness, and Truth presume a distinction between the higher and the lower. They instruct us to reach for the higher and promise us both individual and collective fulfillment when we do. Rather than destroy norms and standards, we should embrace authoritative values and distribute them widely. All should be able to enjoy beauty in public spaces. All should be able to support a family with dignity and contribute to a community through productive labor. All should have the right to discover what is true through education, an edifying media, and strong religious and fraternal institutions. An elite that brought America such goods would be one worthy of the name. 

Darel E. Paul is author of From Tolerance to Equality: How Elites Brought America to Same-Sex Marriage.

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.