I feel a little bad writing this because I just came down on How to be an Antiracist author Ibram X. Kendi in my last (and first ever, on this blog) post, and especially so since I used him as a bit of a “what not to do” example. At the same time, though, Kendi’s important enough that he merits some above-average amount of attention - Antiracist spent nearly 40 weeks on the NYT bestseller list. Kendi’s views on the proper definitions of racism (any uneven outcomes between racial groups are only explainable by racism) and and racist (any person who doesn’t accept his definition of racism and actively work to oppose it) have been adopted by a not-insignificant amount of Americans.
In the year or so since Kendi’s How To Be An Antiracist was published, a growing number of academics and thinkers have challenged it; chief among them in many respects is John McWhorter, a Columbia professor and perhaps the world’s only pop linguist. McWhorter’s book review of Antiracist was mostly negative; he takes objection to Kendi’s binary view of thing he himself thinks too complex to be captured by an either/or.
Both men are considered to be brilliant by their fans, both are capable speakers, both are black and both disagree with each other wildly on the nature of the world and racism’s place in it. This has led to many (myself included) wishing on any available star for a debate between McWhorter and Kendi. At least since the success of Antiracist, Kendi has never seen fit to debate his ideas, opting to only speak his thoughts in friendly, non-confrontational environments.
So it did come to pass that during a recent Q&A session with Hutchins University Kendi was asked, politely, something that roughly paraphrases into “Why do you universally dodge all offers of debate?”. The question and answer are viewable here, but I’ve also done my best to transcribe the relevant bits of his answer below - please listen to the video if you can so you aren’t relying on my transcription skills to draw your opinions.
When your opponents don’t agree, they don’t exist
Last I checked, lights are either on or off. And that’s considered an acceptable binary… Last I checked, there’s no in-between hierarchy and equality. There’s no in between injustice and justice. There’s no in-between inequity and equity. And those that claim, somehow, this binary is pejorative or problematic, all I’m doing is asking them to tell me what is between inequity and equity. What is between justice and injustice? And if they find something in-between that, then I’ll be more than welcome to sort of engage them on it. But I haven’t been able to find any idea between a racist and anti-racist ideals.
This is Kendi’s first justification for dodging. Put short, he’s proposing that he’s asked a simple, reasonable series of questions that his opponents have proven too dumb or dishonest to answer. By refusing or being unable to answer it, he argues, people like McWhorter have proven themselves unworthy of being debated with. What he wants you to walk away with here is the idea not just that his opponents are stupid, but that they are kind of dishonest - In Ibram’s representation, they know they can’t answer this question but they keep bugging him anyway, maybe hoping he slips up and makes a mistake they can exploit.
Kendi’s hope here is, as said above, that you walk away with the idea that his opponents have failed a simple, reasonable test here. But did they? Taking a look at McWhorter’s review of Anti-Racist, we find this:
Kendi, like Hume, would seem to have it all figured out: We are divided simply between racists and antiracists. Racists are bigots and allow a status quo under which black people are not doing as well as whites. Antiracists are committed to working against that imbalance. For reasons Kendi seems to think obvious but are not, there is nothing in between these two categories—not to be actively working, or at least speaking, against the imbalance leaves one in the racist class. There is no such thing as someone simply “not racist.”
After an anecdote about a few massive anti-racist policies that failed to make a dent or a difference:
Fade out, fade in: dropout rates doubled, the achievement gap between white and black students sat frozen, and the schools ended up needing security guards to combat theft and violence. The reason for this was nothing pathological about the kids: the story of how black inner cities got to the state they were in by the 1980s is complex and has nothing to do with blame. However, to say that the revolution in schooling offered to these kids was not a major antiracist effort, in Kendi’s terms, would be willfully resistant to empiricism.
To wit: antiracism, under Kendi’s definition, only explains so much. Racism quite often leaves cultural legacies that render black people unable to take advantage of antiracist policies. Concerned people devote careers trying to figure out what to do about this, and they should. But consulting Kendi, they will encounter a proton/neutron contrast between “racist” and “antiracist” that blinds them to nature of problems in the real world.
McWhorter’s review covered many bases that I just don’t have room to reprint here. I encourage you to read it, but the practical upshot is that McWhorter’s position isn’t that he can’t answer Kendi’s Sphinx-riddle regarding the space in between binaries, but that he disagrees that Kendi’s Racist/Antiracist binary is appropriate and true in the first place.
If it were true that racist disparities forced upon black people were the only source of disparate outcomes among them, McWhorter argues, then it follows that anti-racist inputs of resources and fair policies would always output some level of improved equity. McWhorter points out that this isn’t always true, and that if it isn’t, Kendi’s simple binary becomes suspect.
By ignoring John’s actual objection is to his binary in the first place and demanding he accept it as a given before he will even speak to him, Kendi’s essentially demanding that John accept his arguments as true to begin with. Or if that doesn’t ring true to you, consider this bit of Kendi’s argument again:
And if they find something in-between that, then I’ll be more than welcome to sort of engage them on it. But I haven’t been able to find any idea between a racist and anti-racist ideals.
The bolding here is mine. In the best case, Kendi’s pretending that John’s arguments towards the falsity of the Antiracist binary simply don’t exist. He then says he doesn’t believe that anything that falsifies his binary exists because, he notes, he hasn’t thought of them himself. And if noting that you agree with yourself and ignoring the existence of opposing viewpoints is enough, then the stigma for dodging debate wouldn’t really be a thing anymore. If you think debate is positive (I do) then that’s not great.
When everyone who disagrees with you is a liar
They have completely misrepresented my work. They want me to argue with a misrepresentation, and it’s hard to sort of argue with someone who is misrepresenting what you are saying. And oftentimes a lot of the criticism is either people who are misrepresenting my work or who haven’t read it, and I’m just not going to respond to folks who are misrepresenting my work. Certainly, if somebody represents it accurately, and says something that is constructively critical, I’d love to engage with those people.
Here Kendi states that everyone on earth who disagrees with him is either a liar or too stupid/lazy to have read and understood his work. Since Kendi doesn’t see the point in dealing with people who are self-evidently dumb or dishonest, he’s not accepting debate invitations. If at some point Earth’s 7.5 billion manage to produce an intelligent, honest man who somehow disagrees with him, he’d be happy to debate.
The idea that everyone on the planet who disagrees with Kendi is either a liar or stupid is obviously a bit of a stretch, especially considering that Kendi never actually explains in any forum exactly how his work has been misrepresented (Note: If you know of a place he does this, let me know; I’d love to revise this section if I’m wrong).
The most obvious explanation for this wild viewpoint would be that Kendi knows people have legitimate objections, but simply doesn’t consider it to be in his best financial interests to grant them forum. This isn’t proper academic behavior, but it’s understandable; Kendi’s ideas have already won him a great deal of fame and fortune, and debating them might not benefit him even if he did win.
A less charitable take is that Kendi might simply not know the difference between someone disagreeing with him and someone purposefully misrepresenting his work. If you can muster the arrogance to believe your argument is not only right but clearly and unassailably so, then of course you believe everyone who disagrees with it is stupid, in the same way you’d believe that of those who argued water liquid water doesn’t tend to flow downhill.
This is reasonable to do sometimes, but it’s mostly limited to things that are provably true or false - the rolling ability of square wheels vs. round wheels springs to mind. But the same isn’t true philosophical systems that claim to explain how massive parts of the real world work; we don’t consider capitalism to be above debate, for instance, even though it has been debated enough and tested in enough places to have a much healthier claim to its defensibility than Kendi’s ideas.
John McWhorter, Racist Mastermind
You know, John McWhorter claimed that my work is overly simplistic and I actually view that as a compliment. I think one of the things that a scholar should be seeking to do is to make our work accessible so everyday people can understand it… people don’t understand racism, so suddenly when you break it down and make it accessible, suddenly that’s a problem. And I think it’s a problem because when you simplify it from the standpoint of a racist and anti-racist ideal, and people understand it then they begin to start looking at the world. Then they begin to start looking at the of people like John McWhorter’s work, then they start hearing him say things like, you know, there’s something wrong with black people. Then they start rendering that idea a racist idea. So of course, he’s going to swipe back at me, as opposed to looking in the mirror at his own racist ideals.
We’ve covered a lot of what’s wrong here already, but Kendi takes this in a particularly dishonest direction. To recap, McWhorter argues that Kendi’s work is too simplistic in a way that causes us to misinterpret reality’s complexity:
To wit: antiracism, under Kendi’s definition, only explains so much. Racism quite often leaves cultural legacies that render black people unable to take advantage of antiracist policies. Concerned people devote careers trying to figure out what to do about this, and they should. But consulting Kendi, they will encounter a proton/neutron contrast between “racist” and “antiracist” that blinds them to nature of problems in the real world
Kendi reacts to this in a truly bizarre, bad faith way: He claims that John’s complaint is that Kendi’s book is readable, and that since it’s readable the masses will be educated on John’s horrifying racism and rise up against him. Where John argues that Kendi’s model is simply incorrect, Kendi responds by casting John as a paranoid Bishop Tunstall, trying his hardest to keep the holy scriptures out of peasants’ hands.
Of course there exists no statement of any kind from John complaining about Kendi’s book being readable or clear. So we find Kendi doing here what he accused John of in the previous section - he’s either misrepresenting John’s thoughts on the matter, or he hasn’t read and understood them. John’s review of Kendi’s book is widely available; Kendi seems to be referencing it, so we can reasonably infer he knows about it and John’s views on his work.
Unlike Kendi’s accusation that everyone on earth who disagrees with him can only do so by misinterpreting his work, Kendi’s take on John McWhorter’s use of the word simplistic here is provably false; he just didn’t use it that way, and there’s nothing Kendi can show to prove he did. This points very strongly to the conclusion that Kendi is either lying (He knows John doesn’t mean that, and says he did anyway), dumb (he read what John said, but didn’t understand it) or lazy (he didn’t read what John said, or didn’t read it carefully, but chose to speak about it anyway).
An earlier draft of this article drew some fire for the use of this lying, dumb or lazy framework, mainly because it’s not very nice. I talk about why I think it’s justifiable in greater depth here. But I think the only way around those three options is if Kendi has read what John wrote and understood it, but believes he knows that John meant something very different and insidious from it that only he can see, and knows it enough to justify an accusation that, if widely known and taken seriously, would destroy McWhorter. Since I don’t think this is likely and I don’t think adding “insane” to the list would soften it any, I’ve omitted it here.
The Implications of Kendi’s Argument
Kendi’s goal here is clear: He’d prefer not to have to defend his ideas ever, in any forum, to anyone at all who disagrees with him. A very charitable person might buy that he actually believes the entire population of Earth is intellectually and morally disqualified from being able to so. A less giving soul might just conclude he’s afraid he might get beaten, or at least make his ideas look vulnerable in a way that would cost him future book sales and speaking tours. The good news is that none of this matters.
There’s really no way for Kendi to “win” in the long term here without successfully defending his ideas. If he lost the debate, he’d certainly lose face, but the funny thing about running from debate is that people generally assume the worst about it; Ibram can bring up the excuses he wants, but to the extent anyone pays attention to this at all it will be hard for observers to ignore that he’s conspicuously hidden under a table any time possible flaws in his theories are discussed.
Kendi’s ideas, like all ideas, would either be improved by debate or shattered by it; Kendi’s cowardice and avoidance, like all cowardice and avoidance, is basically understood by everyone who sees it. While I’m sorry to see John McWhorter accused of being a self-hating racist(which he very much appears not to deserve) I’m glad that at least it’s shining some light on Kendi; the sooner his fear to discuss his ideas is generally known, the better.
Kendi seems to misunderstand (whether on purpose or not) what "simplistic" means. He takes McWhorter as stating that Kendi has distilled complex material into an approachable package. Quite the opposite. By labelling the work simplistic, McWhorter means that it lacks nuance or understanding. Simplistic does not mean simplified.