Ibram X. Kendi, the critical race theory prophet of his own twisted brand of antiracism, has become mandatory reading material at colleges, corporations, and in the military.
How to Be an Antiracist topped the New York Times bestseller list. Any of the progressive housewives, Fortune 500 executives, and assorted people being forced to page through the book would learn by the second chapter how Kendi’s middle-class black parents were racist.
“Both of my parents emerged from poor families, one from Northern urban projects, one from Southern rural fields. Both framed their rise from poverty into the middle class in the 1980s as a climb up the ladder of education and hard work. As they climbed, they were inundated with racist talking points about black people refusing to climb, the ones who were irresponsibly strung out on heroin or crack, who enjoyed stealing and being criminally dependent on the hard-earned money of climbing Americans like them,” Kendi writes. “My parents, along with many others in the new Black middle class, consumed these ideas.”
What makes these ideas racist? Believing that you can get ahead through hard work is whiteness talking. And expecting good habits to lead to good outcomes is racist because it ignores the systemic racism that makes success impossible for black people. Kendi’s parents, Larry and Carol Rogers, an accountant and business analyst, not only bought into the middle class dream, but they worked hard, and they succeeded at giving him a comfortable childhood.
“My parents… fed me the mantra that education and hard work would uplift me, just as it had uplifted them,” Kendi agonizingly recalls. And if nothing else, he partially disproved them, becoming enormously successful on the back of education, but a worthless one in identity politics, and on denying the value of hard work.
“My parents—even from within their racial consciousness—were susceptible to the racist idea that it was laziness that kept black people down,” he recalls.
Kendi’s problem is laziness, but it’s a particularly white kind of laziness. How to Be an Antiracist, like most critical race theory texts, leans heavily on the personal narrative of his particularly uninteresting life. Kendi manufactures victimhood out of thin air, when his father waves to him on the basketball court, he suggests that might have gotten him lynched or killed by the police.
His grandmother dies after a struggle with Alzheimer’s. “A disease more prevalent among African Americans,” Kendi notes. “There may be no more consequential white privilege than life itself.” Black people have a 3.5 percent higher prevalence of Alzheimer’s than white people for a disease that is the fifth most common cause of death among American senior citizens.
When your claim to oppression is your grandmother’s Alzheimer’s, you’re low on material.
But Kendi’s story is a familiar one to generations of white and then minority immigrants where the first generation labors hard to succeed, and then sends its kids to college only to have them come back as radicals who complain that their parents sold out by abandoning their dreams.
The old boomer paradigm that fed sixties white radicalism has kicked in among minority millennials of the upper middle class with a vengeance. The new black nationalist surge on college campuses largely owes its growth to privileged black men and women like Kendi, whose parents took the corporate route, while the kids rebelled and went into Black Studies.
“I always wonder what would have been if my parents had not let their reasonable fears stop them from pursuing their dreams,” Kendi whines. “Instead, Ma settled for a corporate career in healthcare technology. Dad settled for an accounting career. They entered the American middle class”.
Kendi’s racialism is reducible to that cliched radicalism of a son embarrassed by his insufficiently woke parents. It’s about as white as anything. And so is Kendi’s career which has taken him from condemning corporations to producing diversity content for corporations. Like most professional radicals, he wants to overthrow the system by becoming the system.
How to Be an Antiracist’s rants against “assimilationism” echo seventies black nationalism through modern personal identity politics that demands we acknowledge everyone’s identity. Whether it’s white people who insist that they’re Koreans, men who claim to be women, or corporate drones who insist they’re radicals, everyone wants to be who they aren’t.
Kendi’s fake African identity is a familiar brand of identity politics, but born out of the same shallow narcissism of a comfortable generation that seeks meaning in fake identities. A middle class kid named Henry Rogers is reborn as a black nationalist named Kendi. But the fake new identity doesn’t make him more authentic, but less so. The only way to assert a fake identity is for the man in the mask to go on a rampage against his authentic roots and his old past self.
If Obama’s racial memoirs were at least aspirational, Kendi’s is anti-aspirational.
Black people, whether it’s Kendi’s own parents, or black leaders from W.E. DuBois to Eleanor Holmes Norton are guilty of racism for urging achievement. Asking anyone, especially a member of a minority group, to work harder is racist. Suggesting that black people have problems that are caused by anything other than systemic racism is assimilationist.
And yet Kendi’s entire worldview, despite its trappings of sham Africanism, is white.
It’s not some imaginary whiteness, but that of academic identity politics which is absurdly white. Kendi’s parents may have been black, despite some distant white ancestor whom he makes much of, but his entire value system is derived from white political correctness.
He arrived at college “as a racist, sexist homophobe”, Kendi writes. The fault was, as usual, his middle class parents. “Dad’s sexist ideas demanded he lead and Ma’s sexist ideas submitted. She would call him the head of the household. He would accept the calling.” Horror of horrors.
Kendi’s parents “demonized” single mothers, along with drug dealers and criminals. He blames Reagan and internalized whiteness, but the black opposition to crime preceded Reagan and was a matter of basic self-interest that united the NAACP, the Nation of Islam, and everything in between. It took white people to redefine drug dealers as victims of white oppression.
The cult of the criminal in black activist circles is not a reflection of any organic movement within the black community, but the imposition of a white Marxist perspective. The collapse of support for police defunding in the black community in every poll shows just how alien it is. It’s every bit as alien as Kendi’s hostility to black masculinity which is equally white and assimilationist.
How to Be an Antiracist is meant to be part memoir, but Kendi doesn’t have much of a story to tell. That’s surprisingly commonplace among critical race theory memorists whose lack of interesting personal content, beginning with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, has only made their works more successful. If Obama’s memoirs offered elements of the exotic, the black middle class activist against whiteness succeeds because his story is familiarly white.
We have come a long way from Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice or Alex Haley’s dubious Malcolm X biography. Today’s black nationalist is a suburban college kid nurtured by a middle class two-parent family who denounces the suburbs, the middle class, and families like his as racist.
But the familiar problem, which Kendi only loosely describes in his chapter on dueling consciousness, and which is better embodied by the title of Black-ish, is that the generation of middle class black parents who kept their children safe from crime (Kendi’s father put up a basketball court in their backyard because he was worried about his son getting shot) succeeded all too well. Like too many generations of Irish, Italian, Jewish, Latino, and Asian parents, they raised radical woke snowflakes who are good for little except complaining.
Assimilationism has done its job all too well. The trouble is that the engines of assimilationism, universities, mass culture, and the upper middle class are assimilating the new generation out of America rather than into it, breeding dissatisfaction and nurturing radicalism as their identity.
Revolutions are made by the prosperous, not the dispossessed. Lenin, a member of a noble family, warred on the nobility. Castro, the son of a plantation owner, fought the plantations. Mao, the son of a landlord, oversaw the mass murder of landlords. The Left makes children into the enemies of the values of their parents. And How to Be an Antiracist is really a very old story about the resentments of middle class children who never really learned how hard life can be.
Ibram X. Kendi calls everything he doesn’t like racist. “Racist and antiracist are not fixed identities. We can be racist one minute and an antiracist the next,” he argues. Racism, like most identity politics tropes, is everywhere and nowhere. It’s an identity politics weapon that is an attack on identity while claiming to be a defense against attacks on identity.
Mostly racism consists of the common sense approaches of his parents to dealing with a dangerous world while antiracism consists of his clueless disregard for how life really works.
Kendi complains about the “constant fearmongering about Black drug dealers, robbers, killers,” of his parents, but young black men are far more likely to be killed by the former than by the police whom he and the Black Lives Matter movement fearmonger endlessly about.
His parents made a difficult journey that he does not understand and has no concept of how difficult it would be to recreate in his own privileged circumstances. That’s the same perch which countless of his white leftist peers occupy. It’s no wonder that he’s so popular with them.
How to Be an Antiracist doesn’t convey a racial crisis, but the crisis of an American upper middle class which has lost touch with its own roots and whose children have become an enemy of its aspirational values. That, more than anything else, is leading the country into the kind of shopworn Marxism that Kendi and other radicals peddle as narcissistic identity politics.
Defining everyone, including his parents, as racists, interpreting and reinterpreting the world through academic lenses, is the hobby of privileged people who don’t have real problems.
Ibram X. Kendi may not have real problems, but the rest of the country isn’t so privileged.
And Kendi has become another of the problems undermining the black community, destroying the middle class life his parents worked so hard to achieve, and tearing apart America.