When exactly was the Bernie moment ill-fated? Some would say it wasn’t until March 2020; others that it was compromised from the start. For me, it was a Sanders speech in Seattle on Social Security and Medicare. His speech never got off the ground because just as Sanders started to speak, a small group of Black Lives Matters protesters started shouting and took to the podium. It would be the second time in two months that BLM protesters interrupted a Sanders campaign event to speak about police violence, reparations, and the original sin that seems to be baked into the American body politic, racism.
These very public interruptions helped not only to kneecap the campaign by creating a strawman argument that Sanders did not have a “Black Agenda,” but also to paint Sanders as just another out-of-touch old white man. He might have marched with King in the 60s, but he lacked the understanding and empathy to be a true ally to people of color suffering from the tyranny of racist police violence. The Democratic Party was able to use the same race reductionist rhetoric to attack Sanders’ economic populism. The social democratic platform Sanders preached, in their consistent portrayal, simply didn’t tackle racism and sexism head-on. Even though women of color would disproportionately benefit from a higher minimum wage, free healthcare, and the redistribution of wealth, a wrangling of Wall St. was not going to rid this nation of its Achilles’ heel, racism. Hillary Clinton summed up this line of thinking best when she said during a town hall in 2016, “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow—and I will if they deserve it, if they pose a systemic risk, would that end racism?” The Democratic Party and corporate America had found their solution to a growing call to tax the rich and redistribute wealth, and that was to reduce the conversation to racism and sexism. You can’t tackle capitalism unless you have an intersectional plan to right the wrongs of gender inequality, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and racism! No one articulated this call for racial equity over social democracy better than Ibram X. Kendi.
Kendi rose to pop culture prominence in 2019 with his book How To Be an Antiracist, a combination of memoir and racial reductionist commentary. For Kendi, any policy that has uneven racial outcomes is racist in nature. To be anti-racist, and in turn an ally to people of color, one simply needs to oppose such policies and outcomes. The radical simplicity and utter abstraction of his conclusions made Kendi a figurehead in the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion industry. His philosophy was so simple, in fact, that it could be easily ported to other contexts. Homophobia? Don’t be homophobic. Sexism? Don’t be sexist. Kendi hand waves at things like capitalism, but his solutions always involved challenging the inner demon within that might cause you to promote or believe in racist policies. Once we get rid of racism, then all of the other big bads like patriarchy and capitalism will fade away.
With the recent layoffs from the Boston University Center for Anti-Racism Research, as well as revelations about a bad working environment and mismanagement of funds, the star of Kendi, once so bright in the left-liberal world, now appears to be fading. It’s possible that a decade or two from now, we’ll look back at the last couple years and wonder earnestly why phrases like “anti-racist praxis” were so commonplace, much like we look back at feathered hair in the 80s. Why were we doing that? Before this cultural moment is lost to history, it’s worth reflecting on why exactly Kendi’s version of anti-racism bore such appeal and what ends it served.
How to Be An Antiracist begins with an anecdote from Kendi’s youth. In 2000, as a high schooler, Kendi gave a speech at the Prince William County Martin Luther King Jr. oratorical contest. His address was filled with the conservative, “pull your pants up” rhetoric that was popular in the 90s, and about which Kendi expresses great shame. This was the tail end of the crack era, when the War on Drugs was still a tacit solution to soaring crime and murder rates, highest among black and brown youth. In this thinking, the issue of rising crime had nothing to do with deindustrialization or the free flow of powder cocaine into the U.S. with the help of the federal government; it all flowed rather from the pathology of wayward black men. For Kendi, however, the problem with his younger self was not that he neglected these important economic and social factors, it was rather that he bore an internalized racism that needed to be overcome and rejected. In being awakened to the idea that the policies that incarcerate black men at record rates was simply racist by its very nature, he was able to break out of the mental chains of racist rhetorical slavery and bask in the freedom of mental emancipation.
Ever since this awakening, Kendi has pushed the view that white racism has an ontological grip on public policy, one that only he and his anti-racist teaching can loosen. Here is Kendi describing “how to fix inequality”:
To fix the original sin of racism, Americans should pass an anti-racist amendment to the U.S. Constitution that enshrines two guiding anti-racist principals: Racial inequity is evidence of racist policy and the different racial groups are equals. The amendment would make unconstitutional racial inequity over a certain threshold, as well as racist ideas by public officials (with “racist ideas” and “public official” clearly defined). It would establish and permanently fund the Department of Anti-racism (DOA) composed of formally trained experts on racism and no political appointees. The DOA would be responsible for preclearing all local, state and federal public policies to ensure they won’t yield racial inequity, monitor those policies, investigate private racist policies when racial inequity surfaces, and monitor public officials for expressions of racist ideas. The DOA would be empowered with disciplinary tools to wield over and against policymakers and public officials who do not voluntarily change their racist policy and ideas.
Missing, notably, from this long policy description aimed at “fixing inequality” is any mention of economics. Kendi does at least mention capitalism in the book, to acknowledge that it’s there, but any moment where he could be talking about exploitation and immiseration he spends instead decrying America's original sin of racism. The capitalism that he is against is a racially-based one that only functions to keep black people in the position of second-class citizens. He opens the book stating that racism and capitalism are conjoined twins, and that anyone who is anti-racist must be an anti-capitalist as well. But the priority given to one of those “conjoined twins” is right there in the title.
Much of How To Be An Antiracist is devoted to describing Kendi’s spiritual journey from Henry Rogers (his birth name), bearer of internalized racism, to Ibram X. Kendi, prophet of anti-racism. He wants the reader to experience the journey to racial enlightenment, and to establish himself as a tour guide through racial animus. He doesn’t mention, of course, that as a part of the middle-class stratum of black folks, he is actually poorly positioned to be such a racial ventriloquist. But class position doesn’t matter much when everything is overshadowed by the dominant lens of racism. Capitalism is segregated as “racial capitalism” so worker exploitation is only understood as the exploitation of black people at the behest of their white corporate overlords.
But what exactly does that look like for a poor and working-class black woman working at McDonalds in an impoverished area like my hometown of Richmond, CA? The rate of poverty in Richmond is almost 5% higher than the U.S. average. The mayor is a Latino man, and the chief of police is a black woman. The small city council is also racially diverse, which is reflective of a broader diversity in the city. What does Kendi’s anti-racism have to offer Richmond? The enemy of the poor people of Richmond is capitalist immiseration, not a white phantom hiding in plain sight. Of course racism and discrimination exist, but there is an emptiness to always pointing to them as the primal cause of all oppression.
This is ultimately what Kendi’s rhetoric has to offer: empty gestures for professional-class people to repeat ad nauseum that do not actually grapple with the material reality of inequality in America. It’s the PMC solution to inequality: acknowledge its existence, renounce it rhetorically, then continue on in much the same way as you did before.
The racial capitalism rhetoric, the name change, the dreadlocks, the calming demeanor of Kendi’s vocal timbre—these are all crafted; designed visually to appear radical, while also sounding realistic and smart to the black PMC. Kendi ultimately speaks from a certain class position, one historically composed of people who have looked down their noses at poor, under-educated black people. His antiracist project was designed as a multilevel marketing scheme for white guilt—never intended to uplift poor and working-class black people and obscuring the kind of class analysis that could point in that direction. His race reductionist framework should be remembered for what it was designed to be: an effort to neutralize the Left by obfuscating the position of class enemies with the veneer of racial kinship.
Jason Myles is the host of THIS IS REVOLUTION > podcast, musician (Bitter Lake), and columnist at Sublation Magazine. His new mini book, I Was A Teenage Anarchist, is out now via Everyday Analysis.