‘How to Be an Antiracist’ opens a vital dialogue on race

Terry Hartle in The Christian Science Monitor:

Kendi, like any good academic, is clear about his terms and definitions. He believes that a racist is someone who supports “a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea,” while an antiracist is one who supports “an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.” Most of us, he concludes, hold both racist and antiracist views. But our beliefs are not necessarily fixed and immutable. “‘Racist’ and ‘antiracist’ are like peelable name tags that are placed and replaced based on what someone is doing … in each moment. These are not permanent tattoos.” In other words, our views and positions can change – as the evolution of his own thinking demonstrates. He calls policies that increase racial disparities “racist” while policies that reduce such disparities are “antiracist.” So affirmative action policies in college admissions designed to increase the enrollment of students of color are antiracist. (Presumably this means that legacy preferences in admissions, which do not reduce racial disparities and indeed may reinforce them, are racist.) Working to repeal the Affordable Care Act is racist because doing so would increase racial disparities in health care. “Do-nothing climate policy is racist policy, since the predominately non-White global south is being victimized by climate change more than the Whiter global north.”

Intriguingly, Kendi argues that the word “racist” should be seen as descriptive rather than pejorative. If we regard it that way, we might be able to talk far more candidly about racism in all its manifestations. But in 21st century America, the word is a pejorative slur and there is no easy way to make it less emotionally laden. One of the challenges is that addressing our deeply ingrained tendencies to default to racist ideas requires “persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.” This won’t be easy because many of us would rather avoid these often difficult discussions. Recently The Washington Post wrote that the efforts of tour guides at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s plantation, to introduce descriptions of slavery into their presentations have been dismissed by some visitors. One guide, after describing how slaves at Monticello had tended the garden, was reportedly told, “Why are you talking about that? You should be talking about the plants.” Not much self-examination there.

More here.