This book review of Kendi's, How to Be an Antiracist, was originally written at the request of The Gospel Coalition. However, after routing it through their editorial and review process, they passed on it. So I am publishing it here. Share freely. – Monique
Ibram X. Kendi’s, How to Be an Antiracist has placed the term “antiracism” at the heart of nearly every race conversation in America, both inside and outside of the church. How to Be an Antiracist is sprinkled with stories from Kendi’s upbringing and college days. His parents, heavily influenced by Black Liberation Theology and the works of James Cone, helped condition Kendi’s antiracist worldview. Regarding his parents, Kendi writes, “Liberation theology remained their philosophical home, the home they raised me in.” (p.28) This theology was the basis for how the gospel was understood, “Any gospel that does not...speak to the issue of enslavement and injustice and inequity—any gospel that does not want to go where people are hungry and poverty stricken and set them free in the name of Jesus Christ—is not the gospel.” (p.15) It cannot be assumed that Kendi has maintained his parent’s faith, or any faith at all. He never confirms a personal relationship with Jesus.
Kendi moves readers through various forms of racism. Some forms we are familiar with: ethnic racism, behavioral racism, class racism. Others forms: a little less familiar, terms like body racism and space racism.
Kendi’s foundational premise is that all people and systems are either racist or antiracist—there is no inbetween—there isn’t an option of being “not racist”. “There is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of “racist” isn’t “not racist”. It is antiracist.” (pg.9) Unlike other antiracism proponents, who argue that, due to lack of institutional power, African Americans cannot be racist, Kendi believes that all people can be racist. “The truth is: Black people can be racist because Black people have power, even if limited.” (p.141) Only through being antiracist can the injustices of racism, in all forms, be identified and dismantled—this work must be accomplished by all people.
While dismantling racism and confronting injustice are praiseworthy goals, we must clearly and biblically define what these terms mean. Kendi’s definitions of racism, antiracism, injustice, and equity are flawed, at best. A racist is defined as “one who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea”. (p.13) Racist policies are those that “produce and sustain racial inequity.” (p.20) Thus, antiracist policies will produce racial equity. This argument is unfounded and problematic. For example, consider the NBA where there is an overwhelming racial inequity, approximately 74.2% of NBA players are African American, approximately 16.9% Caucasian. You can see those statistics here. Is this racial inequity the product of racist policies and systems that all people should seek to overturn? Without further data, there is no proof that the racial inequity within the NBA is due to racist policies. Similarly, data is lacking from Kendi’s assertions of all inequities being the result of racist policies.
Borrowing from the views of intersectionality, our interconnected social categories (ie: race, gender, socio-economic status), Kendi extends the idea of racism beyond the bounds of skin color and moves into areas of gender and sexual identity. If we follow Kendi’s definition of racism through to his views on gender and sexuality we not only see an argument that is unsettling, it is unbiblical. He writes, “To be truly antiracist is to be feminist. To truly be feminist is to be antiracist.” (p.188) Later we read, “Queer antiracism is equating all the race-sexualities, striving to eliminate the inequities between the race-sexualities.” (p.196) These are significant statements and should be considered in light of scripture and the historic Christian worldview. Kendi’s racism argument is like a quick bait and switch; we enter the conversation standing against ethnic racism and end standing up for homosexuality and transgenderism. As Christians, it is important for us to consider how we love our neighbor who may identify as LGBTQIA and simultaneously understand that we support the laws of God, first. If we do not have clearly defined terms, we may find ourselves advocating for the very things that God would have us stand against.
In a culture where refusing to “say a name,” raise a fist, or take a knee are the unpardonable sins, it is logical to believe being antiracist is the best way to avoid the disdain of being labeled a racist. When the evidence of “cancel culture” is the loss of family, jobs, and community, being antiracist not only feels right, it feels safe. We live in a media age where we have instant access to images of injustice and racism, for many our hearts become burdened, with good reason, and we long to see wrongs made right. We desire justice. But is justice accomplished through antiracism? I say no. Moreover such a question hinges on how one defines justice. As noted earlier, Kendi’s antiracism wrongly conflates how to think about justice if we are considering justice through a biblical lens.
Justice is accomplished through personal righteousness. Throughout How to Be an Antiracist we see a theme of works. The theology of antiracism is a theology of works. If anyone truly wants to be an antiracist they must do “the work,” those things listed as part of antiracist behavior. This is primarily seen as activism that produces social responsibility and equity. But my question is: By what standard is Kendi compelling readers to do these things? It’s certainly not the standard of Scripture which is the moral standard I am compelled to obey. Further, what are the tangible, time specific results that will be gained when the work is done. How will we know that our antiracism is working? Is it only when every group throughout all places in all times have equitable results across ethnic, gender, sexual, socio-economic and spatial lines? Until every hierarchy is leveled? Must antiracism efforts be employed when the scales favor minorities? Kendi doesn’t address these questions.
Antiracism is a framework that calls for actions with a goal of utopia. This is unrealistic and will only produce striving and stress. What’s worse is that by God's standard, a completely equitable framework would actually be dishonoring to God. Reasons for disparities are multivariate, some of which have nothing to do with intersectional location and simply come down to what you have earned or not earned through either hard work or laziness (Prov 12:27, 13:4, 15:19, 20:4; Matt 25:14-30, 2Thes 3:10). The point is: God is pro disparity in certain cases and situations. Kendi’s vision for society is at direct odds with God’s vision for society. The Bible offers a better view and pathway for racial unity and justice.
As Christians, we are justified by the free grace afforded to us through Christ Jesus. Living in this truth, does not absolve us of our responsibility to love our neighbor. In Matthew 22:36-39 Jesus offers the Pharisees a law from the book of Leviticus, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” In the Law, God laid out very clear definitions and instructions for what justice is and how the Jews were to do justice actions with one another. Justice was a part of how devoted Jews, informed by the Law, treated one another, from a heart bent toward righteous living. Personal righteousness compelled hearts to acts of justice. We see personal righteousness result in acts of justice in the stories of Zacchaeus, in the New Testament, and Boaz, in the Old Testament. Let’s start with Zacchaeus.
Zacchaeus was a crooked tax collector who stole money from his patrons. Yet, after an encounter with Jesus, he paid back those he had directly robbed, not because he was now anti-tax or pro reparations, but because he understood the Old Testament laws of restitution (Ex. 22), and wanted to live righteously. We see the immediate result of his personal righteousness impacting those who had been defrauded but were now being repaid. Zacchaeus had a heart changed by the presence of Jesus, and that spurred him to personal righteousness—an act of justice impacting those he directly harmed.
Justice for those directly impacted by our misdoings is one form of justice. But, when we look back into the Old Testament, where these laws originated, we see that being aware of potential injustice is also a part of our personal righteousness. I call this exegeting our community—interpreting and understanding what is happening within our communities. In the story of Ruth, Boaz was a man aware of what was happening within his community and he protected someone who was vulnerable—a poor, widowed woman. Boaz gave strict instructions to the men on his property not to touch Ruth. “I have told the men not to lay a hand on you.” (Ruth 2:9b). Boaz asked questions, he understood what was happening within his community, and the potential of what could happen. Understanding the Scriptures, the commands of God’s law (Deut. 10:18, Deut. 27:19), he acted justly from a place of personal righteousness. We, too, must be aware of issues of injustice taking place around us—not just to some people, but to all people.
Justice isn’t just for some, those of a certain ethnic or socio-economic make-up. Kendi makes acts of justice discriminate towards minoritized groups—ethnically, socio-economically, sexually, etc. God’s commands for justice are not defined by intersectionality nor do they extend only to the poor, the minority, or those identifying as LGBTQ+. The weights and measures of justice are indiscriminate. Likewise our love for neighbor must not be measured on the scales of an intersectional viewpoint.
When we are aware of what’s happening around us, our acts of personal righteousness have the potential to change individuals, communities, and policies. If there are known racists within our churches, when we are led by personal righteousness we confront these heart attitudes and bring them to leadership. If businesses within your community are known for treating people unjustly or showing favoritism, based on skin color, you should not support those establishments. If judges show favoritism in sentencing or policymakers create laws that unjustly impact the poor, Christians should use their voice and their vote to bring about more just laws and systems. The call to love your neighbor as yourself should compel each of us to use our vote, our voice and our resources in ways that bring about biblically just treatment of all image bearers.
In closing, if we truly want justice we must start with hearts impacted by the gospel. Someone may protest: “that has not been sufficient enough in the past; look at the complicity of the historical church in racism.” To that I would offer readers these three reminders: first, many who claim to be Christian are, in fact, not Christians as demonstrated by their lack of biblical love for people and others who identify with Christ (Matt 7:21-23, 1John 4:20). Second, many of the abolitionists in the UK and the US were distinctly motivated by their faith in Christ. Lastly, I would remind readers that civil rights legislation in the US was ultimately brought about by enormous pressure from the Black church and those who identify as Christians. Secular ideologies were insufficient in bringing about societal change along the issue of race. True justice is birthed out of a heart transformed by Jesus. Justice is not solely the responsibility of the rich or those who sit on the top of a societal hierarchy. Justice is the responsibility of everyone as we all walk in personal righteousness. The opposite of racism isn’t antiracism. The opposite of racism is righteousness.